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An interview with Rabbi Lionel Blue
MK Most of the articles in this issue of Sidic are by women. We think it is important to hear a man's point of view about the role of women in the dialogue. You are a Rabbi in a community that has had women rabbis for many years now. You are also very active in the Jewish-Christian- Muslim dialogue. So we want to hear your voice...
LB First some general remarks.
The whole business of women in Judaism is very complex because although Judaism is liturgically speaking patriarchal, in fact it has worked as an economic-social matriarchy for centuries... and you have the strange situation in Jewish life today where it was acceptable for Golda Meir to be the head of the State of Israel while at the same time a woman could not witness a divorce document - she was legally, but not pejoratively, classed alongside children, idiots and dice-players. In Jewish Law a woman cannot apply for a divorce like a man and you can still get blackmail as a result of levirate marriage.
Ritually and legally women are not equal, but socially and economically they dominate. Jewish women traditionally hold the money - in the old style world of the Eastern European set-up a richman gave as a dowry with his daughter, especially if she was ugly, a business that she could run and her husband would be a poor scholar who could learn liturgy and law. That's the way the family got status and the husband got a livelihood. The result was that in economic matters you went to your mother, not to your father. There is no masculine equivalent of "My Yiddishe Mother".
So the traditional Judaism is matriarchal and I think this was probably determined a long time ago by the wedding contract which transferred so much economic power into the hands of women to stop divorce that it made for an economic matriarchy.
MK But that's changed somewhat?
LB It's changed a lot now; for example thinking about the old set-up, I notice that there is all that idealization of the Jewish family without any account of the tensions that enter into it. Most Jewish men of the past I knew, had to break out..my father went to eat jellied eels just to find a place to get away from my mother and my grandfather went to the pub for the same reason, though they loved their wives.
They wanted a "woman-free" space because Jewish men did not go out to pubs. The only place they could bond with other men was the synagogue and the home was very much a woman's affair..so most Jewish men felt quite constricted in the old set up, which isn't what one normally thinks.
I think you're getting a new matriarchy now. Judaism will become matriarchal again with the liberation of women but the matriarchy will work in a different way. We are moving to a set-up probably with more women than men rabbis, at least in the non-Orthodox part. If you are thinking of law and laying down things there is not much use for old-time male rabbis... if you think in terms of the rabbinate as caring, visiting, personal problems, counselling, well women are good at that traditionally, so I could see it as a much more woman- dominated rabbinate.
I think you are going to get a polarisation taking place - on the one hand you are getting one situation where the difference between women and men hardly exists - and on the other, the very traditional Judaism where the ritual and halachic roles seem as tight as ever if not tighter, though civil life roles may be relaxing for jobs connected with educational and social work.
MK Do women want those traditional roles in some circumstances?
LB Yes... I've known some people in those groups and these women seem to be contented with children, domestic ritual and personal and family piety. I suppose if you weren't happy with that you would leave, but remember it's still a very small minority and a tight one.
So you're getting quite a big gap between the extreme traditionalists and the moderate ones and you're getting these quarrels - for example women no longer sing in choirs (like St. Paul). Women can't seem to act as Synagogue Officers though there is a dispute about it and the grilles are certainly going up all over.
MK ...but that's not mainstream?
LB That's mainstream Orthodox in my experience.
MK Yet there is a women's movement in the moderate Orthodox community?
LB There is a women's movement but it can't really go beyond the traditional halachah which is controlled by men and interpreted by them.
MK So is it only on the progressive side that women can exercise a different role?
LB Yes, I can't see the traditional establishment being able, even if they wanted to, to change the regulations concerning divorce, chalitza, aguna, the business of women being witnesses. The chance of that went ages ago. There was, for example, the famous case of Queen Helena of Adiabene (early Talmudic times) who wore talith, tephilim etc. It was accepted because it was said she was "ishah hashuvah" (an important woman).
I also think one traditional rabbi in the medieval period wondered if all women were important, for example in connection with "leaning" in the Seder service. That was a possible way it could have been done, but it was never taken up and I don't think anybody would be able to do it now.
As long as Orthodox Judaism holds sway that is set - Yes it is capable of developing. You could think of numerous ways it could do so but I don't think it will. Any group that does will probably be on the Conservative-Masorti side.
MK But in your community there are women rabbis and have been for some time - have they been accepted?
