It struck me as wonderful timing that while the Modern Orthodox world is abuzz with the news of Sara Hurwitz’s impending non-ordination as a rabbi, Tova Hartman, a founder of the Shira Hadasha minyan in Jerusalem, is here at Northwestern for a guest lectureship. She spoke to a group of students at Hillel last night, and will deliver a public lecture this evening.

As Dr. Hartman (she prefers to be called Tova) pointed out, the big change of Shira Hadasha had much less to do with women getting called up to the Torah or participating in other ways in an Orthodox prayer service, than in opening the process of decision-making to women and men in an Orthodox environment. From a textual standpoint, the greatest innovation in the last hundred years in terms of women’s place in Judaism has been the opening of high-level scholarship to them, which was completely forbidden before the twentieth century, and even now remains off-limits within Haredi communities.

Yet we don’t tend to focus on that. Our lines of division–between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, between Haredi/Centrist and Modern Ortho–all seem to revolve around how much women are visible or invisible within the synagogue. And this is probably  because, as Tova put it last night, the synagogue is where most people live the bulk of their religious lives–even in Orthodox circles. Even though every denomination of Judaism makes serious ethical claims that apply throughout the day, week, and year; even though every denomination of Judaism makes demands on family and home life; even though every denomination of Judaism advocates for text study–despite all of this, the synagogue remains the defining space for religious identity. And so, while women’s access to Torah learning is the real revolution within Orthodox Judaism, the big fights are over the symbols of access in the synagogue: aliyot, leading services, counting in the minyan, serving as president, and serving as the rabbi.

For me, the decision to be Orthodox was not one I made because of my views on gender egalitarianism. If that were my criterion, I probably would have gone to a different rabbinic school. What Orthodoxy inspires me with is its devotion to the rigorous study and application of Jewish law, and its preservation of the value of talmud Torah keneged kulam: Torah study outweighs all other pursuits. I saw how hard my friends at more liberal schools had to work to get the intensive kind of text education I wanted, and that was really what pushed me into my Orthodox commitment. That came at a price with regard to my views on gender, but it was a price I was willing to pay.

One of the ironies of Tova Hartman’s talk last night, to me anyway, was the fact that for her, the creation of Shira Hadasha is in some profound ways an aesthetic exercise. Because there is no professional associated with the shul, and thus no one’s livelihood is on the line, and because there are a gazillion other Orthodox prayer options in her neighborhood of Jerusalem, she feels perfectly fine letting attacks against Shira Hadasha’s Orthodox bona fides go unanswered. Like me, she believes that this is one path, and she’s not prescribing it for everyone. Yet here in America, people’s livelihoods are on the line: Plenty of people already make spurious and ignorant comments about YCT graduates, to the detriment of the ability of some of the job prospects of some of my fellow musmachim. Those within the YCT community who are pressuring Rabbi Weiss not to call Sara a Rabbi are right that their livelihoods may well be affected. (Never mind, btw, that many of these same people were willing to sacrifice the livelihoods of workers in Postville for another moral/halakhic crusade.)

The irony comes in the comment of my teacher, Rabbi Levi Lauer, that I’m fond of quoting. In trying to convince me to make aliyah, Levi said, “Zionism makes mincemeat out of aesthetics.” In other words, because the Zionist project involves putting your body to work and your life on the line for the sake of your Jewish identity, it transforms Jewishness into a meaningful non-aesthetic category. Yet in this case, it is the reverse: the Diaspora makes aesthetic concerns charged with urgency, at least when you’re a Jewish professional.

Perhaps it’s time to be thinking about aliyah again.

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