Rabbi Pamela Barmash on Rabbi Ethan Tucker

I originally asked for a wide variety of responses to Rabbi Tucker’s book and my interview with Rabbi Ethan Tucker.  We already received a nice series of responses so far. The first response was  by Dr. Malka Simkovich, the second response was by Yoav Sorek, the third response was by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, and the fourth response was by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper. The fifth response was by Rabbi Professor Yehudah Mirsky. I sought diverse responses including ones from the OU and from a Sephardi perspective, they never arrived. However,  below is a sixth response from a Conservative movement perspective.

Last week, I received one from the Conservative movement written by Rabbi Prof. Pamela Barmash who is a professor of Hebrew Bible at Washington University in St. Louis. She received a B.A. from Yale University, rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Ph.D. from Harvard University. She is the author of Homicide in the Biblical World (Cambridge University Press). She is finishing a book on the Laws of Hammurabi. She has served as the rabbi of Temple Shaare Tefilah, Norwood, MA.  She has served on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly since 2003 and has served on the Joint Beit Din of the Conservative movement since 2008. She has written many teshuvot for the movement.

barmash-cover

In specific, she wrote a recent responsa for the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards entitled “Women and Mitzvot” asking the question:  “Are Jewish women responsible for observing the mitzvot from which they have traditionally been exempted?” To which she answers on behalf of the assembly: “We rule therefore that women and men are equally obligated to observe the mitzvot. We call upon Conservative synagogues, schools, and camps to educate men and women in equal observance of  mitzvot and to expect and require their equal observance of mitzvot.”

So the question in all of this for some of my readers is where is the push for egalitarianism among liberal Orthodox, Israeli liberal Religious Zionism and halakhic egalitarianism is different than the Conservative movement? This post will allow the reader to decide.

Particularly important is Rabbi Barmash’s special note about the role of women in society, in that, it touches on some of the prior responses that were posted here. It was an aside, a special note in the responsa, but the focus of our discussions here.

A Special Note

It is the case that learning to integrate the performance of mitzvot into our daily routines  takes time and reflective effort for all of us, both women and men. For those in our communities  who are in their beginning steps in the journey of mitzvot, and even for those of us who have  integrated many mitzvot into the path of our lives, it must be emphasized that we are all trying to  increase the holiness that mitzvot bring to our lives and that each mitzvah observed causes  holiness to suffuse our lives more and more. Each mitzvah allows us to walk another step in the  journey toward and with God. In the process of learning the observance of mitzvot, no one is  expected to learn to fulfill every mitzvah all at once.

For many women who grew up in a different atmosphere regarding women’s roles, the  call to observe mitzvot heretofore closed to them will be inspiring and deeply spiritual. They will  feel ready to fulfill many mitzvot, and they will eagerly learn new habits. But for some women  who were raised in a non-egalitarian or not-completely egalitarian atmosphere, it is  understandable that they may be hesitant to take on new mitzvot. Learning new mitzvot may be  challenging, and some women may find certain mitzvot daunting for a significant span of time.  However, it is the calling of our communities, synagogues, schools, and camps to teach men and  women to consider themselves equally obligated to fulfill mitzvot and to educate them equally in mitzvot.

Rabbi Pamela Barmash on Rabbi Tucker

I largely agree with Rabbi Ethan Tucker’s assessment of the unfolding of halakhah. I have written three teshuvot that I would like to bring into conversation with his interview.

In his discussion of the changing social status of women, Rabbi Tucker points to an analogous development in the assessment of the deaf. I wrote two teshuvot dealing with the deaf who use sign language, here and here.