LB Yes.. you do find one or two congregations that won't accept a woman rabbi. Far more congregations will have women as an Associate Rabbi in charge of education rather than a senior rabbi. But if things continue the way they are I suspect that in the end there won't be much difference except in one or two little pockets here and there. It's still harder for a woman rabbi to get on.
MK Does a woman rabbi make any difference?
Does it have any effect on the congregation?
LB I think some wives of the older type of synagogue leader still resent a woman rabbi. They sometimes feel the woman rabbi undermines them and their work. The young women tend to like women rabbis - they feel they have a rabbi they can really talk to who understands. In the Progressive Assembly you have some women who really strongly state their case and they are honest - often open in a way some men never can be.
I think women can still suffer from the problems of insecurity and therefore can get touchy at times precisely because enough time hasn't elapsed before they can feel secure. In regard to spirituality and that sort of thing, I don't think gender makes any difference. In the society you are getting now women and men don't think that differently.
MK What about women's part in inter-faith dialogue - e.g. the Bendorf dialogues that the Jewish community have taken an important part in?
LB Yes...and when they have had women's sessions, apparently the women have got further in one day than the men did in a week. The women seem to start off from a more realistic basis - I think they have a lot in common - all have had to cope with a patriarchy - and unequal opportunities. They have also had to deal with the whole business of child rearing and that sort of thing... and I think a common agenda has emerged. And also men may be basically more competitive.
MK I have heard that the conflicts between the women have often caused very painful situations that have nearly wrecked the meeting. One recent one was because the Bosnia situation was not understood and some remarks seemed anti-Jewish. These meetings are very sensitive.
LB That may be so. I've never been there but I don't think men and women are much different in those situations. I haven't noticed that women are more peace-orientated than men - I'd like to say so but I don't think it works that way - just as with nationalism you had women giving out white feathers as well as the peace movement.
MK but there was the "Women in Black" movement for peace in Israel...
LB Yes..women can sometimes combine together for very progressive purposes, as in South Africa and Israel and there is this bond between women of different groups who have had to endure a man's world. If you look at any meeting of politicians, Arab or Israeli, it is very much a man's world with only an occasional woman present. As a woman you must feel this is a man's world with men's problems and you have to suffer them - it must create a bond.
MK The Churches have these movements like the Movement for the Ordination of women. Have you anything to say about the methods these movements use - Are they, generally speaking, the best way to go about achieving their aims?
LB Crudely put, looking at history of the Suffragettes and others, you only get on the agenda if you make a nuisance of yourself.. unfortunately that is the situation when you are dealing with power bases - you might say the cause isn't worth adding any more aggression in the world - that's one point of view - but really no-one's going to give your cause a place on the agenda without being forced to... unless you get a remarkably enlightened motivated pope or something like that, for example, "John XXIII plus" who is converted before the start; otherwise it will be done only if you make a nuisance of yourself.
MK Would there be anything else you would like to say?
LB There has got to be a whole change in lots of institutions. For example, as my mother pointed out to me, most of the women's institutions in the Synagogue and Judaism are meant for comfortably-off middle-class women. I asked her if she would go to one... No she said they aren't made for women going out to work. so the whole structure of women's societies presumes a kind of life which probably isn't there any more and working women now have totally different issues than the old type of Ladies Guilds.
You have to think in terms of a very different organisation for communal and business women. Also we have to think of single parent families which have little place in the system and which are also increasing with divorce etc.
MK It is amazing what women carry sometimes with work, family and being on their own.
LB Yes and I don't think they are used to the idea of the institution helping them. In the past the rich institution often thought them inconvenient, the exception, to be blamed because they didn't fulfill the fantasy of what the institution thought they should be. That is one point - the institutions have got to be geared to women with different roles now and find out what interests them.
Then I think that since you are living with families broken up and scattered it seems to me more important for women than for men that you have more introduction agencies, marriage agencies, singles clubs and things like that because in the old times people married someone known to their family and that isn't there any more - there is often no family around. Now the Jewish community does get involved in that and you get a little bit of it in the Catholic Church with "Singles" but that business of marriage brokers is a very important function if you want homes.
I think one of the most important things in a religious group to encourage dialogue between the sexes is that women give courses to men on what it is like to be a woman. I was brought up so that I didn't have a clue what a woman feels about her body - menstruation, the changes in life, what having a child means , how a woman views anything, even men.
A woman, for example, is brought up just to nod to men, to listen and not say very much and I have had to learn the hard way what life is like for a woman. The first thing women should do is to teach men, to give them a course in what it feels like to be a woman - I think that's important.