Yesterday was International Women’s Day, a day which is gaining increasing recognition around the world. Strangely enough, I first learned about International Women’s Day while studying for a year in Beijing. In 1984, this day wasn’t observed at all in the United States but was absolutely huge in China where, of course, there was a high level of systemic and cultural discrimination against women. This year’s Women’s Day packed quite a punch in the light of the #metoo campaign being waged around the world.
I was reminded of a program I participated in last winter which was sponsored by the Women’s Auxiliary of Ahmadiyya Islam. Ahmadiyya Muslims come almost entirely from Pakistan and India and believe that the messiah has already come. In short, kind of Messianic Jews, only Muslims. Their motto is “Love for all, hatred for none” and as a result, they run a multifaith program each year. Last year’s topic was the role of women in religion, and speakers from seven faith traditions shared our views. I was last.
I listened in to all the other speakers with more than a little cynicism. Each speaker talked about how progressive her faith group was when it came to the role of women. I was not convinced that Islam, or Sikhism, or even Buddhism had historically achieved equality of the sexes. It was then that I had a sudden revelation: I realised that the only reason why I was able to stand before this group as a woman rabbi was that Judaism had been through a reformation. It was a little more than 200 years ago that a group of male rabbis in Germany decided that the time had come to transform Judaism from a religion that had changed little in the last thousand years to one that mirrored the society in which it was practised. The early reformers introduced German—the spoken language of the land—into the service. They allowed men and women to sit together. They borrowed the concept of a sermon from their Christian neighbours, allowing the rabbis to speak on topics of current importance as well as on more traditional texts. They paved the way for later dramatic changes in Jewish life, including most significantly a far more public presence for Jewish women as rabbis, cantors, but also as active and involved members of congregations. Today at Beit Shalom, baby girls are welcomed into the community exactly the same as boys are. Bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies are identical. We are truly an egalitarian community.
That wasn’t the case for the whole of the Jewish world. Jews living in eastern Europe, north Africa and eastern Asia never saw a reform unfold. For them, Jewish practice continued as it always had been. Nor did the lives of Orthodox women and girls change significantly in western countries until just a few decades ago. I still regularly encounter women who grew up in Orthodox homes and never had the opportunity to attend Cheder. Their parents reckoned that since their only religious obligation would be to keep a kosher home, there was no need for them to learn to read Hebrew or study Torah. Their brothers went, and they stayed home. For many decades, only a small minority of Jews anywhere in the world enjoyed the benefits of Judaism’s reform. Now that’s all changed. Girls across much of the modern Jewish world are well educated, and there is a whole generation of modern Orthodox Jewish women who are out there making sure that girls learn as much as the boys.
But none of this would have happened without the Reform movement. Those rabbis of the early 19th century made it possible for the generations that followed to put every belief and practice of Judaism under the microscope. Sometimes the baby was thrown out with the bathwater, as happened in 1885 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when the fifteen men who comprised the Central Conference of American Rabbis declared the following: “We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation. And elsewhere: We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.” But that baby can always be rescued, and in 1999, the CCAR met once again in Pittsburgh—this time several thousand strong. Its members adamantly affirmed their support for the state of Israel and endorsed the idea that kashrut could be a way to elevate the act of eating.
Only two religious traditions have ever experience a reformation: Judaism and Christianity. Without reform, without renewal, change is slow or nearly impossible. We see that with the resistance from the Catholic church to very sensible changes that will keep children safe. We see it in the Muslim world when women’s rights are affirmed in theory but not always upheld in practice. And, sadly, we see it in the strange world of haredi Judaism, in which women are increasingly literally erased from view. Indeed, our present day sees the very real danger of decades of reforms for women rolled back—not only within our houses of worship, but in our working and family lives. Women in developed countries continue to struggle to achieve equality with men, while women in developing countries deal daily with huge economic and cultural disadvantages. Perhaps once a year for International Women’s Day is not often enough. We should be working each day for that time when all human beings can achieve their full potential regardless of their sex.
This week’s Torah portion is especially apt to the occasion. As work begins on the Tabernacle—the Israelites’ Temple in the desert—women join in the effort to create sacred objects of lasting beauty. It is the only instance in the Torah in which women are invited to work alongside men—to contribute their own unique gifts to the effort. I find it deeply meaningful that all Israelites who had talents to share were invited to be a part of this moment in the lives of the people. So may all women always have a place at the table, and may our voices ring out loud. Shabbat shalom!