Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Attention all Thinking Women! Agudath Israel Wants You (For What I am Not Certain)

Someone at Agudath Israel's public relations department seems to have decided that inclusiveness and critical inquiry are useful concepts that play well in public opinion. What I find interesting here is the contrast between the caption and the picture. Where are the thinking women in the picture? All I see are men. As to whether any thinking is going on, I would point readers to the structure of the picture in which gedolim sit on a dais with everyone else down below. This is an inherently authoritarian system that makes it impossible to engage in any meaningful education and critical inquiry impossible. If there are some people who are elevated to the status of having the "right answers" as opposed to everyone else then what is the point of there even being any sort of give and take? All that can be expected is for the elevated few to command and for everyone else to hear and obey.

It is important to understand why it is important that women be physically present and in a position to present and even photographed. What is at stake is not merely a public policy of not photographing women as a matter of keeping to modesty guidelines. How can women be a meaningful part of a conversation if they are not physically present and allowed to speak (and even photographed) as the equals of men? Men should also be paying attention here, because if the claim of women being able to participate is nothing more than a sham, then members of the other half of the human race need to ask themselves whether their participation is a sham as well. The very act of looking up at a dais means that this question is hardly academic.

I am reminded of an incident a few years ago when several Haredi leaders spoke at a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, NJ in what was billed as an opportunity for an open discussion. What took place was merely these rabbis fielding a few pre-screened questions and lecturing the audience. The point here is that without a deep seated commitment to a host of liberal values (classical not modern) such notions as inclusiveness, critical inquiry and open discussion quickly lose all meaning. Instead they become pieces in an Orwellian game as they are pushed around by public relations people to mean their exact opposite.