Is the question of egalitarian services
a moral issue or a question of custom?

A Discussion Paper

Women and men today share equal rights and obligations in the majority of Progressive and Conservative synagogues worldwide. The egalitarian ethos in these communities reflects developments in Judaism that date back to 19th century Europe and that parallel similar developments in Judaism in the larger society. Other congregations have begun to engage in a discussion about the role of women.

This paper is a contribution to this discussion.



Issues about what women are “allowed” to do in Jewish services keep coming up. Most of these issues are quite easy to resolve from a halachic point of view: for instance, women are obliged to say the Amidah at least twice a day, they are encouraged to wear tefillin, etc. The arguments about “kol ishah” that draw so much popular attention are not halachically compelling and are indeed rather funny. Arguments that rely on tradition or history are also not convincing. For example, the separation of men and women became an issue only in the 19th century, as more women began attending Jewish services, and separate seating in liberal congregations was a custom copied from contemporary churches.

The question is an emotional one.

Recently, a (male) acquaintance told me that he feels comfortable going to both egalitarian and non-egalitarian services, as for him this is not a "moral issue". I asked him why not, as I really wanted to understand. His reply puzzled me even further: “It is a long tradition, and we honour a long tradition.” - I replied, “Slavery also had a long tradition.” - He said, “Even the Torah accepts the unequal status of women.” - I then said, “Even the Torah accepts slavery” – to which he responded, “But slavery is a more serious issue.” - No. The issue has the same seriousness.

-- Unequal societies are the root of all forms of domestic violence (not to mention denial of respect or underestimating a woman’s capabilities, which can be survived). An unequal distribution of power in the relationship between men and women assigns women lower status. From this position of subordination, women become dependent upon men and are subject to their demands and in danger of abuse.

-- An unequal society creates from early childhood onwards a certain self-image of women and of men, which becomes part of an unconscious pattern of feelings.

-- Religion has a huge impact on our identity, deeper than what we learn in school or society in general. It defines how we think about ourselves. Therefore the question of egalitarianism in religion has a huge impact on how girls grow up, and how women and men think about themselves.

In the 21st century, egalitarianism is therefore a moral issue, not just a question of custom. And as a British parliamentarian recently said in the House of Commons discussing the issue of Freedom of Press: “Either one is pregnant or one is not; there is no in-between.” This is no less true of equality. Either a congregation is egalitarian, meaning everybody, independent of gender, has equal rights and equal obligations, depending on their skills and learning – or there is no equality.

-- Thus also a system that incrementally metes out to women specific additional “privileges”, but that insists on holding women subordinate to men in relation to fundamental communal roles (such as leading services or becoming rabbis), is not equal, not egalitarian – and not just.


"The participation of a women in religious life and in community life is essential. The full share has to be given to her of religious obligations as well as of religious rights."
(Rabbi Dr. Caesar Seligmann, Richtlinien zu einem Programm fuer das liberale Judentum, Frankfurt a.M. 1912)



It is often women who have problems accepting a change towards egalitarian services, and this is deeply understandable.

-- Women who grew up in unequal congregations have never experienced the feeling of being an equal participant in the service - for instance, helping make up a minyan. More important, they have never experienced the specific kind of active relationship with the service and the Torah reading that comes from getting an aliyah, chanting the Torah or leading a part of the liturgy as sh'lichat tzibbur. All this creates a very different relationship to the texts and to Jewish identity than simply hearing the Torah reading and praying as part of the congregation and even these feel very different within an egalitarian setting where one is not confined to only this role. It is different in a way that it is impossible to know until one has experienced it.

-- It can be frightening to imagine oneself on the bimah, and it can be frightening to feel that one has responsibility for helping shape the prayer experience of others. It's important to recognize that this fear is natural and okay and even very appropriate.

-- Some Women have to come to terms with the fact, that the next generation gets something they were themselves deprived of their whole live. This is something extremely hard to come to terms with emotionally; these emotions will not pass. Eventually, awareness of this feeling can help in overcoming it.

-- Finally, freedom means responsibility. Women may feel that if they have equal rights and obligations, they will need to learn more, do more, work harder -- and all this in areas where they may feel insecure about their skills and abilities without having ever experienced the huge positive impact of this on their Jewish identity yet. They may reason that if they are allowed to chant from the Torah, they will be expected to chant from the Torah.
If this is the meaning of freedom, it is easier not to be free! But freedom and responsibility are what Judaism is about ...

Women today are the role models for the girls of the next generation. This is a heavy responsibility. How women approach it will pave the way for the future of Judaism.


"God planted in our heart skills and a vocation without asking about gender. Therefore, it is the duty of men and women alike to work and create according to the skills given by God."
(Rabbi Regina Jonas, C.-V.-Zeitung Berlin, June 23, 1938)

The question of egalitarian services 
positively solved on the basis of our Jewish tradition in the 20th century
is thus in the 21st century
an urgent moral issue within our society and
a question of Jewish responsibility for the next generation.

Dr A. M. Boeckler (2013)