[Significantly, I submitted this essay to the AJN and was ignored. It’s probably in their slush pile, along with I would bet most of their submissions by women]
The greatest myth in the Jewish world is that there is such a thing as "the way things have always been".
Over the past few weeks, the communal debate around Melbourne's new minyan, Shira Hadasha – which, significantly, in the Jewish News, has thus far been a male-dominated debate about women's roles – has offered glimpses into the multiple ways that this fallacious assumption creates erroneous if not absurd dialectics.
Rabbi Dr. Daniel Schiff, on the one hand, arguing that Shira Hadasha is not "Orthodox" because it is by definition innovative, has internalized this superficial reading of Orthodoxy. Despite his own assertion that Orthodoxy is a 19th century construct, he still inaccurately maintains that this movement has some kind of hitherto unknown ability to withstand change. No social movement in history has stood in a vacuum. Indeed, a movement's attempt to resist perceived external forces is in itself an overt act. Orthodoxy is not monolithic, nor is it the impervious culture that Schiff contends that it is.
Striking about Schiff's argument is this need to insist on Shira Hadasha as non-Orthodox, a sentiment echoed in other Conservative and Reform settings, as well. I believe it stems from the Orthodox club-bouncer game of who is "in" and who is "out". Schiff is basically saying to Shira Hadasha, we've been banished, so why should you get special treatment? Though I understand the sentiment, it feeds into the game.
On the other end of the spectrum and more troublingly, Rabbi Kluwgant's bizarre notions of an absolute religious heritage expressed in Orthodoxy take on ominous misogynistic overtones, the very ones Shira Hadasha came to unravel. His opening phrase "it has long been a fundament of Orthodoxy that there be a division between men and women" is just funny. Orthodoxy is only 200 years old, a babe in the woods of a 3500 year old tradition. This attempt to characterize Orthodoxy as reflecting that which is "longstanding" is a rhetorical tool for restricting resistance, one that is contradicted by the evidence. That Orthodox synagogues had mixed dancing in the fifties and sixties, that rebbetzins used to wear miniskirts and sleeveless (I have photographs from my parent's Brooklyn Young Israel to prove it!), and that "separate seated weddings" are an innovation from the 1990s all demonstrate the absurdity of his remark. Things change, and Orthodoxy is no exception.
But Klugwant's statements about women's "nature" are the most troubling, and belie the motives of this fundamentalist argument. The thrust is that "they" (read, women) are meant to be indoors, silent and invisible, in need of "protection" from "us" (read, men), the speakers, writers and spokespeople of God. Such all-encompassing generalizations about women serve a strict gender hierarchy, one he promotes in which men are owners of religious knowledge to whom women must defer. He even goes to far as to claim ownership of women's "true" desires, as if to say he knows better than the women what we seek.
His patronizing, supercilious condescension towards women is an offense to the entire community. His assertion that women who want to read from the Torah are either ignorant, misguided, or not "genuine" in their religiousness leaves women utterly powerless within his social hierarchy. I believe that the maintenance of a gender-hierarchy in which women are voiceless and powerless drives this elaborate, generalized rhetoric of natural gender differences.
These sentiments were echoed in documents emerging from the Melbourne Orthodox community. Not only has the Mizrahi leadership decided that the women of Shira Hadasha are "dangerous", and "poor role models", but the RCV is now taking political or perhaps merely polemical steps to construct Shira Hadasha as "out". And once again, the in-out game continues on the backs of women. What is seen as the "threat" is not the alienation, disempowerment and bitterness that so many Orthodox women feel as they are taught to be silent and invisible – but the potential for a shift in power positions around gender.
At the end of the day, Shira Hadasha is so very Orthodox, simply because it is a resistance of women from within Orthodoxy. It is about Orthodoxy not because of the details of the halacha, but because the people involved actually care enough to have the halachic discussion. It's about separating the actual halacha from the political rhetoric that envelops it. It's about seeing women's intelligence and participation not as a threat to social structures but as beautiful and vital for the health of the entire community. It is not a resistance that seeks to undo Orthodoxy but to promote its evolution.