The scary subtext of "rethinking egalitarianism"
Last week in the Forward, Jay Michaelson writes about the need to rethink egalitarianism. Egalitarian synagogues, he says, tend to be egalitarian in only one way: everyone is equally bored. (“Egalitarian” in American Jewish life has historically referred to prayer services where men and women can both participate fully and take on leadership roles.) He talks about friends who attend Orthodox prayer services because they find more meaning in the service, and about how attempts at inclusiveness and egalitarianism often translate into long responsive readings in English where nobody really believes a word.
I know the phenomenon Michaelson is talking about. It’s the one where you sit in shul, waiting for the brutally layned haftarah to end… until you realize that it will be followed by an equally monotonous musaf that moves at the pace of a funeral dirge. The whole time, all you’re thinking to yourself is, “I should have slept in this morning.” He has a point, too – egalitarian congregations often have this kind of service, helped along by a desire to ensure that all attendees find something in the service that is accessible to them. But egalitarian congregations aren’t the only ones with this problem. The synagogue I attended sporadically during my undergraduate education had exactly this kind of service, and it was nowhere near egalitarian.
At the end of his blog post, Michaelson suggests that we need to rethink what we mean by egalitarian.
“Now, as a progressive American Jew I don’t think gender should determine who’s in and who’s out. But I do think that if everybody’s in, nobody’s in. Let’s rethink what we mean by “egalitarianism.” What if it meant “open to all who bother to make the effort”?”
So Michaelson acknowledges that is concern isn’t gender-based – he’s actually concerned with creating meaningful and spiritual places for communal prayer. Count me in for that mission.
What makes me uncomfortable with the article is the way Michaelson has used egalitarianism in its traditional sense as a “hook” to draw people in, and the implication that moving to an egalitarian prayer service and the inclusion of women in spiritual opportunities is somehow linked to a decrease in meaningful communal prayer overall. Until Michaelson makes the statement that I just quoted (which comes in the last third of his blog post), this argument could have gone another direction entirely – where I was half-expecting it to go! In that argument, including women in prayer somehow intimidates men, prevents them from taking on the responsibilities of prayer that they are halachically obligated to perform, and causes a failure to provide strong role models for young boys. It may sound ridiculous, but arguments like this aren’t rare. After all, (said my high school Talmud teacher,) women are already more spiritual than men. They don’t need those extra obligations from prayer in order to feel close to God, nor should they take such an opportunity away from men.
So go for it, Jay Michaelson. Change what it means to have an egalitarian synagogue, and claim the term for congregations who welcome everyone equally to a meaningful service that empowers congregants with the agency to contribute to that meaning. I’m on board and happy to help lead the charge. But don’t tell me that you weren’t challenging women’s hard-fought ability to participate in religious services with comments like “This got me wondering about what we mean when we talk about egalitarianism, and about our priorities in maintaining it.” Because my drive to achieve your new egalitarianism hinges on maintaining “old-fashioned” egalitarianism.