Simple But Powerful

Symbolic actions can have important effects, even without practical implication. This week the Virginia legislature ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, providing the final state required to ensure that the article could be added to the US Constitution. The only problem is that the deadline for ratification passed decades ago. Some legal scholars argue that it may still be possible for the amendment to be adopted, and the case will probably go to court, but the image of state legislators finally enshrining equality of the sexes into our founding document is a powerful one.

The ERA essentially consists of a simple single sentence: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” In fact, it’s hard to understand how anyone would oppose such a statement being part of our constitution. I imagine that if I was to interview random people on the street they probably would assume such a line is already a part of the constitution.

Opposition to the ERA has been based on the idea that men and women have different roles and that the amendment would break down those differences. For example, women might be drafted along with men and put into combat positions. Anti-abortion activists have also argued that the ERA would provide the basis for a right to abortion, and in fact Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg believed that basing the right to abortion on equal protection would have been stronger than Roe v. Wade’s privacy argument.

The Conservative movement went through similar arguments when it debated the issue of egalitarianism in the 1980s. How would the community establish a new precedent for women’s participation in Jewish life? Some argued that there needed to be a fundamental revision of Jewish law to encompass women in the same state of obligation for the commandments as men. Others believed that Jewish law already provided avenues for women’s equality; it was just patriarchal customs that kept women out of roles in the synagogue.

In the end, the Conservative movement chose a hybrid approach. Some relied on new interpretations of Jewish law, while others worked within the existing system. The result is that today, I think many people, including rabbis, would be hard pressed to say why women are considered equal in Judaism. They know and believe it to be true, but we haven’t formulated a simple coherent argument in its favor.

While the dream of the ERA may come true for the US, I wish that we could have a similar unifying statement of equality in the Jewish community. In ancient times there was a Sanhedrin, a rabbinical court of sages who could make declarations and decrees, but today our community is more fragmented. In theory each rabbi and synagogue decides Jewish law for themselves. This gives tremendous freedom to local communities, but sometimes leaves us without a guiding principle to strive for.

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