This was the joke:
An old man goes to visit his nonobservant grandson. He asks, "What's that on your necklace?" The young man proudly says, "It's my mezuzah! See, I'm proud to be Jewish!" The old man goes to the door and starts looking around the doorway. "What are you looking for, Pops?" "I'm looking for your tzitzis!"I am throwing this post out there for discussion, as I could be wrong (moi? never!), and anyway I would love to dialogue with my readers, many who might be more knowledgeable than I.
For centuries, Judaism - and I am speaking of Ashkenazic Judaism, because that is my background, and I know less about the Sephardic stream - was more or less unchanged. A "Jew" was not classified as either religious or secular, but just a "Jew." An ordinary Jew would lay tefillin every day, wear tzitzit, have a mezuzah on his door. That was just what being a Jew 'meant.'
A Jew would daven three times a day, mostly (maybe some were...lazy, and didn't...). A Jew kept "kosher" - there was no other way to be, as for centuries Jews would not eat with their non-Jewish neighbors because of kashrut and hitbolelut reasons. Jews, plain and simple, followed the laws delineated in the Torah and Shulchan Aruch, more or less the same. It is only since the haskalah movement in Europe, that any thought was given to deviating from the norm.
Now, we have people wearing mezuzot around their necks instead of placing them on their doors (the 'joke' is actually true), and women wearing tallitot and kippot.
Now, why take that on? Why take on the outer-garments that were worn traditionally by Jewish men? By the same token why take on the name "Rabbi" for a woman teacher instead of using the established feminine form, "Rabbanit," or "Rebbetzin?"
I am certainly not averse to women learning, being scholars, and even being religious leaders and teachers in their own communities or in the larger Jewish community--in fact, I am for it: women have been--although their role as homemakers and mothers are elevated in Judaism--denied certain rights outside the home but inside their congregations (if you can call them "rights").
Take for example, a woman speaking in front of the congregation (how is that the same as davening in front of the amud?), which right-wing Orthodoxy including Chassidic sects such as Chabad do not allow. We ourselves had a very interesting experience, years ago when our daughter Rambo had her bat-mitzvah in our shul.
We were already members of our Chabad/Lubavitch congregation, and had her bat-mitzvah there. We had planned a special kiddush after the davening, and our daughter had written a dvar Torah on the parsha, the Torah portion read that Shabbat, eight years ago December. The mechitzah was taken down after the davening, and she went up to the amud in front of the congregation, on the stage in front of the Aron HaKodesh (which was closed, with curtain drawn), and read her dvar. People listened. It was insightful. It was wonderful. And it was the last. The Rabbi never allowed any girl to read a dvar in front of the congregation ever again. He must have gotten flak from the congregants, or from Lubavitch Central, or had second thoughts himself.
Whatever the reason for his decision, from then on, b'not mitzvah were merely announced with a 'mazal tov,' a man, either the father of the bat-mitzvah or the Rabbi, gave the dvar Torah, and the kiddush was 'in honor of the bat-mitzvah', men and women sitting at their separate tables, as usual. Any speeches or divrei Torah by the bat-mitzvah girl were held at a women's-only celebration.
And how about the proscription against singing in public, commonly known as the proscription against "kol isha," the 'voice of a woman.' There was a time, not so long ago, in the early 1900's up to the fifties or sixties, when it was accepted for Orthodox girls to sing in a mixed choir.
Now, it is not accepted for women to sing in mixed choirs, let alone sing solo in public. However, I know of many Orthodox men who love classical music and opera, and will go, with their wives, to hear a woman sing arias in an opera. Are they committing a religious transgression? Will this lead to wanton sexual misconduct? The idea is utterly ridiculous. And the Talmud, which states "kol b'isha erva*" and was written by men, might be misinterpreted, or (horrors) might be wrong. To this day, there is an Orthodox Jewish idea that Gemara should not be studied by women. What are they afraid of (guess I am a transgressor) ?
In general, there has been a creeping, inexorable move to the right in Orthodox Judaism, with a simultaneous move for left-wing Jews to take on the religious trappings traditionally held by Jewish men.
Is that a backlash to the Orthodox move to the right? And does that move to the right constitute the beginnings of a Jewish Taliban culture? I believe it is time to discuss it.
(For further insight into some of these issues, here and here are some sites for perusal.)
kol b'isha erva: the voice of a woman is nakedness