As the Rabbinical world wrestles with a public response to the latest deviation from tradition – the “Rabbah – woman Rabbi” phenomenon – it is worthwhile to reflect on its provenance, and one basic question that haunts many of us: at what price machloket ? Must the small, insular Jewish community – already beleaguered by external enemies – suffer another schism, another set of divisions ?
Andrew Jackson said of himself: “I was born for a storm, and a calm does not suit me” but he was not a Rav, and he lived in an especially tempestuous time. We all know the ease with which machloket are created and sustained in Jewish life and the rampant factionalization that besets us in the face of all the other enemies that we have. Jews can easily (too easily) define ourselves as anti-Satmar, anti-Chabad, anti-Haredi, anti-YU, anti-non-Orthodox, anti-everyone, anti-anyone-who-is-anti-anything, but at what cost ?
Sin’at Chinam is the great stumbling block, here defined as Rav Shlomo Aviner does – the inability to accept that there are differences in Jewish life and hating another simply because he is different and has a different approach to a particular issue.
But he added that that does not mean that we have to agree on everything, or be silent in the face of perceived violations of Torah norms, or abandon our roles as teachers of Torah, or shy away from articulating our views for fear of being labeled and castigated by a hostile, agenda-driven “Jewish” media. There must be a way to articulate our red lines, to call attention – without invective or r”l hatred of any sort – to perceived breaches of Torah or harmful trends in Jewish life, and to leave it at that, without personalizing the dispute and without engaging in a futile debate – but simply to state one’s sincere belief that “lo zu haderech” – even if all that is accomplished is that our opposition to these innovations are recorded for posterity. This is not simply to satisfy the Yated Neeman that succinctly asked when this issue first arose ‘where is the RCA?’ – although it is not inappropriate that our Torah brethren should wonder about our views, if not organizationally, at least as constituent members. And there are cogent objections – based on halacha, hashkafa, et al.
“Whoever can protest (prevent) the sin of his household or city and does not is apprehended for the same sin” (Shabbat 54b-55a). But the mecha’ah in those cases was for moral offenses – injustices, corruption, maltreatment of the vulnerable elements of society – and not for ideological deviations or halachic violations.
It is fascinating – but not surprising – that the “Maharat” title did not catch on. The very need to concoct that addled acronym reflected, as one colleague wrote, the genuine concern that combining “woman” and “Rabbi” was so alien to the Torah community that the very articulation would doom the experiment. And so the “Maharat” designation was a fig leaf hiding behind a smoke screen that fooled no one. (Q. What do you get when you cross a fig leaf and a smoke screen ? A. I don’t know, but eventually the fig leaf goes up in smoke.) It was a failed PR stunt, to have simple people believe that something is other than what it is. It was not the title that is provocative, but the role. As Rabbi Avi Shafran indicated, clarity helps. It is honest and edifying, and communicates who is within and without the Torah camp.
Strange, isn’t it, that the ordination ceremony several months back did not pay tribute to Sally Priesand or Amy Eilberg, the first female Reform (1972) and Conservative (1985) rabbis, respectively. They were the pioneers, the trailblazers, without whom the institutions of Maharat or Rabbah would not even be a fantasy. Clearly, this just continues down the trail they blazed, and simple integrity would have insisted that deference be paid. Not to acknowledge their role – their inspiration – and instead to wrap the institution in the mantle of Bruriah and her troubled life – strikes me as less than forthright.
Of course, I understand why that could not be done – any overt linkage to the Reform/Conservative movements would be the death knell of this deviation – but yashrut is yashrut. I would also have expected a public apology of sorts to the Reform/Conservative movements for impugning their reputation, and acknowledging their leadership and prescience on this issue. Such an apology can still be forthcoming, would go a long way towards Ahavat Yisrael and clarify still further the limits of Orthodoxy. That would be honest, and would help answer the question that dominates in these parts: If women rabbis were unacceptable from Sinai until today, then how could Torah-observant Jews suddenly accept it ?
Yated several months back was most on target citing the Dubno Magid’s mashal of this methodology of psak – of drawing a bull’s eye and then placing the arrow right there. Of course proponents decided the outcome and then created ”responsa” around it (but that has become a staple of the leftist fringe of Modern Orthodoxy, if it can still be called that). There is a substantial element of Modern Orthodoxy that never lets halacha get in the way of a good time or whatever it really wants to do. To paraphrase Admiral Farragut memorable line from the Battle of Mobile Bay during the Civil War: “Damn the mesorah, full speed ahead.” Find a “way,” the “way” being a “creative” interpretation of a few select passages coupled with an utter rejection of any dissonant passages or tradition itself, and heartfelt expressions of courage, daring, and the higher morality involved.
