The question came to me this week duing a discussion of the Book of Judges with a good friend.
"Judaism was not always monotheistic," I said in my most professorial voice, "One need only consult the Book of Judges to see that the Jews were once unrestrained idolators. It was only later that the practice was eradicated from Israel."
My friend was unimpressed. So much for the professorial voice. "Those Jews were sinners," he sneered. "Their behavior wasn't in keeping with Judaism."
I see, his point, but I am not satisfied. Because in what meanigful way can Judaism be said to have prohibited idolatry during the era of the Judges, if idols were commonly worshipped, and if this was commonly tolerated? I know the law was on the books, but the law was ignored. Theoretical Judaism might have prohibited idolatry, but practical Judaism did not. What does it mean to seek shelter in the law, if the law isn't being followed?
A similar point might be made about the role of women in Judaism. It's trendy for Orthodox Jewish feminists to say that their pinched and narrow existance comes from Jews not living up to Judaism. "The religion doesn't downplay us," they'll insist, rapidly citing verses and utterances of the Sages that were, for the year zero CE, light years ahead of their time. "The people, maybe, but not the religion."
I don't know if you can separate the people from the religion. Oh, of course you can intellectually, but practically speaking if the "Jews" say something, so does "Judaism." If (Orthodox) Jews today think that women are unfit for serious study, and infit for leadership what does it matter if Judaism theoretically disagrees?