Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Much obliged--or not



By rabbinic tradition, women are excused from most of what are often called time-bound mitzvot (that is, commandments that must be performed at specific times). The usual explanation is that women have other obligations--namely, raising children--that are equally important for Jewish continuity that would render the keeping of time-bound mitzvot difficult.

This exemption raises two issues, one up front and one at the far end (in a manner of speaking).

My understanding is that, once one takes upon oneself the obligation to fulfill a mitzvah (commandment), one is not permitted to change one's mind for any reason and cease fulfilling that mitzvah. (Given my Jewish education, or, mostly, my lack thereof, I don't even know where I read/heard this, so please correct me if I'm wrong.) So, when a girl becomes a Bat Mitzvah (“Daughter of the Commandment,” obligated to fulfill the commandments) at 12, she doesn't take on the time-bound mitzvot because it's assumed that, eventually, she'll have kids to take care of and will, likely, wish to cease fulfilling those mitzvot.

From my own perspective, as a non-Orthodox Jew, I see two problems:

One is that women who do not yet have any reason not to perform time-bound commandments refrain from doing so nevertheless. As a consequence, there are literally thousands of Orthodox Jewish women who are, in terms of observance, "on hold." It doesn't matter whether they're just barely B'not Mitzvah (12), 22, 32, 42, or even 52, with almost zero possibility that they'll ever have kids to raise--as long as they're single, they'll never take upon themselves the obligation to observe time-bound mitzvot.

The other is that, even after a woman's child-rearing days are over, she's still not obligated to observe time-bound mitzvot. Why not, pray tell? Name me one darn good reason why a woman of 65 should be exempt.


Blogger Noam S said...

OK, here is where some feminists get mad at me. There are obvious differences between men and women: anatomic, physiologic, and hormonal, to start with the non-contraversial ones. In Halacha, there is also a difference between men and women. There are halachic differences that are stated explicitly in the Torah, and more that are brought out in the mishna and gemara. Not being obligated in time bound mitzvot is an accepted concept in the gemara(although there are many exceptions, and I think there may a dissenting opinion, though please dont quote me because I am not sure, I have to look it up). Regardless of the reason, it is an accepted concept. Of course, it is easy to give a reason- child-rearing, taking care of the house, etc. However, your questions, being very good questions, illustrate the classic problem of finding reasons for mitzvot.

For example: if we accepted the view that keeping kosher was for health reasons, and then we found out that keeping kosher wasn't healthy(good bye chopped liver), there wouldn't be any reason to keep kosher.

This approach can work(especially in the liberal traditional view) for non-fundamental concepts. For example, the gemara tells us not to use medicine on Shabbat because of the worry that one would grind medicine. This prohibition goes under the category of geder(fence), ie they prohibit an action(taking medicine) out of the worry that the action would result in doing a prohibited action(grinding), the initial action(taking medicine) is actually not a problem. Nowadays, taking medicine does not involve grinding, and many liberal orthodox poskim don't see a major problem in taking medicine, while more traditional poskim still frown on it unless it is a matter of a significant health problem.

However, women not being obligated is not a geder type of concept, and, as far as I know, the rationale is not specifically given, just assumed by later commentors. Regardless,it is a fundamental concept that cannot be overturned just because the percieved rationale no longer applies.

I need to look up a few more things, but the short answer is "it is a matter of faith", just like accepting our religion is a matter of faith.

Thu Aug 31, 01:55:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Sorry, Dilbert, but my problem is precisely with the idea that "a fundamental concept . . . cannot be overturned just because the percieved rationale no longer applies." From my own perspective, once the perceived rationale no longer applies, there's no reason for a concept to continue to exist.

Actually, I'm not entirely consistent in my insistent on rationales for concepts. I accept the laws of kashrut purely out of respect for tradition. But, though keeping kosher makes my life somewhat more challenging, it doesn't have a negative impact on my fundamental worldview (or hashkafah, if you will) in the same way that restrictions on women's observance do.

You also said, "the short answer is "it is a matter of faith", just like accepting our religion is a matter of faith." Well, as you know, I don't have much faith to speak of, so observing mitzot/commandments (or, in this case, a lack thereof) out of faith alone is not a viable approach for me.

Thu Aug 31, 08:47:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Noam S said...

You said "From my own perspective, once the perceived rationale no longer applies, there's no reason for a concept to continue to exist."

