Between Yom Kippur services, I had the opportunity to ask my synagogue’s three wonderful rabbis a question. Why, I wished to know, do Conservative Jewish services alternate between including and not including the matriarchs in the Amidah recitation? Who makes the decision regarding when our mothers (and, implicitly, women in general) matter?
Needless to say, I received highly courteous, nuanced and informative answers. I learned that, while the Conservative movement is committed to gender equality and inclusion, the “Mamas and Papas” version of the Amidah alternates with the “Papas only” version because some congregants prefer to pray the way they’ve always done. The rabbis expressed great empathy for my confusion and frustration and referred to the current state of affairs as a compromise.
While I am most grateful for their insight into the situation, I must admit I cannot bring myself to be satisfied with this response. If the argument for inclusion states, “Women are full, equal, necessary participants in Judaism, a fact we must recognize and honor in all our prayers,” while the argument against it states, “It used to be acceptable to imply that women mattered less than men, so we should still be able to do so,” can we really believe both positions have equal validity? Have we not changed many of previously standard Jewish practices (separate seating in shul, opposition to openly gay clergy and not counting women as part of a Minyan are some changed traditions that come to mind) precisely because we now deem them discriminatory?
Now, some may (and did) say that, regardless of the words coming from the bimah, I’m free to personally pray the way I choose. Of course I can, and I do, muttering my foremothers’ names at breakneck speed like a tongue-twister in order to answer, “Amen” on time, but here’s the thing: The voice from the bimah matters because it’s perceived as the official voice of our movement. Torah readers no longer chant those infamous words from Leviticus aloud because Conservative Judaism does not condone – and will not give the appearance of condoning – their hateful homophobia. Shouldn’t the movement be just as careful not to appear to condone sexism?
Others point out that other women don’t mind reciting “patriarchs only” prayers. I may well be a crazy feminist/troublemaker/touchy-feely thought police (some of the nicer terms I’ve heard throughout my life): Still, I must wonder how much of that stems from conviction rather than acceptance born of habit. For too long, society trained women to settle for less in far too many things, and punished those who dared to dream outside the box. Even the young girls of today will most likely find themselves fighting an uphill battle for equal treatment at some point; we can give them no better weapon than the unshakable conviction that they deserve no less.
Compared to most other concepts, equality leaves remarkably little room for nuance and compromise: “mostly equal” or “totally equal, sometimes” still means “unequal.” If one of us must sit at the back of the bus, we’re not on the same journey; civil unions are not marriages; 78 cents to a dollar never makes for a one-to-one ratio. While society at large is progressing toward this conclusion, we Jews already know it better than almost anyone: our rituals should reflect this knowledge.
Sarah endured unimaginable trials in silence. Rebecca left her home and family, took risks and schemed to ensure that we’d become the nation of Jacob – Israel. Leah gave and nurtured life for so long and to so many, too often without the rewards of love or gratitude. Rachel died in pain and was left behind in a roadside grave, all for the sake of one more tribe. These Biblical foremothers birthed and suffered, struggled for and shaped the destiny of our people at least as much as their male counterparts did. We are truly their children. We should always be proud to say their names.
YEKATERINA GINZBURG-BRAM, a resident of Providence, is a member of Temple Emanu-El and an elementary school art teacher in the Providence Public Schools.