The glass ceiling
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The glass ceiling

The glass ceiling still exists in American Jewish life. That is the bottom line of a study conducted by the Hebrew University’s Dr. Steven M. Cohen, which found that there is not one major federation in the United States that has a woman at its top. On the other hand, 70 percent of the workforce of these federations (read grunt workers) is made up of women.

While Cohen studied only American Jewish life, the likelihood is that the glass ceiling exists throughout the Jewish world. How else to explain the complaint of another professor, Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University? She recently noted that something called "The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute," described in a newspaper report as "a four-year-old Jerusalem group that [recently] held a brainstorming session…on the future of the Jewish people," had 30 participants, only four of whom were women. And a steering committee of the World Jewish Forum, convened by President Moshe Katsav, has only six women out of more than 30 participants — and the president of Hadassah, the largest Jewish women’s group in the world, is not among the six.

At first glance, the response to this should be that is the way things always have been in the Jewish world, but that response is not completely accurate now, nor was it ever.

To begin with, this is not the religious world we are talking about, but the secular side of Jewish life. In any case, all but the Orthodox religious world has long been "integrated," and even Orthodox synagogues have had women presidents at the top of their lay leadership. While this arguably may have been the way of the Jewish world once, therefore, it is not that way any longer.

The facts on the ground, however, say that it remains that way and the question is why.

The answer would seem to be distortion. What the Torah has to say about women’s rights has been so distorted over time as to be unrecognizable. For example, it is not the Torah that forbade women from studying Torah (it actually requires them to do so); that was achieved by men’s creative interpretations of the Torah.

In fact, the Judaism espoused by the Torah has always held women to be the equals of and, at times, the betters of men. Individuals, including great rabbis, may have held chauvinistic views, but their opinions must be considered for what they are, not for what they claim to be (i.e., the "definitive" explanation of a Torah text).

At the same time, we also must be able to distinguish between talmudic opinions, which are opinions and nothing more, and legal pronouncements, which carry with them the stamp of Sinai itself.

We might disagree about whether a particular oral law was actually given to Moses at Sinai and forgotten over time until it miraculously popped out of the mouth of a fourth-century sage in Pumpedita, but we should not dispute that the process of oral law began the moment Moses began teaching the written one. As long as the oral law that is espoused emanates from and is consistent with the written law Moses delivered, the oral law rightfully can be considered as itself having come from Sinai.

And that is how many of the Sages saw it. "Matters that had not been disclosed to Moses were disclosed to Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues," states a midrash (see Numbers Rabbah 19:6). In other words, Moses may have been given all of the law to give to Israel, but even he could not fathom everything that would emerge from that law over time.

One way the Torah transmits information is through narrative. The women who play major roles in the Torah are the matriarchs and Miriam, the sister of Moses, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel were all strong figures. For example, it was to Rebecca that God said of her twin sons (in Genesis ‘5:’3) that "the elder [Esau] will serve the younger [Jacob]." When Isaac seemed intent on thwarting God’s will by passing the torch to Esau, she acted decisively to prevent it. It is telling, as well, that God speaks to Rebecca long before He ever speaks to Isaac.

Miriam stood beside Moses in Egypt and in the wilderness. If that is not clear from the Torah itself, the prophet Micah leaves little room for doubt. In the haftarah that was read last Shabbat, he quotes God as saying, "For I brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam." (Micah 6:4)

What makes Micah’s reference even more pointed is that it is the only reference to Miriam outside the Torah, other than a genealogical reference in the First Book of Chronicles. Coupled with its matter-of-fact tone, it testifies to an Israelite belief that Moses headed a troika, of which a woman, Miriam, was a part.

Elsewhere in the Tanakh, the Hebrew bible, we find other women in powerful positions, especially the judge Deborah. There also is reference to the prophetess Hulda, who appears to have played a prominent role during the days of King Josiah and Hulda’s more famous relative, the prophet Jeremiah.

Contrast this to the opinions of certain talmudic sages and the rabbis who followed them over the centuries. There are some pretty revolting ones, to be sure, but for all the negative opinions one can pull out, there are plenty of positives to counter them. For example, a midrash (Genesis Rabbah 17:7) tells us of a very observant, very righteous couple who, unfortunately, could not have children. After 10 years of trying, they decided their union was not meant to be and so they divorced. He married a wicked woman and became wicked himself. She married a wicked man and he became as righteous as she was.

"This shows," the rabbis said, "that everything depends on the woman."

Obviously, that is a lesson the Jewish organizational world has yet to learn.

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