Galilee Diary: Tiptoeing Toward Equality
Hillel says: Do not separate yourself from the community…
– Mishnah, Avot 2:4
The synagogue at Shorashim is traditional in its liturgy, but fully egalitarian in its practice: We use the standard Israeli Orthodox prayerbook (which we receive free from the ministry of religion), but women and men participate and lead equally, and there are a number of women in the community who wear a tallit during the morning service. This has been stable throughout the three decades of the community's existence. We know that there are members who have come to live in the community over the years, from traditional Sephardic homes, who have expressed interest in the synagogue, and attended occasionally, only to drop out because the egalitarianism feels so foreign and uncomfortable to them. These are certainly not Orthodox Jews. It's not as though they seek out or initiate an alternative worship service. We feel helpless to solve this – we may be pluralists, and we want to be inclusive, and we want the synagogue to bring the community together – but at what cost, when the cost is compromising a moral value (gender equality)?
We have had situations when families of a bar mitzvah kid have asked, out of respect for visiting relatives, that we keep the leadership of the service purely male for that particular Shabbat. Our response has been that we don't do that. This came up recently at a meeting for parents of upcoming bar/bat mitzvahs, young families relatively new to the community. The general feeling was that they liked the idea of egalitarian worship, but were very concerned about how their extended families would respond ("If my grandfather walks in and sees a woman in a tallit, he will freak out!"). I suggested the compromise that some families have chosen - the family holds a modest weekday bar mitzvah at the grandparents' synagogue, say on the preceding Thursday, which can include an aliyah to the Torah, and then have the full Shabbat bar mitzvah in our community. It was clear that several of them were troubled by the dilemma, and not happy with any of the alternatives.
A short time later we attended the wedding of the daughter of friends. The ceremony was conducted with dignity and charm by the bride's 20-something younger sister (the couple had had a civil marriage abroad, so were already married according to Israeli law; thus the ceremony had no legal status and could be conducted by anyone). The family were a bit worried about how the traditional older uncles would respond to this. They responded with obvious joy and pride. And we have occasionally had similar experiences with guests at a bar or bat mitzvah, who couldn't have imagined feeling comfortable in an egalitarian service, but ended up finding it a positive and attractive experience. Bat mitzvah may feel like a weird innovation to you – but often, it turns out, the pride you feel at seeing your granddaughter on the bimah can trump your reservations about the weirdness.
The trouble is, of course, that you never know. On the one hand, you don't want to create a crisis and spoil your kid's celebration over a question of religious ideology; on the other hand, it could well turn out that that ideology is only imagined, and inflated in the imagining, and that the joy of the simchah can make people more open than they realized they could be.
So, slowly, by trial and error, guesswork and surprise, familial attachments that are stronger than ideology or nostalgia, and the turnover of generations, change happens.