I argue that the rabbinic categorization of the heresh (deaf-mute) together with the shoṭeh (mentally incapacitated) marginalizes the deaf.(Babylonian Talmud Hagigah 2b) By contrast, those with other physical disabilities are restricted only when their particular physical limitation prevents them from participating in a particular act: their impairment hinders them from specific practices. For the deaf-mute, their physical disability disenfranchises them completely. They are thoroughly excluded because their disability is associated with a mental incapacity, not solely a physical limitation. The rabbis categorized the deaf-mute in such a way because the rabbis were unable to determine their mental functioning. A person must have sound cognitive ability (דעת) in order to be a fully functioning individual in the realm of halakhah.

The ruling about the heresh arises from the rabbi’s inability to determine the mental function of a deaf-mute person as illustrated in Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 113a-b. Two questions are analyzed: 1) Terumah must be intentionally separated from other produce. The question arises as to whether terumah separated by a deaf-mute remained unconsecrated produce. 2) If a man had intimate relations with the wife of a deaf-mute, would he be required to offer the sacrifice of asham talui because the marriage of a deaf-mute was valid only according to special rabbinic enactment. A number of rabbis contended that if a deaf-mute separated terumah from other produce, even though he was prohibited ab initio from doing so, his separation of terumah could be considered valid ex post facto because it could be that he did so with the proper intention. Therefore, the terumah cannot revert back to unconsecrated produce. In regard to the second issue, the marriage of the deaf-mute, the rabbis were unsure about its source of authorization. If the deaf-mute were allowed to marry only by special rabbinic enactment, then another man who was intimate with the deaf-mute’s wife did not transgress a biblical prohibition and therefore did not have to offer the sacrifice of asham talui. However, some rabbis argued that the offender does need to offer that sacrifice because the source for the deaf-mute contracting a marriage might be the same as for all Jews because the deaf-mute has the same mental capacity as other Jews do, and no special rabbinic enactment was necessary.

Rav Ashi asked: What is Rav Eleazar’s reason [for not permitting the terumah that a deaf-mute has separated to revert to unconsecrated status and for requiring an asham talui for intercourse with a deaf-mute’s wife]? Is it obvious to him that the deaf-mute is weak in cognitive ability? Perhaps, he is doubtful as to whether [the deaf-mute’s] mind is sound [and therefore the deaf-mute can understand the proceedings and so his separation of terumah is valid and his marriage is not only valid according to rabbinic enactment] or not sound [and therefore the deaf-mute cannot understand the proceedings and so his separation of terumah is invalid and his marriage is at most valid through rabbinic enactment], though [in either case] his cognitive ability is always in the same condition [the deaf-mute’s mind is always in the same condition, unlike the mentally incapacitated who might be lucid at times].

Or perhaps, he has no doubt that the [deaf-mute’s] mind is weak and never lucid. [Rav Eleazar’s doubt] here is due to this reason: Because [the deaf-mute] may sometimes be in a normal state and sometimes be in a state of mental incapacity.

In what respect would this constitute any practical difference? [It makes a difference in respect to] releasing his wife by a letter of divorce. If you grant that his mind is always in the same condition,  his divorce [would have the same validity] as his betrothal.  If, however, you contend that sometimes he is in a normal state  and sometimes he is in a state of mental incapacity, he would be capable of valid betrothal, but he would not be capable of giving divorce [because he might be of weak mind at that time, in which case his divorce would be invalid]. What [then is the decision]? This remains undecided.

The confusion of the rabbis about the mental capacity of the deaf-mute extended to divorce. In extending a divorce, the deaf-mute must be in the same mental state as when the marriage was contracted.( Mishnah Gittin 2:6 ) If the deaf-mute were only intermittently impaired, the divorce could not be executed because it would be unclear whether at the moment of divorce the deaf-mute was lucid. The quandary the rabbis faced was that they could not determine the mental state of the deaf mute and, therefore, could not decide the questions before them.

