In the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma, 85b), Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya is quoted as saying, “The Torah said: Desecrate one Shabbat on a person’s behalf so that person will observe many Shabbatot.” We have been living our own version of this difficult compromise. The unprecedented, lifesaving shutdown has meant closed synagogue doors and minyans forgone, all so that we may return without risking our health and our lives. The task of reopening calls for equally bold choices — as well as patience and humility — and must reflect our tradition. As we prepare to celebrate Shavuot, the moments leading up to the Israelites receiving the Torah at Sinai offer remarkably relevant guidance and inspiration.
Exodus 32 describes the Israelites’ impatience. “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.’” Aaron instructs them to gather the gold jewelry from the wives and children. Rashi notes, “perhaps the matter will be delayed because they will hesitate to give their ornaments, and in the meantime Moses may arrive.” Aaron may have imagined the women’s hesitation to part with their jewelry, and as a rodef shalom (pursuer of peace) he understood the pause for ethical decision making that this marital conversation may have provided. That small modicum of space for consideration and questioning of the real motives and implications of rushing to rally around a false god could have made a difference. Instead, they ignored Aaron’s instruction and used their own earrings to fashion the Golden Calf. Creating a false god and altar to worship resulted in the destruction of the first set of tablets and the near decimation of a nation. In the ill-considered rush, the men got it so very wrong.
Creating a false god and altar to worship resulted in the destruction of the first set of tablets and the near decimation of a nation. In the ill-considered rush, the men got it so very wrong.
Throughout my life I have belonged to synagogues ranging from Chabad to right-wing Orthodox to Modern Orthodox. I have witnessed the growing responsiveness to cues from women and synagogue leadership to make accommodations. I have also seen far too many examples of women’s requests ignored, or worse, questioned and denigrated. We are beyond blessed to live in a community where the ritual and spiritual needs of women and men can be met as they are in the local Partnership Minyan where our younger daughter found a spiritual home. I have attended numerous women’s hakafot and women-led tefillah services and megillah readings. I continue to pray out loud. I study our holy texts. I have always felt and believed that the Torah belongs to me, just as it belongs to all of us.
There has been a surge of women’s participation in online learning and prayer opportunities that JOFA offers. And the demand is growing. Praying alone has also shed light on the dramatic impact of praying as a collective on our spiritual fulfillment.
Social distancing has forced all of us to reimagine our engagement with both God and community. From weddings and bnai mitzvah celebrations, to funerals and memorial services, gathering over Zoom has become the new normal. The same is true of traditional Orthodox synagogue services. There has been a surge of women’s participation in online learning and prayer opportunities that JOFA offers. And the demand is growing. Praying alone has also shed light on the dramatic impact of praying as a collective on our spiritual fulfillment. As we near Shavuot and the celebration of Matan Torah (receiving the Torah), and most synagogue doors remain shuttered, the Torah will be no less ours even if we won’t be hearing the 10 commandments in the required usual manner.
As New York and other parts of the world institute new guidelines limiting gatherings to 10 people, Orthodox congregations, where a minyan quorum consists of 10 males over the age of 13, face hard choices. It’s long been understood that synagogue attendance is a vital part of one’s spiritual well-being. Just like their male counterparts, women are eager to return to their synagogues.
Some leaders have channeled Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya’s example and taken a public stance that they will not resume in-person services until it is safe enough to gather in larger numbers in order to include women, children and the elderly. Other rabbis, spiritual leaders, and community members are at odds about how to reopen in a way that best serves a community longing to pray together. Some feel it is not yet safe to open the doors for even 10, choosing to wait longer, while others have rushed the resumption of minyan services. In keeping with the number 10, some will offer a first-come-first-serve option (regardless of gender), while others will opt for women-led tefillah services with renewed fervor. The debates are uncomfortable and messy — and have extended well beyond who counts and who doesn’t. We should embrace this opportunity to wrestle with these questions and work together to find alternatives and solutions to create more inclusive congregations.
When Moses finally descends from Mount Sinai holding the set of tablets, he witnesses the Israelites dancing with joy — an utter disregard and disrespect for the gravity of the moment. He sees their impatience and desperation and their turn to a false god. The Torah describes Moses’ reaction as being enraged. He hurls the tables from his hands and shatters them at the foot of the mountain. The chaos leads to near mutiny as Moses and Aaron strive to regain control of an unruly people.
When leaders choose when and which segment of the community returns to shul, they are defining the ideals and norms our children will emulate.
This current pandemic has brought many spiritual, personal and societal issues to the fore. And those who are rushing back to in-person prayer services, especially in communities where both rabbinic and health authorities have determined it is not yet safe to do so, have been criticized for having misguided priorities. The manner in which we debate and implement our return to synagogue demonstrates whether and how much we value the physical and spiritual health of the community. When leaders choose when and which segment of the community returns to shul, they are defining the ideals and norms our children will emulate. Our leaders have the opportunity to make this Shavuot a true celebration of matan torah. They can reassure our sons and daughters that, while synagogue doors won’t be open to everyone for some time, we will return in a way that recognizes that the liturgy, Torah — our connection to God belongs to all of us.
Daphne Lazar-Price, is the executive director of JOFA, The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
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