The key word there is 'perceived.' The rationale that we see is not neccessarily God's rationale. And, if you wind up doing only the mitzvot that you think make sense, in essence you are cutting God out of the picture, and putting yourself in His/Her place. It certainly is helpful to think that a mitzvah makes sense, and that it agree with one's world view, innate sense of morality, etc. But if you dont accept a commanding power outside of yourself, then where is God?

That is one of the problems that I have with Reform, in that they feel that personal autonomy is more important that God's commandments. Even the Conservative movement, when faced with a halacha they dont like, change halacha, without any precedent or basis in tradition. Where is the Divine in that?

Fri Sep 01, 12:02:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Noam S said...

hmmm. I posted a response, but it was eaten. Here is a link to something more elegant than I can write:

Fri Sep 01, 12:37:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Courtesy of Kiwi the Geek
Kiwi the Geek, here's how you create a hyperlink in a comment:

[A HREF="put the link here"]put the text here, whatever you want the reader to click on[/A]

*Note: You must replace every [ with a < and every ] with a >.*

So, to simplify matters for all of my readers,
here's the link to the post by My Orbit Dicta that Dilbert just recommended.

My Orbiter Dicta said "Schechter's 'Catholic Israel' had morphed, with Mordekhai Kaplan's help, into a system that deified the Jew and subjected God and Torah to the whims of man. Whatever the people want, wherever the ideological winds might blow, Jewish tradition could be coerced to reflect the latest fad (or Orthodoxy). After all, Judaism has no integrity of its own. It was created by Jews to serve them. "

Dilbert, I guess that's still my principal issue of principle: Is the Torah *for* Jews or *by* Jews? How one answers that question has a profound effect on one's attitude toward halachah and its interpretation. Psalm 19 says, "Torah HaShem t'mimah, m'shivat nafesh, The Law of HaShem is perfect, restoring the soul." Mordechai Kaplan said that one might interpret that statement differently by rearranging the words: "T'memimah, m'shivat nafesh, Torat HaShem, That which is perfect, restoring the soul, is the Law of the Lord." If compassion clashes with halachah (Jewish religious law), does one give precedence to halachah or to compassion? An Orthodox Jew would answer, "halachah;" a non-Orthodox could answer either way.

Sat Sep 02, 10:09:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Sorry, the "compassion" reference was related mostly to the My Orbiter Dicta post. In discussing the issue of women being unconditionally "relieved of duty" (literally), the question is whether one gives precedence to halachah or to kavod habriyot, honor/respect for G-d's creatures. If there's no perceived rationale, is it *always* necessary to follow halachah anyway, especially when it has such a profound, and, in my opinion, negative influence on the life of half the Jewish people? What a Jew loses by obeying the laws of kashrut ("dietary laws," keeping kosher) is merely permission to eat ham, etc. What Jewish women lose by being halachically excluded from an obligation to pray is permission to lead any religious service at which men are presence (which almost all of them).

Sun Sep 03, 01:42:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Ezzie said...

If there's no perceived rationale, is it *always* necessary to follow halachah anyway

My guess is yes. Think about (say) Parah Adumah - we've *never* had a perceived rationale for it, yet we still had it.

negative influence on the life of half the Jewish people

That's a really out there argument. I'm guessing that there are but a handful of people as compared to the overall Jewish population who this negatively influences [people who wish to follow halacha but wish to take on extra obligations that halacha seems to not permit them]. I'd say that more people have a negative attitude towards other parts of Judaism that they do every day.

And while women can create prayer groups, etc., no Jew keeping Kosher will ever eat a cheeseburger, bacon strips, or even eat pizza a little after a steak.

Sun Sep 03, 09:18:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

I guess that the operative issue is halacha *seems to* not permit women to take on extra obligations. It was okay according to Torah SheBichtav (the written law in the first five books of the Bible), where women are allowed to become Nazir, to bring voluntary sacrifices, and to make pledges to the Temple, but it's not okay now?

As I said, kashrut is a challenge, but not as much of an issue--giving up shrimp is a lot easier than giving up being a baalat tefilla for a group that's permitted to recite prayers requiring a minyan (by traditional definition, ten males 13 years old or older) and being allowed to lead *only* if I'm with a group that's not permitted to say those prayers(women only). If that means that I'm being inconsistent by distinguishing between one mitzvah and another, well, I have no choice but to plead guilty.

Sun Sep 03, 03:26:00 PM 2006  

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