Tuesday, May 4, 2010
A Heart for Women Rabbis
Recently the issue of women rabbis in Orthodox Judaism has come to the fore. Rabbi Avi Weiss gave the title of Rabba to Sara Hurwitz. He was utterly condemned for this by the Haredi Agudah. He managed to reach a compromise with the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) that Ms. Hurwitz would only be given the title of maharat. Furthermore the RCA declared that under no uncertain terms would they be willing to except women rabbis. Yeshiva University's Rav Hershel Schachter has gone so far as to argue, based on the Avnei Nezer, that ordaining women as rabbis would constitute handing them power and that this is forbidden. Furthermore, since the ordination of women forms a central plank in the Reform and Conservative movements to "misrepresent" Judaism, one must be willing to "give one's life" into order to oppose it. I am not here to argue, one way or another, for or against women's ordination. I honestly do not know how I, if given the power to choose for Orthodoxy, would rule. I do not think the issue is as simple as freeing women from the "tyranny" of patriarchy. Women would pay a price for having the possibility of being ordained and would be rendered less capable of working outside the system. Also I do not think that Orthodoxy is prepared structurally for women rabbis. With this being noted, I find myself concerned about the RCA's response. I am not bothered by the fact that they came out against female ordination. What does concern me, though, is the process through which this decision was reached and what this might say about the mindsets of those in charge even of the Modern Orthodox community.
Dr. Haym Soloveitchik, in his essay "Religious Law and Change: the Medieval Ashkenazic Example," famously argued that the French Tosafists bent over backwards to justify committing suicide in situations of religious coercion in order to defend the legitimacy of those Jews who committed suicide and even murdered their own children during the Crusader attacks of 1096. The Tosafists turned to non-legal material from the Talmud, a story of four-hundred girls and four-hundred boys who throw themselves overboard and drowned in order to avoid being taken to Rome and sold into sexual slavery. The Tosafists recognized that they could not possibly say that those Jews who died during the Crusades were anything less than holy martyrs, who died sanctifying God's name. God forbid anyone should say that these people were murderers and suicides. Such a prospect would be unthinkable, so the discussion of suicide in cases of religious coercion, from the beginning becomes one of how do we justify it. Similarly, in my own experience when talking to Orthodox Jews about what constitutes idolatry and whether certain Haredi rabbis have crossed that line by endorsing the claims of Kupat Ha'ir, the response that I immediately get from most people is "these are holy people so what they are doing must be good." This is of course circular reasoning. If someone engages in idolatry then, by definition they are not holy no matter how pious or learned they might be. King Ahab, according to the Talmud, was a great Torah scholar, who honored the twenty-two letters Hebrew letters in which the Torah is written; that does not change the fact that he was an idolater and one of the great villains of the Bible. Simple cognitive dissonance sets in and the only conversation that is possible is how what Kupat Ha'ir does is okay or that the rabbis are not really behind it. The alternatives are simply too unfathomable for them
Whatever is decided about women's ordination, I want the rabbis to come to the table with the understanding that claims that women cannot or should not wield political or religious power are non-options. I do not care if you can make an intellectually plausible case using a nineteenth century book on Jewish law, written by a Hasidic Rebbe. You should be finding every plausible way to justify having women in positions of authority. I do not care if you have to do like the Mormons and claim that God has now given a special command that we end our earlier discrimination. The alternatives should simply be too unfathomable.