Rabbi Olinsky, a Conservative rabbi, had an excellent Article in Haaretz on egalitarianism.
He begins by describing how he prepared a girl for her bat mitzvah, the Torah reading, the dvar Torah and including showing her how to wear tallit and tfilin. She was excited to use them. Then she got to the “egalitarian” Conservative service:
No other adolescent girl was wearing tefillin that morning, and very few chose to wear tallitot. Although the community was egalitarian and women had the same opportunities for participation in Jewish ritual as men, most of the teenage girls declined to engage in the rituals of laying tefillin and wearing tallitot. So too, this bat mitzvah girl folded up her tallit, zipped up her tefillin bag, and has yet to put them on again. Why? Because she does not want to stand alone. She wants to be “normal.”
After exploring the issue, he concludes “Making egalitarianism a priority is about more than giving women a choice; it must encourage and expect participation. True egalitarianism is men and women being viewed as – and feeling – equally obligated. “
I was struck by two other passages in his article that I thought were in fact describing obstacles to his goal.
1)”Under the movement’s understanding of halakha (Jewish law) women have the opportunity to participate in all aspects of Jewish rituals if they wish.”
Both men and women have to believe women are obliged to with as much force of halacha as men are. So Conservative halacha has got to change to an unequivocal “Women are obliged. period” or the minds and culture of its members won’t. (Did I just use the words Conservative Halacha and unequivocal in the same sentence? hmmm).
and 2) ”I am a part of a movement in which the overwhelming majority of affiliated congregations are egalitarian.” Really if the movement is to stand behind the issue than that number should be 100%. If women are obliged to perform mitzvot and your congregation does’t let them, than that should be seen as outside the pale– and those congregations should be treated like those who perform intermarriages- unaccepted. If egalitarianism is right morally and halchickly then non-egalitarianism is wrong morally and halchickly. It is not a quaint custom, it is just wrong.
I wrote to Rabbi Olinsky to ask him about these issues:
“Do you think the movement is brave enough to do that? I ask on behalf of my 13 year old daughter who is one of the few in her class to wear tfillin (or the only).”
And to my surprise he answered me! And even more to my surprise he basically agreed with me on un-egalitarian congregations and on halckic obligation. He told me that Rabbi Pamela Barmash, who sits on the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, is currently writing a teshuvah, that focuses exactly on this idea of equal and expected obligation.
If only the Conservative movement would listen to people like Rabbi Olinsly and Rabbi Barmash it might save itself. But given past movement on issues like these I wouldn’t hold my breath.