Orthospeak: Part Two – When “Everybody” Doesn’t Mean Everybody

The second installment of Orthospeak is a subtlety of language which many who grew up in the Orthodox Jewish community don’t notice, but is quite blatant to those who, like me, signed up along life’s journey.

There are two noteworthy points at which the Orthodox Jewish community says “everybody” or “community” and appears to mean “men folk”:

  1. In just about every “traditional” or “Orthodox” congregation in which I’ve had the pleasure of celebrating Simchat Torah, the announcement was made, often by the rabbi, that “everybody will receive an aliya [be called to the Torah], or asking that “everybody get a chance to carry the Torah” or that “everyone will have a chance to read a verse of Ata hareta [verses read before the hakafot, marching with the Torah]. All of which is fine, except that, in these congregations, “everybody” usually means “males above age 13”. While I do not believe that there is intentionality to the slight it gives to the 60-75% of the people present who are either women or children, the careless use of language sends a message. And when I look across the mechitza, the separation between the women and men in the Orthodox synagogues I’ve been a member of, it no longer surprises me that the women generally sit, talk and occasionally watch the men, rarely taking the opportunity to dance. Why would they? The announcements have made it clear that they are not part of “everybody”.
  2. In an anachronism of the Orthodox prayer book, the prayer for the community recited each Shabbat asks for God’s blessing for “this holy congregation, they themselves, their wives, their children…” . In the context of an era in which women did not attend communal prayer (which appears, historically, to have been the norm in many communities), I can understand this prayer. In a community in which women and children join in, and in which women are frequently board members and leaders even in Orthodox synagogues, the text of the Conservative prayer book, which does not set women and children apart from “this holy congregation”, makes far more sense. Incidentally, this idea of speaking to or about the “congregation” and specifying women as a separate group that is apparently not included in “congregation” or “community” or even “people [of Israel]” is not a post-biblical invention. It appears numerous times in the interaction between God and Moses and between Moses and the Israelites.

It is not my intention in this post to take on the difficult theological challenges of the role of women in traditional Jewish religious life. This is a matter of deep concern (although oddly enough, it seems to concern me more than most of my fellow Jews sitting across the from me).

My intention is simply this: in the words of the Mishna:  “Wise ones, be careful with your words.” When a congregation or community means “all members”, let’s say so. And when it means “men only” for certain purposes, let’s be transparent rather than inadvertently dismissing or insulting more than half of our holy communities.


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