Conservative Jews use a different prayer book and have somewhat shorter services. Some of the prayers are in English, while in the Orthodox synagogue the entire service is in Hebrew.
Reform Jews take a radical approach and declare that revelation is not central to belief and that even the commandments in the Torah can be discarded if they conflict with the demands of modern living. Reformed Jews agree that God may have revealed Himself to Moses, but they deny that God revealed the Torah as an eternal covenant with His people.
In America, the different Jewish sects have taken a different approach to maintaining their specific community and have shaped their different synagogues to reflect differences in belief. Reform and Conservative synagogues have no separate section for men and women, who sit together during the services. In Orthodox practice, separation of the sexes is an absolute law. The reason given for this is that women are a distracting influence and that it is not possible to concentrate on the prayers if the sexes are mixed.
Women and Judaism
Judith Plaskow sets out to describe a feminist Judaism. She first notes the contradictions that exist between a feminist conception of Judaism and the actuality, and she then considers various aspects of Jewish life, noting first how women fit into them and then how she believes women should fit into them. Plaskow is truly calling for change and not merely for a cosmetic alteration in Judaism. She says that there is a contradiction in Judaism which signals that Judaism at present is based on a broad patriarchal worldview:
Thus Jewish feminists might agree that it is a matter of simple justice for Jewish women to have full access to the riches of Jewish life. But when a woman stands in the pulpit and reads from the Torah that her daughters can be sold as slaves... she participates in a profound contradiction between the message of her presence and the content of what she learns and teaches. It is this contradiction feminists must address, not simply "adding" women to a tradition that remains basically unaltered, but transforming Judaism into a religion that women as well as men have a role in shaping.
Plaskow makes the clear implication that woman's experience has been omitted from Judaism, or at least distorted:
Women have lived Jewish history and carried its burdens, but women's perceptions and questions have not given form to scripture, shaped the direction of Jewish law, or found expression in liturgy. (Plaskow 1).
The central Jewish categories are Torah, Israel, and God, and all have been construed from the male perspective:
As women appear in male texts, they are not the subjects and molders of their own experiences but the objects of male purposes, designs, and desires.
This reality begins with the conception of God as male. This is a key conception in patriarchal theology, and while it does not itself give rise to patriarchal structures, it does support patriarchy as a religious and legal system:
When Torah is thought of as divinely revealed in its present form, the subordination of women is granted the seal of divine approval. When God is conceived of as male, as a king ruling over his universe, male rule in society seems appropriate and right.
The Role of Women
The above discussion indicates many of the reasons why women have held a secondary position in the Synagogue, though many see this as a protection for women and not at all a downgrading of women:
Given the historically universal stratification of the sexes, plus the model of the Jewish woman as enabler and the exclusive male (rabbinic) option of interpreting the law, there could have been widespread abuse of the powerless. But this did not happen. In fact, the reverse is true; throughout rabbinic history, one observes a remarkably benign and caring attitude toward women.
Leila Leah Bronner agrees and notes how the historical trend favored women in certain roles even if denying them full participation:
There is no question that the society in which the sages lived was male dominated. Still, the aggadic discourse of the rabbis gave women greater rights and protections within their limited domestic realm. Moreover, biblical models were treated with respect and comparative open-mindedness by the sages relative to their time.
In the modern era, liberal Jews started to use electricity on Shabbas, eat non-kosher food outside the home, and ordain women as rabbis.
As Ruth Adler notes, the process of inclusion for women has been ongoing for some time. For two centuries, men and women claiming liberal Judaism have been learning what it means to include women in prayer. She notes that at the Hamburg Temple in 1818, "inclusion meant allowing women's voices to be heard in the choir." At a synagogue in 1851, it meant relocating women from the women's gallery to "the family pew" beside their male relatives. "For the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Judaisms of the 1970s and 1980s, it meant beginning to ordain women as rabbis."
As one analysis notes, the arguments against the ordination of women as rabbis are largely historical and are meant to prevent change, using the past and tradition against innovation:
Arguments against the ordination of women as rabbis, for example, are rooted not so much in any real legal impediment to women's ordination as in the fact that historically rabbis have been men. The notion of a woman as rabbi feels 'un-Jewish' to many Jews because it is perceived as discontinuous with a Jewish past that makes certain claims upon its present bearers. On question after question, the weight of tradition is thrown at women as an argument for keeping things the way they are.
Indeed, one of the major changes in both reform and conservative Judaism centered on the role of women in the group. Conservative synagogues have had mixed seating since the beginning of the movement, and women were eventually allowed to read from the Torah and to be counted among the number in the congregation for public worship. Beginning in the 1980s, after a long and divisive debate, women were accepted as rabbis and were sent for rabbinical training in the Seminary. Such changes are not without critics, of course:
The Conservative branch of Judaism recently began ordaining women as cantors. The chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Ismar Schorsch, declared that the decision was "in full accord with Halakhah," and referred to it as "the culmination of a century-long evolution of the status of women under the law." Rabbi Schorsch's opinion is, however, representative of the views of the liberal faction within the Conservative movement. The Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism, formed specifically to protest the ordination of women as rabbis, expressed forceful opposition also to this move.
In Plaskow's analysis, the author looks to the Torah as both a symbol of the loss for women in Judaism and as a way of recovering what has been lost, and this derives from the role of the Torah in the covenant at Sinai. She notes the idea that the Torah preexisted the creation of the world and that it was the first of God's work, serving as the architectural plan used by God in creating the universe. The Torah that exists in written form is only a limited interpretation of what lies hidden, and as such it is a document that the initiate must penetrate more and more deeply to gain momentary glimpses of that hidden portion:
But this image of the relation between hidden and manifest Torah reminds us that half the souls of Israel have not left for us the Torah they have seen. Insofar as we can restore a part of their history and vision, we have more of the primordial Torah, the divine fullness, of which the present Torah of Israel is only a fragment and sign.
This latter raises a point that is inherent in most feminist criticism of Judaism or Christianity, and that is that the patriarchal theology that prevails is only a pale reflection of the truth of God, a truth that has been distorted by patriarchal influences and that must be restored to an integrated masculine and feminine truth, a truth that recognizes the commingling of both sexes in God and in God's word:
Although there are diverse articulations of feminism, feminists generally agree in their critique of masculine supremacy and hold that gender roles are socially constructed rather than innate. The "root experience" of feminism is women's realization that cultural "common sense," dominant perspectives, scientific theories, and historical knowledge are androcentric, i.e., male-biased, and therefore not objective but ideological. (Freedman 784).
Katheryn Pfisterer Darr puts this another way when she writes,
Basic to feminist interpretation is a hermeneutic of suspicion. In other words, feminists do not approach a test with the presupposition that its author(s) have written disinterested, objective accounts about events "just as they happened...…