The Torah speaks a number of times of the spiritual leaders of Israel as men – anshei chayil (in Parshat Yitro) or anashim (in Devarim). If the Gemara (Sukka 38a) can state that “a wife can recite blessings for her husband, but a curse should come upon a man whose wife and children recite blessings for him,” then what will we say of men who seek spiritual guidance and Torah knowledge from women ? The Baalei Mesora are men, charged with preserving the national institutions, even as women are entrusted with maintaining the familial institutions. We have always maintained that the latter is more critical to Jewish survival, a point of view derided today as patronizing and condescending. So we have partly abandoned that dynamic in modern times, and judging from the state of the Jewish world, at our peril.
The objections to this innovation can be grounded in halachic issues of serara, psak, the inability of a woman to perform several functions of the Rabbinate (even a she is capable of performing others, like pastoral counseling) and the transformation of the public persona of a woman. It serves, in part, another subtle objective of the leftist ModOs – the downgrading of the role and position of Rabbi into that of a glorified social worker and spiritual cheerleader.
There are two greater objections: the utter disregard of norms of tzniut, with which ModOs generally struggle, and the corruption of the methodology of psak that transmits the Mesora and Jewish cultural norms and societal values. The only way to consider in this context the compelling Jewish value of “the glory of the King’s daughter is within” (kal kevuda bat melech penima- Tehillim 45:14) is essentially to discount it and say it has no relevance in the modern Western world. Thus, this ideal of Jewish femininity – the disinclination to seek a public spiritual role, cited by Chazal hundreds of times – is simply written out of the Torah system. And why ?
It is dismissed in order to accommodate the doctrine of Western egalitarianism that wages war against the traditional division of roles in society, and demands that there be no distinctions between men and women. And what if the Mesorah cannot be reconciled with Western values ? Therein lies the great demarcation in Jewish life – between those who will remain faithful to the Mesorah and those who will tamper with it and pretend it is still whole, or even improved. (I find the simplistic references to Sarah Schenirer a”h and women’s Talmud Torah today quite tedious. The basic facts are that until quite recently there was no general, formal education for women or men, not only in Jewish life but across the world. Only the elites were educated. This changed with the phenomenon of compulsory education – for both men and women – that was a late Enlightenment requirement. Then, faced with a choice of men and women receiving only a secular, public school education, Sarah Schenirer successfully stepped into that breach. The opposition to her was rooted in the belief that the Old World would somehow return. It does a disservice to proponents of “women Rabbis” to cite her, and her patrons the Chofetz Chaim and the Gerrer Rebbi, all of whom would roll in their holy graves to find their decisions mentioned in this context. It is more than a bit disingenuous.)
Yes, yes, the Torah is alive, and by its very nature provides us eternal guidance to deal with the challenges of every generation. That is not to say that each issue can only be resolved one (stringent) way, nor that the Torah is completely frozen and cannot be adapted to new circumstances. It is to say that we should be wary of those who can “declare a sheretz pure according to the Torah” (Sanhedrin 17a). Such a creative judge is eligible to sit on the Sanhedrin, but the sheretz is still impure. If we want to be creative, absorb Western values into the Torah, and create a new hybrid, many of us can find good grounds on which to permit tax evasion (Western materialism) or even pilagshim (Western decadence). That we don’t is not only because those causes are not politically correct (a driving force in this issue), although undoubtedly each would have its lobbyists, but because there is an inner sense of what sustains the Mesorah and what undermines it – of what advances the holiness of Jewish life and what impedes it.
To many ModOs, the Torah is to be, as Thomas Jefferson said of some judges’ view of the American Constitution, “twisted and shaped as an artist shapes a ball of wax.” But is there no real substance in Torah, and should the public rightly perceive that the Torah keeps changing and lacks consistency or structure ? “Some wrote that a chacham is forbidden to permit something ‘astonishing’ that the masses will think that something forbidden is now permitted” (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 242:10). Is there anything more astonishing to a Torah Jew than the notion of “women Rabbis”? Lay the cards on the table: what stronghold will next be assaulted ? Women as witnesses, the mechitza, the legitimization of homosexuality, the blurring of distinctions between different religions ? When egalitarianism becomes the defining value of Jewish life, then those restrictions must be galling, if not downright immoral. Note how the very notion of “female clergy” is a staple of non-Orthodox religious movements, Jewish – and non-Jewish. Non-Orthodox. Res ipsa loquitur.
