In my Wednesday update I discussed the new policy of the Conservative Movement’s Joint Bet Din to allow women to serve as witnesses for the writing or delivery of a get, a Jewish divorce. While the Conservative movement has aspired to full gender equality for some decades, women were previously not allowed to be witnesses for gittin (the plural of get) so that more traditional Jews would not have a reason to deny the validity of Conservative gittin. The Torah requires two eidim, witnesses, for the validity of a get and since Hebrew is a gendered language and the word eidim, is masculine, historically only men have been allowed to serve as witnesses. Gittin are written only by rabbis with special training and there are only about a dozen Conservative rabbis in the United States who do this, but the preparatory paperwork and the physical delivery of the get is done by the local rabbi in the presence of two witnesses. Since the whole process is under the supervision of the Joint Bet Din, up until this point I have used only male witnesses since that was what the Joint Bet Din required.
Now that women are allowed to serve as witnesses as well, will I change my practice? My answer is: “sort of.” I generally avoid creating a situation in matters of personal status (marriage, divorce, conversion) where more traditional Jews can legitimately question the validity of a person’s status because of actions which I took. So I have generally required male eidim not only for gittin (which was not up to me anyway) but for marriage and conversion. If an Orthodox Jews says to someone I married or converted that they are not really married or not really Jewish, I want to be able to honestly say that the actions I performed were halachically valid.
At the same time, the reality is that even with male witnesses, most Orthodox rabbis do not accept the validity of Conservative conversions, weddings, or gittin. When I am preparing someone for conversion I make sure that they understand that they will most likely not be recognized as a Jew in the Orthodox world (although they will be recognized as Jewish to immigrate to Israel if they wanted to do that -- contrary to what a lot of people believe).
I don’t deal with matters of gittin all that frequently, but in the future if the person who is giving or receiving the get insists on a female witness and understands that this might endanger the validity of the get in the eyes of some, I would go along with that. The same caveat would go for conversion or marriage -- if the convert or the couple getting married understands that a female witness could negate recognition of the act by others and is willing to accept that risk, I would be amenable to including a female witness.
If Orthodox authorities were willing to accept the validity of Conservative marriages, conversions, and divorces on the condition that only male witnesses were used, I would favor us continuing to use only male witnesses. But it doesn’t make sense to violate our egalitarian principles when doing so does not, in fact, advance the cause of Jewish unity. As always, I welcome your thoughts.
As a reminder, I am having drop-in hours on Thursday afternoon from 2 to 4 at the shul. You do not need to make an appointment -- that would negate the whole point of drop-in hours -- but I’d urge you to check and make sure I am there regardless as sometimes there are unavoidable pastoral or other emergencies which might take me away from the building.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at email@example.com or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment. I have been spending more time in the synagogue recently but if you want to speak with me it’s best to make an appointment rather than assuming I will be there when you stop by.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian