Just over two weeks ago, the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards (CJLS) voted in favor of a controversial teshuvah (responsum), written by Rabbi Pamela Barmash, ruling that, according to Jewish law, women can be considered obligated in all of the ritual commandments from which they have classically been exempt.
When I first read the teshuvah, I was incredibly happy. Part of my problem with the Conservative movement is that, as an egalitarian Jew, I still saw Conservative Judaism as playing into the patriarchal nature of Judaism. In the same way Orthodoxy does not obligate women in certain mitzvot, by not formally requiring Conservative women to perform the same mitzvot that their male counterparts were, the movement remained inherently unequal. In essence, how could I, as an egalitarian Jewish feminist, support a movement with inherently non-egalitarian halakhic policy?
At the same time, the passage of this teshuvah reflects a much larger debate about the nature of how halakhah should act: is it primarily prescriptive (meant to shape attitude and times), or descriptive (reflective of the attitudes of the time)? Many, like Rabbi Daniel Gordis, seem to blame teshuvot like the (now somewhat infamous) 1950 “Responsum on the Sabbath,” which allowed for Jews to drive to the synagogue on Shabbat as the death of Conservative Judaism, but to me it reflects, more than a move away from observance, the fact that halakhah has acted descriptively. Many Jews at the time were not observant and drove on Shabbat anyway. This, instead of creating new Jewish practices, simply legitimated an existing phenomenon that was already the reality for many American Jews.
The idea that halakhah and rabbinic rulings are intended to act descriptively extends much farther back than the 1950s, to medieval European commentaries on kitniyot, or the custom of European Jews to refrain from eating rice or legumes on Passover. Medieval commentaries called the custom silly, but ruled that those who had already adopted the practice were not sinning. By the nineteenth century, refraining from kitniyot over Passover had become so prevalent that many rabbis, despite opposing it, began ruling that the custom must be upheld. (For more on the history of rabbinic literature on the topic, see this article in the Boulder Jewish News from 2012.) This and similar rulings, despite the fact that they at first appear to be preserving tradition, actually represent a break with tradition, a reaction to the changing attitudes of the Jewish populace, rather than a continuation of halakhah as it was practiced previously in the way that the driving teshuvah did.
Ultimately, a change in halakhah will not come from a group of rabbis in a room in the Jewish Theological Seminary voting on what women should or should not (or are required to or should be merely encouraged to) do, but, instead, from the bottom up. Practices like kitniyot and driving to synagogue on Shabbat did not come from the rabbis, in unison, saying that we, the Jewish proletariat (as it were) are allowed to perform them.
These innovations, rather, came from Jews, usually not those in positions of lay or religious leadership, but from those who took it upon themselves to make changes within their individual communities as was appropriate for them. To be sure, the CJLS can do little other than vote on whether or not they support teshuvot; they have no power to enforce them. Indeed, as Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, a member of the CJLS who abstained from voting on Rabbi Barmash’s responsum, pointed out in his dissenting opinion, that the CJLS’s voting in favor of this responsum does little more than, at its most basic level, decide guilt before God, which can be a very dangerous thing to discuss, especially with regards to community organizing.
The real call to action needs to come from the ground up. Systemic change comes from individual people and their lay leaders demanding a change in practice, not from how we view practice that the rabbis have handed down to us. Our halakhah was not redacted or studied in a vacuum, and should not evaluated any differently today, and Rabbi Barmash’s teshuvah takes this into account. However, if our tradition is truly Not In Heaven, then it is also not solely in the hands of a select few, highly educated rabbis who make decisions without first taking the steps necessary to make sure that their responsa will have an effect. Happy though I am that the CJLS has officially endorsed the opinion that women are obligated in the same way that men are with regards to Jewish ritual, the responsum will not change reality until we, the lay leaders and our communities, change it first.
Amram Altzman is a student at List College, a joint program between JTS and Columbia University.