Starting in the nineteenth century, significant advances were made in the education of the deaf-mute, and their soundness of their cognitive ability became evident. Nonetheless, the assumption that deafness was evidence of flawed intelligence continued to prevail in the general community. Sign language was maligned as a broken version of a spoken language. Only in 1960 did a professor of linguistics at Gallaudet University (then College), William C. Stokoe, Jr., publish the first analysis of a sign language as an ordered system governed by syntax.  In 1979, two linguists, Edward S. Klima and Ursula Bellugi, demonstrated that sign languages are as complex, abstract, and systematic as spoken languages: they are controlled by the same part of the brain as spoken languages and are mastered in developmental stages like spoken languages.

A number of Jewish communities began to establish schools for the education of deaf children. Among halakhic authorities there has been a slow drift toward recognizing the cognitive ability of the deaf.

My teshuvot rule that 1) the categorization of the deaf-mute as mentally incapacitated is to be revoked and that they are to be considered completely lucid, and 2) sign language may be used in matters of personal status (such as weddings and divorces) and may be used in liturgy This is mandated by a new understanding of the cognitive ability of the deaf. Their social status has changed due to two factors: a transformation in the understanding of hearing people, who now comprehend that the deaf who use sign language have sound cognitive ability, contrary to the assumptions made in the past about them, and the increased educational and societal opportunities for the deaf.

An analogous developed has occurred with regard to women, the topic of another teshuvah of mine.  Cultural attitudes have shifted dramatically in society in general, and doors into business and the professions formerly closed to women are now open. Women participate in public life in ways unimaginable a century or two ago, or even a few decades ago. This is an intellectual and psychological transformation in how women perceive themselves and are perceived by others. Women are now seen as equal to men, in social status, in political and legal rights, and in intellectual ability by both men and women. A new world-view has resulted in new roles for women.

It must be emphasized that the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud did not doubt the intellectual abilities of women. Women were charged with responsibility for certain domestic mitzvot, mitzvot whose breach incurred serious consequences for the members of the household, including the (male) head of the household. Women were given responsibility for separating hallah from dough at home. (The mitzvah for bread baked outside the home was fulfilled by men, who served as professional bakers, and the Mishnah does mention dough prepared by herdsmen, such as in Mishnah Hallah 1.8) Women were given the responsibility for the preparation of matzah, and despite the seriousness of the preparations for Passover, they were not supervised by men. The (male) head of the household had the responsibility, according to the Mishnah, to make sure that food kept warm on the Sabbath was done without violating the Sabbath. The Talmud shows that women took care of this task, with many references to women knowing the many details on keeping food warm on the Sabbath.

Women were given responsibility for ritual tasks that took place in the home without any concern for any lack of knowledge, reliability, or intellect on the part of women, according to the Mishnah and Talmuds. At the same time, women did not serve in public ritual roles, nor were they required to perform the mitzvot to be performed by those of highest social standing.

The exclusion of women from public ritual roles was due to two principles. The first is that an individual who is not obligated for a specific mitzvah cannot satisfy the obligation of another individual who is obligated for a specific mitzvah.(Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8) The second is that social standing matters and that those of higher social standing would lose their dignity if some of lower social standing functioned on their behalf. In the case of the public reading of Scripture:

A minor may translate for an adult (who is chanting from Scripture in public) but it is beneath his dignity for an adult to translate for a minor.

(Tosefta Megillah 3:21)

The reader’s social status mattered: a woman or a minor was eligible technically but nonetheless could not represent the congregation, and to do so would infringe on the dignity of the congregation. A woman could not fulfill the obligation of a man because she had a lower social status.

Often, the discussion of women’s status vis-a-vis the mitzvot revolves on the traditional exemption of women from what were deemed time-triggered positive mitzvot. The problem with this exemption is that women were required to perform many time-triggered positive mitzvot. Moreover, many of the time-triggered positive mitzvot did not have to be performed in a narrow window of time. They can be performed at home, and a number of them require only a slight amount of time to fulfill. Women were exempted, for example, from hearing the shofar, a mitzvah that could be completed at any point during the day and one that does not take much time to fulfill.

