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Thursday, 7 July 2016

Should women be called to the Torah?

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 37

Boxing is not a pretty sport.  Sometimes it can get pretty ugly.  In 1997, Mike Tyson infamously bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s left ear.  And yet, unbelievably, the fight continued.  And then, not wanting to appear unfair or unjust, Tyson later bit into Holyfield’s right ear, making them both equal! 

Nevertheless, Holyfield became an inspiration and lesson in faith to us all.  He later forgave Mike Tyson, declaring that he believed in G-d and Divine destiny!  May we all aspire to such faith in Heaven!

Conan the Wicked once smote the ear of his fellow.  The case came before Rav Huna’s court.
He said to him, “Go and pay him half a zuz compensation.”  Conan had a worn-out zuz, from which he wanted to give his victim half a zuz.  But no money-changer would take it from him.  And so he smote the fellow’s other ear and gave him the entire zuz. 

This Talmudic story is the source of the classic lesson we’re taught as kids.  Stop complaining about your sore ear, or else the playground bully will come back over and punch the other one and make them both equal.

Unfortunately, in our efforts to promote equality, this attitude has taken hold throughout our twenty-first century lives.  Instead of building up and creating new and exciting opportunities for the party that feels hurt and unequal, we ‘smite the other ear’ and make them equally wounded. 

The Almighty created women and men equal.  But to our small minds, equality means homogeneity.  Men and women must be exactly the same.  And so in some segments of the Jewish world, efforts have been made to ensure that women and men serve Heaven in precisely the same manner.  When that happens, both women and men suffer.

For example, promoting women’s prayer should have resulted in an all-round increase in devotion to Heavenly service and daily communal prayer attendance.  You would think that there would now be double as many people at services!  Sadly, that’s not the case. 

Instead of promoting women’s religious opportunities, the ‘equal opportunity’ activists have essentially ‘smitten the other ear’ and conveyed the message to the young men that they’re no longer needed.  Why go to services? Let the women have their space!  Why learn how to daven or read from the Torah?  Let’s hand those duties over to the women who are eager to step up to the plate!

Unfortunately, this approach derives from unhealthy societal attitudes.  Nowadays, we are told that men and women are no different.  Even biologically, we are cautioned to avoid binaries of male and female.  Instead, we should understand gender as occupying a spectrum.  Where one finds oneself along the continuum is a matter of personal choice and inner freedom.

Traditional Judaism believes that such a perspective lowers the bar for everyone.  If G-d says that a girl reaches adulthood at age twelve, what gives mortals the right to change that?  You can’t simply wish away biology!   It is nonsense to suggest that gender is irrelevant and we can pretend that everyone reaches adulthood at exactly the same time!

All it does is send a message to the young men that they are no longer needed.   Sadly, they’re the ones who end up feeling marginalized from Judaism.  Instead of working to heal and create opportunities for the one ear, we’ve smitten the other ear to promote equality.

At our shul, we like to say that women are ‘called to the Torah.’  No, it doesn’t mean that they get shlishi (the third aliya); it means that we take pride in the number of young women who choose to take a year after high school and learn Torah in seminary in Israel! 

While Jewish women have always learned Torah, greater formal learning opportunities have been created over the last century.  These forums for Jewish enrichment have not come at the expense of men’s learning.  Rather, special seminaries were built in order to focus on the unique aspects of women’s learning. 

And traditional Jewish women have excelled.  And traditional Jewish men have excelled.  So that today we have traditional communities with Torah-educated men and women, the likes of which have not existed in the history of our people and do not exist today in any non-traditional community setting.  Because women’s and men’s Torah advancement were never designed to compete with one another.   They were created in such a way as to complement one another.

Equality does not mean homogeneity.  Traditional Judaism doesn’t believe in biting off one ear to make it equal to the other.  May your sons and daughters all be called to the Torah!  

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