While we were hanging out last night, my friend Simone, known for her uncomfortable shoes, hospitality to a frequently homeless laya and hilarious appreciation for drama, realized that she and her fiance Yoni were supposed to go down to the rabbinate get their marriage licence the next morning.
Needing a second witness Yoni asked me if I would do it before realizing that as a girl, of course, I cannot. I joked that we should help the revolution; go down there and insist they find a way that I get to be a witness or threaten that the couple in question will have premarital sex. The fanciful thought of being able to play an active role in helping one of my favorite people in the world get married was a enticing one. While I accept it as a non reality, it still got me thinking — why not?
I ask that question with sincerity and an open mind. The prohibition against women serving as witnesses is an old one, dating back to Talmud Bavli. However, we have an even older precedent, in Tanakh, of Dvorah serving as Prophetess and Judge. From my admittedly limited knowledge of how Jewish Law really works, it seems to me that he talmudic origins against women witnesses were largely social in nature. While I respect that, we now live in a era where women regularly serve in public roles, which makes me wonder if the same injunction need still apply. If there are other, deeper reasons for the prohibition, please, somebody let me know.
The role of women is not simply a backwards orthodox issue however. In 1846 at a Reform movement conference in Breslau it was declared “It is our sacred duty to declare with all emphasis the complete religious equality of women with man” but the first Reform woman rabbi was not ordained for another hundred and thirty years. I bring this up to emphasize that change takes time, and with perspective it is easier not to get frustrated.
Nonetheless, there is plenty of precedent for the evolution in the status of women within Judaism. The Chofetz Chaim overruled the “prohibitions against advanced training of women on the basis that times have changed, and that in the modern world it is now important for women to have an advanced Jewish education.” With so many women expressing frustration with their limited role in Judaism, can someone not similarly rule that on the basis of a much changed world, that it is likewise important for women to feel they have a an active and important role to play in the Jewish community and not only in the Jewish home?
I understand the stated reason of why women are not counted in a minyan, for instance (because prayer is a matter of male obligation, but a female prerogative), but there is no such problem here. If there is no pressing reason why women in this day in age should not be allowed to serve as witnesses, then perhaps it is a change we start working towards.