Women were put into the same category as minors and slaves with an essential difference: minors could grow up and slaves could be emancipated, but women deemed to remain in the same social status.(Babylonian Talmud Bava Kamma 88a and Berakhot 47b)

Women were exempted because the acts of those who are subordinate to an earthly master honor God in a lesser way. It must be emphasized that the subordination of women was about their social status, about their place in the hierarchy of family and society.

When social customs change significantly, the changed social reality requires further unfolding of halakhah. I argue that women are now to be held as equally responsible for the mitzvot as men have been and that the social status of women entitles them to participate in public ritual and may fulfill mitzvot on behalf of others.

Other significant social changes need to be considered: if both men and women are now taking responsibility for infants and young children as well as for frail relatives and friends, it may be that they should be released from the mitzvot that interfere with care-giving for the duration in which they bear those duties. An essential principle of rabbinic tradition has been that an individual who is busy with one mitzvah is exempt from another.(Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 25a). Caring for the young and the elderly and frail are religiously significant tasks, and if a person is busy caring for those in need of care, s/he ought to be released from specific mitzvot that might interfere. It must be noted this exemption should be limited to that particular span of time when an individual care-giver is occupied with care-giving and that otherwise that care-giver would retain the responsibilities and privileges that he/she would otherwise have. This exemption would apply only to individuals during the time they are fulfilling a mitzvah and would not be applied across the board to them as a class. Care-givers would be included in the minyan because they still are obligated for prayer, even if at times they may be exempted. This exemption would be a powerful statement of the importance of care-giving.

Rabbi Tucker’s interview concludes with a discussion of a number of Conservative/Masorti movement teshuvot from the 1980’s, so I would also note a number of more recent teshuvot. The teshuvot of Rabbi Myron Geller and Rabbi Susan Grossman on women and edut (testimony) were approved in 2001, and Rabbi David Fine’s teshuvah on women and the minyan was approved in 2002.

Barmash’s own Summary of her Responsa (from the end of the Responsa)

Summary

The general exclusion of women from many mitzvot is based on the characterization of those mitzvot as positive and time-bound. A number of reasons have been devised for the link between this category and the exclusion of women from those mitzvot. However, it turns out that this category was devised for exegetical (formal interpretive) purposes, and only later was the category extended to other mitzvot from which women had already been excluded. It was never a generative principle.

Instead, women were excluded because they had subordinate status. They were exempted from the mitzvot that Jews are obligated to observe in the normal course of the day, week, and year because the essential ritual acts should be performed only by those of the highest social standing, those who were independent, those who were heads of their own households, not subordinate to anyone else. Only males were considered to be fitting candidates to honor God in the most fit way. The acts of those who were subordinate honor God in a lesser way and,therefore, women were excluded from them. Furthermore, social standing matters in relations between human beings, and those of higher social standing would lose their dignity if some of lower social standing functioned on their behalf. Women were endowed with ritual responsibilities for others inside the home because the rabbis thought that women had the intellect and reliability to do so. It was social status alone that determined whether women were exempted from certain mitzvot. Women were also not involved in public ritual ceremonies because of their position in social hierarchy.

The involvement of women in Jewish religious and liturgical life has changed significantly in the past century and even more in the past few decades. Jewish women are aspiring to the privileges and responsibilities enjoyed by Jewish men through the millennia. The halakhah has recognized that when social customs change significantly, the new social reality requires a reappraisal of halakhic practices. The historical circumstances in which women were exempted from time-bound positive mitzvot are no longer operative, and the Conservative movement has for almost a century moved toward greater and greater inclusion of women in mitzvot. In Jewish thought and practice, the highest rank and esteem is for those who are required to fulfill mitzvot.

For other reactions and responses to Rabbi Barmash’s opinion- see these links, especially for the discussion here one should see the abstentions and dissents.

Pamela Barmash, “Women and Mitzvot” YD 246:6.2014a

 

 

 

Advertisements

Comments are closed.