Dixie Yid and I have been going at it on his blog (here and here in comments) about the arguments advanced in a book by Devorah Heshelis (a pseudonym) called “The Moon’s Lost Light”. I have not bought the book, but have read Ms. Heshelis’ ideas in an article (link) she published in Orot (some sample pages from Google books match the article nearly word for word).
I am less willing than Rabbi Meyer Twersky (see his review) to dismiss the question of inequality in halacha as inappropriate, but at the same time am very uncomfortable with Heshelis’ approach. In a nutshell, Heshelis’ view is that Chavah’s sin created a “hierarchy of service” preventing women from performing certain mitzvos or having certain rights. G-d values women no less than men, because innate worth is a function of fulfilling that role which G-d preordained. In the future, when Moshiach comes and Chavah’s sin is rectified, G-d will grant women “male capabilities and privileges”.
Heshelis’ distinction between “service” and “value” is a very poor answer to the question of inequality. A company which claims, “We value ALL of our employees, but management positions are reserved only for men” is viewed as guilty of discrimination. If religion claims that “We value ALL people, but certain service is reserved only for men”, it will be viewed as no less guilty of discrimination.
If certain employees have done something wrong, wouldn’t that warrant a curtailment of their rights or responsibilities? Heshelis feels that women would be happy to accept this notion of second-class “service” responsibility if they only recognized that they are to blame for their own situation – it’s not G-d who is guilty, but women themselves. Actually, Heshelis does not claim any individual woman is at fault. It’s just that every woman is descended from Chavah, and therefore all women, as a collective group, are tainted with original sin. It’s like saying to an African American, “Of course you personally are qualified for the job, but you can’t have it because you were born black. But what’s a job anyway? – we still value your innate worth as a human being.”
I’m not sure I find any more comfort in the fact that Heshelis assures us that when Moshiach comes these inequalities will be rectified (Just for the record, I am aware of no sources that promises that a future Sanhedrin will overturn established halachos). The feminist movement, in her view, is a sign that we are approaching the ultimate Redemption. Logically, halacha should change to accommodate this new social reality, but Heshelis falls back on the fact that without a Sanhedrin, change is impossible. In effect, halacha is emasculated from having any inherent meaning; we are stuck obeying formal rules which do not reflect the social reality of our times, without any possibility of relief until Moshiach. I’m not a woman so perhaps I am missing something, but this line of thinking does not make me feel very good about Torah law.
Heshelis does marshal sources to support her case, but sources are subject to interpretation (e.g. the relationship between feminism and Redemption is an example of an interesting conjecture, but not explicit in sources). Even if an approach is possibly correct, we still must critically examine its philosophical strengths and weaknesses before embracing it as a final conclusion. In this case, I remain in need of convincing that the approach suggested solves more problems than it creates.