Megillah, Matzah, and Equality

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This is an exciting time of the year to be an observant Jew. The religious momentum in the months of Adar and Nisan begins to build up two weeks before Purim with Parshat Shekalim and culminates at the night of the first Seder. What makes the spring time so special is that the central mitzvah of each holiday – the public reading of the megillah on Purim and the private eating of matzah on Passover – are among the few time-bound commandments that apply equally to men and women.

The reason is well known. In the language of the Rabbis, women must hear the megillah and eat matzah because “af hein hayu b’nes” – women too were included in the miracle of the rescue in Shushan and the exodus from Egypt. In the Rabbinic mind, salvation from the mortal danger which threatened the entire community rendered all Jews equal. Eve, the primordial woman, was cursed with dependence on her husband when she was banished from the Garden of Eden. But, when Pharaoh and Haman threatened the Jewish people, equality between husbands and wives, men and women, was at least partially restored. Essentialist differences based on gender are erased on Purim and Passover.

It is becoming a widespread practice among Open Orthodox think tanks like Beit Hillel to publish responsa engaging with contemporary issues relating to gender in modern Jewish life, including the questions of women’s obligation in time-bound commandments. One discomforting aspect of these well-intentioned papers is a reliance on standard halakhic categories. Much of the discussion focuses on personal status rather than the performance of the mitzvah itself. The point of departure is invariably the relative rank of men versus women rather than the intrinsic capacity of the person to fulfill the mitzvah. For example, when considering women’s participation in prayer services, the discussion hinges on the position of women in the hierarchy of obligation (slaves, children, deaf people, mentally incompetent people, women and men) and this determines whether or not women can fulfill specific roles such as reading from the Torah or leading prayers for the congregation. The same logic prevails even in the laws relating to the reading of the megillah. Some halakhic authorities persist in affording women a lower status than men and do not permit women to read on behalf of men. There have also been attempts to support specific practices with innovative applications of established halakhic principles that transcend gender status. A good illustration is Rabbi Sperber’s invocation of the principle of kvod ha’briyot, “human dignity,” to enable greater participation by women in communal prayer and Torah reading. But this is a notable exception. Usually the think tank responsa compile a list of lenient positions without establishing an underling legal basis and, as such, are unconvincing.

Posted on March 29, 2015
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