As our community was making Purim preparations, we confronted an unexpected conversation. Following the authoritative voices of the Talmud and the normative legal codifiers — including, among others, Maimonides — who allow women to read the Megillat Ester, we decided to host a women’s reading on Sunday morning of Purim. (It is worth noting that some authorities suggest that women can even read the megilla for men.)
Yet the reaction within our community, though respectful, was one of surprise. Essentially, some are asking: Is this Orthodox?
By way of background, since the inception of the Mount Freedom Jewish Center, some 80 years ago, our Orthodox-chartered synagogue operated without a mehitza. This past summer, our community decided to install its first permanent mehitza, distinguishing the men’s from the women’s prayer space. The mehitza represented a principled move toward mainstream Orthodoxy, yet, some asked, we are now going to host a women’s megilla reading? Is this some kind of Purimshpiel? What’s going on?
This Purim snapshot illuminates a trend within the Orthodox Jewish community. At the core of this discussion is a confusion of ideas. We must differentiate Orthodox Judaism from halachic Judaism, a commitment to traditional Jewish law. By its very identifier, Orthodoxy is a group that distinguishes itself from other groups. Orthodox is other than Reform; Orthodox is other than Conservative. As a group, one can claim membership in an Orthodox community; as a member of the Orthodox group, norms of dress, conduct, and adherence to certain ideological principles, if unenforceable, are expected.
However, we must not confuse our image of Orthodoxy with halachic Judaism. No one group owns halachic Judaism — in fact, all streams of Judaism grapple with the degree and procedural influence that Halacha, Jewish law, plays within their movements. From the Hebrew word, “to go,” “Halacha” suggests that Jewish law is a path, a journey. Ideally, commitment to halachic Judaism would lead communities and individuals — no matter where they are on the spectrum of observance — to a heightened ethical, introspective, and spiritually nourishing way of life.
Certainly, the Orthodox community strives to adhere to Jewish law, but because Orthodoxy functions as a group and, we might even suggest, a political entity, halachic decisions can become muddied by power dynamics and ulterior, a-religious motives.
Today, no example more clearly demonstrates the problematic intertwining of Orthodoxy and Halacha as does Israel’s state-run religious authority, the Rabbanut. The mixing of religion and politics was seen in the Rabbanut’s recent declaration that it retained the right to retroactively revoke any conversion, even those performed by other Orthodox rabbis in the Religious Zionist camp. The Israeli Rabbinate serves as an apolitical institution. The Rabbanut’s current power brokers come from the fervently Orthodox sector on the far right and, sadly, by challenging the legal authority of Religious Zionist rabbis, they broaden their political clout.
However, to any and all adherents of Halacha, the decision is an outrage. It is a flagrant defiance of talmudic, rabbinic, and halachic procedural norms, completely dissonant from the dignity and sensitivity that our tradition has so delicately nurtured, despite the vicissitudes of our long exile.
Because of Halacha, women in our community will read the megilla this Purim, and because of Halacha, our sanctuary includes a mehitza. While contemporary vernacular in the Jewish community may set these two statements at odds, our hope is that one day Orthodoxy will instinctually bring to mind a spiritual integrity and wholeness completely synonymous with Halacha.