Sadly, since this phenomenon arises from the students of Rav Soloveitchik, it certainly tarnishes the legacy of the Rav, zt”l, who never entertained such notions. Maharal writes (Avot 1:1) that a true talmid need not hear everything from his Rebbi; the true talmid answers like his Rebbi would have without having heard his Rebbi actually say it. The broader point is that one need not embrace every psak of one’s Rebbi, or becoming (as famously described) just a parrot. But it does mean embracing the mesorah of the Rebbi, and in this case, some of the Rav’s students are not necessarily his talmidim. True, the Rav gave the first women’s Talmud shiur at Stern; but it is also true that he did not invite Stern talmidot to sit in his shiur in RIETS. There was only so much elasticity in the Rav’s views. There is no record of the Rav ever considering a female Rabbi as in the realm of the possible in the Torah world. Does anyone doubt that the Rav would have rejected the excesses and deviations of some of his students ? It wasn’t a lack of “courage” that inhibited the Rav, or even a sense that society was not “ready” for novelties; it was rather fidelity to the halachic process and the Mesorah, and to cherished Minhagei Yisrael.
How do we refute this assertion: “The Conservatives follow the Reform just a decade later, and the left-wing Orthodox follow the Conservatives two decades later.” It is as if the Reformers proclaim the “value” to be implemented and disregard the halacha, the Conservatives find the solution by changing the halacha, and the left-wing Orthodox then “find” the same solution “within” halacha ! The logic seems irrefutable, and therefore the overwhelming majority of the Torah world – yes, readers of Yated and others who don’t read Yated, and people whose opinions we should care about – will rightly reject it. But it does mock the halachic process in a way that should offend all of us.
I personally do not believe that engagement with the modern world inevitably entails accepting every cultural fad (read: value) as either imperative or elevating, but clearly some do. It does require that we remain discerning, with the ability to be mavdil bein kodesh l’chol.
As it is, the feminization of the Reform and Conservative movements has devastated them, with women comprising approximately 2/3 of their average weekly attendance. Men have fled in droves. It is odd, then, from a purely pragmatic perspective, that a group among us should now be traversing that same path. Fortunately, the Torah world will not accept it but “Modern Orthodoxy” will be discredited (as I have already witnessed among the youth in my community) and perhaps the “Open Haredi” approach (as someone here coined) will be the wave of the future.
I feel no need to apologize for the Mesorah, or the traditional roles recognized in Jewish life. Halacha is a categorical system. Women are exempt from time-bound mitzvot both pre-child rearing and post-child rearing (to borrow the reasoning of Rav David Abudraham) and men are obligated even if they are single fathers raising their children. The mesorah speaks in categorical terms, and those categories have sustained Jewish life even if some people chafe under them. But we tamper with the Mesorah at our peril, and the changing role of women in our society has been a mixed blessing.
It is by now axiomatic, sadly so, that anything can (and will) be permitted by someone, and anything can (and will) be prohibited by someone else. So we look, for normative psak, to a consensus of poskim, mindful that there will always be extremes on both sides. These winds of change do not at all rattle the House of Torah but do shake the foundations of Modern Orthodoxy, which will be forced to detach itself officially from its outliers who rightly and honestly belong in another camp.
Women have much to offer the Torah world, as is well known, and women’s Talmud Torah has been one of the inspiring phenomena of recent Jewish life. But that is not to say that, therefore, women are ipso facto the same as men and the halachic distinctions between the sexes must be blurred or vitiated. That may be an aspiration of liberal Americans but not of Torah Jews. Worthy women have historically been spiritual role models, but never spiritual leaders, and fidelity to Torah – for all Jews – involves recognizing both opportunities and limitations. And those limitations stem from the constructs of halacha and minhag, and not what a group of people perceives that the Jewish society can tolerate or accept at any given time.
I predict (always a dangerous venture) that this phenomenon will be self-marginalizing. A schism is upon us, sadly and unnecessarily, but not unexpectedly. In every generation the fences of Torah are breached, and at times by people who were once firmly inside them, and clarity is indispensable. Windows enable us to gaze upon the world outside, but keep the cold winds outside as well. Not all windows are the same quality, and some windows let in a draft that upsets the entire house. New movements have to define themselves by breaking away from the establishment. But people should know and understand the roots of the opposition, and the few proponents of this – who are tolerant of so much – should be tolerant of this opposition, and its consequences, as well.
And may we all continue to act for the glory of G-d and His Torah.