Rabbi’s Sermon: “Rule 19”

by Rabbi Arnold Saltzman

How do we explain that a gifted and dedicated woman in the United States Senate, Senator Elizabeth Warren, was silenced this past week by using Rule 19, a rule rarely used against men?  In addition she was trying to read Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter about her concerns with Jeff Sessions, then being considered for a federal judgeship, and now for Attorney General.  Mrs. King’s voice was silenced as well.

Four other Senators read the letter, all of them were men, and none of them were silenced.

It is shocking that such control is aimed at women’s voices.  I think that women have so much to offer in the Senate, and in addition women are known as better listeners than men.

When we examine American History we think of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams, and oh yes, there is Abigail Adams.  The role of women is history is frequently omitted or just mentioned.  Rabbi Arthur Herzberg wrote a history of the Jews in America and he managed, in his many hundreds of pages, to mention women only four times.  In our history we have to study the role women played or we have to imagine the history of women based on any hints of information we are given.

The Torah includes a number of strong female leaders and figures.  The Tanach includes women in many roles including Deborah, a judge and general; Bat Sheva, a great beauty; Ruth and Naomi – a loving daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law; Esther the Queen, a role model in courage and inventiveness.

So why do some Ultra-Orthodox Jews silence women when it comes to participation in services and in singing?  This does not originate in the Torah; rather it comes from a more repressive rabbinic and patriarchal attitude, not unlike other religions and cultures which seek to protect women as property and to control them.

As a grandfather, one of my great joys is hearing my granddaughters sing and seeing them dance.  The idea that women should not sing in services was one of the first changes addressed by Reform leaders and rabbis.  Historically, teenagers were permitted to have Confirmation Services before they could celebrate Bat Mitzvah.  This change caused a split in the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, the oldest congregation in Maryland.

In recent decades we know there has been a revolution in these matters with women becoming rabbis and cantors.  Changes in the workplace happened after women sued their bosses.  “The Good Girls Revolt” by Lynn Povich tells the story of how she sued Newsweek and changed the workplace.

Does an Ultra-Orthodox man have the right to shush a woman?  Does Senator Mitch McConnell have the right to silence Senator Warren?  Rule 19 needs to be replaced with a new rule which is egalitarian.  How can he defend the niceties of the Senate and at the same time the ugliness of others words?

Miriam sang and no one silenced her. We still hear her words:  “Sing to Adonai for God is exalted above the arrogant.”  Can you hear their drums, see them dancing, hear their song?