In 1868 Black Americans were granted equal protection and citizenship in the United States of America. However, in 1896 the Supreme Court of the United States held in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate was equal”. There was “no inferiority suggested by keeping races separate” and so things went for about 60 years. In 1954 in all changed. Brown v. Board of Education demonstrated to the SCOTUS that separate was not equal and it was held that states could not discriminate between races in matters that were of compelling government interest. The Civil Rights movement pressured states to remove all discriminatory laws and in 1964 the Civil Rights Act expanded the law forbidding discrimination to more scenarios. Today there is virtually no overt, legal discrimination in the United States of America.
How did one of the greatest legal and social changes in history occur?
First of all, if occurred very slowly. It took nearly 100 years from the emancipation of slaves to achieve legal equality.
Second, it took a lot of effort, time and activism. It did not happen overnight. In fact if it would have happened overnight there may have been a very strong resistance to change that could have negatively affected the outcome. (See The Mechanics of Change and How To Make A Difference).
But bearing “The Mechanics of Change and How To Make A Difference” in mind, the reason so much effort went into overturning Plessy is simply because of Plessy. In other words, being defeated in Plessy served as the primary motivation for working to overturn Plessy. Charles Houston‘s main motivation for teaching his law students, one of whom was Thurgood Marshall was to overturn Plessy. In the 20’s Houston was already preparing for a case that would not be heard until 30 years later.
For years, the NAACP lawyers honed their skills, rhetoric and arguments for their day in court. Brown did not happen in a vacuum. It was planned for years. But it did not happen with “one fell swoop”. It took patience, careful study and meticulous planning. Drastic change is very hard for people to accept. Organic change is more palatable. And organic change can be guided.
There is a similar phenomena taking place within Orthodox Judaism. There are some who would like to see women ordained as Rabbis or with a similar degree of recognition. The particulars of ordaining women rabbis is way beyond the scope of this blog post.
(Some of arguments are eerily familiar, “separate but equal”, “separate is not equal”, “if they feel inferior it is because of how they feel not how they are made to feel…” etc.)
That being said, if halachically acceptable change is to happen, it will only happen organically, or at least what is perceived as organic change.
Dramatic declaration, pronouncements and grand events will likely have the polar opposite of the intended effect. They will galvanize fundamentalists, cause activists to be branded as extremists with agendas and create a war.
However, change has been happening with Orthodox Judaism with regard to women’s opportunities and education for several decades now. If more progressive change is to happen it will most likely happen slowly and with quiet deliberation.
To illustrate: Women currently hold religious positions of authority within the ultra-Orthodox community that were untenable years ago. There are women who lead not-for-profits, there are women who lead schools, seminaries and activist groups. Change is already happening. I know it can be hard to wait. But just think about Charlie Houston. The man waited over 30 years to see the fruits of his labor and he died before his work was completed on his behalf. Patience is a virtue. In our instant gratification world, patience is not only a virtue, it is an endangered species.
I would urge those who want to see change to be patient. Take the lessons learned from some of the most dramatic changes in history that have occurred in the last century and I think things will look different to our children and grandchildren than they do to us.
It will be interesting to see how this issue resolves itself, that is for sure.