UNORTHODOX

A feminist Rabbi has been waging a quiet battle for gender equality at his Delhi synagogue

Quartz india
Quartz india

Every Friday evening, the skull-capped figure of Rabbi Ezekiel Isaac Malekar enters the Judah Hyam Hall synagogue on Humayun Road in Delhi, and sets up the place in preparation for the weekly Shabbat service.

Not much setting up is required considering how immaculate the synagogue is, but the Rabbi is fussy about his office, where he voluntarily took up honorary service when he moved to Delhi from Pune in the 1980s. As he moves around the room, books are dusted, chairs straightened, numerous lights switched on.

A lawyer by profession, Rabbi Malekar served on the National Human Rights Council and on the National Minorities Council before he became the faithful leader and server of a tiny flock—the Jewish community in Delhi. The synagogue is open to every person of Jewish faith who passes through the city—embassy workers, backpackers, medical tourists.

Apart from his theological grasp over Judaism, the Rabbi is well-versed in Hinduism and Sikhism. He has never trained in theology, but is always to be found at various interfaith meets across the city. Still, the most remarkable aspect about Rabbi Malekar is the quiet battle for gender equality he has been waging at his synagogue for years.

“Gender equality comes natural to Judaism,” he said. Despite this, “many of its traditions may be perceived to be patriarchal”.

It is women who have proved to be the bedrock of Judaism. Children are thought to be members of the faith if their mothers are Jewish—the faith of fathers is irrelevant. According to Malekar, when the Hebrews were passing through the wilderness during their exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, while their leader Moses was away receiving the divine tablets of the Ten Commandments, the men, under duress, gave in and began worshipping false gods. The women, however, clung to their faith, helping to preserve it.

Malekar’s years on the National Human Rights Council, where as deputy Registrar he looked after the women’s cell, were responsible for sensitising him to the many forms of gender oppression in the world. But in his personal life, it was his daughter Shulamith who showed him the way.

“She would ask, ‘Why are certain prayers read only by men? Why is it necessary to have Jewish males form the minyan—the quorum necessary for traditional prayers—no matter how many women were present? Why could a boy read the Torah on his Bar Mitzvah—a Jewish rite of passage—but not the girl on her Bat Mitzvah?”

One Friday evening in Delhi 20 years ago, Malekar announced that he was changing the rules—it was no longer necessary to have the presence of 10 Jewish males to hold a service, it would suffice to simply have ten persons of Jewish faith, regardless of gender.

This was radical in the Orthodox Jewish community. Jewish law states that a quorum of 10 Jewish males is required to hold a service, irrespective of the number of Jewish women present in a synagogue. Rabbis had held steadfastly to the rule, despite the dwindling numbers at synagogues in India, even if it meant that the service could not be held at all.

Malekar’s decision was met with opposition. Many members of the congregation could not believe their ears. Some argued, others walked out. But the affable, self-effacing Malekar stuck to his guns. He was not interested in an argument—people could possess and hold on to their points of view, but no one was going to change his mind. For one, there were not always 10 men present for a service. Women from the community, however, made it a point to attend regularly, even if it meant commuting long distances alone.

“Why should their effort and time not be considered?” he said. With time, others acquiesced, and the practice still continues in New Delhi’s synagogue, though sometimes it leaves Jewish visitors from outside the city uneasy.

After Rabbi Malekar set the precedent, synagogues in Pune and Mumbai followed suit. “There are many Reform synagogues in other countries too,” Malekar said, dismissing the idea that followers of Judaism should find the rule unsettling.

Malekar also does not believe in segregating men and women at his synagogue. Judah Hyam Hall has co-gendered seating, and it is not mandatory for women to cover their head. Rabbi Malekar’s mother and wife do cover their head with the pallus of their saris, but many members of the congregation do not.

“It should be a matter of personal choice,” he said. “Many of our lady members come to service on their way from work and may not have a head cover. While the synagogue provides skullcaps for men, it does not offer scarves for women. So should I turn the women away?”

The Torah, the religious book of the Jews, says that women are the queen of the house—it is the woman who has to light the sacred Shabbat candle in each family. “We have to treat them with utmost respect,” he said. “Seven of our prophets were women. While our God is male, His divinity is perceived in feminine terms, called the Shekhina.”

Some members of the congregation have offered him donations to enable separate seating arrangements once again, to revert back to the all male minyan—but his views have found resonance with the women of the congregation. They have also helped to bind the community closer.

Despite his love for peace, controversy appears to follow Rabbi Malekar around. A scandal erupted in Delhi’s small Jewish community when his daughter Shulamit enrolled for a course in mass communications at the Jamia Milia Islamia University. How could a Jewish girl go to a Muslim institute?

As always, father and daughter ignored the criticism, and soon, Shulamit’s Muslim friends from the university were visiting the synagogue. In his usual way, Malekar welcomed them. “When Shulamit visits the same friends for Eid, they made sure there was vegetable biryani for her on the table, since they could not provide kosher meat,” the Rabbi said.

“This is possible only in India,” the Rabbi said. “Israel, the motherland of Judaism, is in my heart, but India is in my blood.”

This post first appeared on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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