NOTE: Teshuva, repentance, is an incredible tool. It is not only about guilt, but also about repair. In order to begin the healing process — for self, community or the world — one must first acknowledge one’s shortcomings. In a brave step, a refreshing departure from the denial and apologetics often heard on the subject of women and tradition, former Chief Rabbi Rene Samuel Sirat of France calls for teshuva towards women. We reprint excerpts from his public lecture on the subject of teshuva for it serves as a model of how those in positions of religious authority can respond.
Our sisters, our spouses, our daughters have achieved by sheer willpower their legitimate place in society. They have become influential political leaders and leading personalities of civil society, respected researchers, doctors and surgeons of international rank, talented lawyers… But in the synagogue, what place — in the literal meaning as in the figurative one — is kept for them? Did the Chief Rabbis climb up even once, to the Ezrat Nashim, the mezzanine where our sisters are confined? Have these rabbis once prayed at the Kotel, the Wailing Wall, the last remnants of our Temple, next to the “storehouse” intended for women, where they cannot hear anything, cannot see anything, and cannot take part in the service in any way?
In my double career, as a rabbi and as an academic, I have had to adopt an attitude that verges on schizophrenia. As the director of the greatest department of Jewish studies in Western Europe, I have helped the careers of my women colleagues as much as possible, God is my witness. On the other hand, as Chief Rabbi of France and as President of the Board of Directors of the Rabbinical Seminary of France, I have failed miserably. My proposals towards a progressive change of our ways of thinking and of reacting were not followed by deeds.
As the spiritual leader of a large Parisian Orthodox community, I recently asked the architect entrusted with building a large Parisian synagogue to provide for a first floor space for women, with a separate entrance, that would enable them to follow every part of the service without feeling pushed or herded into the background.
Once our sisters have become university professors, how can we deny them the right to preach in synagogues? Do we lack historical examples — Talmudic or medieval — of highly talented women personalities? When will we take up the noble challenge of the Bible where Deborah was named supreme judge in Israel? What should we say about the humiliation often experienced by our sisters when they must go to the rabbinical seminary for matters of divorce, levirate, or conversion? Are we aware of the shame they suffer, of the feeling of rebellion that grips them? If Rabbenu Gershom, light of the exile, had hesitated for a moment when he initiated the interdict against polygamy, which still lasts nowadays, a thousand years after the decision, then nothing would have been accomplished. Will the halakha forever be against recovering those great principles? (New York, October 1998)