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.


moshe said...

bentz, i must say that i am a little surprised. i started reading your blog around a year and a half ago, and have read almost every post since then. i believe you know me, my opinions, and my thought process quite well (possibly even better then i myself do, as you are a deeper and probably more honest thinker then i am). while it will come as no surprise to you that i do not always agree with your conclusions, you should know that i always respect them and never dismiss them out of hand because not only do i know that there is a real, concrete, logical thought process behind them, but because i believe that your devotion to logic and the historical method have led you to conclusions that you would wish were otherwise, but because of your intellectual honesty you refuse to back down from what your conclusion even in the face of what you yourself would wish. i hope i am making myself clear, what i am saying is that the source of my respect is not what you conclude but rather the method that you use to reach that conclusion. that said, i believe that this is the first time that i have read anything you have written, or heard anything you have said, that i have seen no hint of a reason or thought process behind it. i am not arguing with what you are saying, it is your right to believe and say whatever you please, i just wonder what would lead you to such an extreme pronouncement. limiting the options in the beginning of a debate seems a bit out of character for you, it seems like you are limiting what can be said or believed. you start with an intellectually sound argument regarding kupat hair, but then proceed to simply give your opinion as the facts on the ground and what must be done without debate. whats going on here? it seems that something in this issue specifically has struck a nerve.

Garnel Ironheart said...

The situation of Tosafos bending over backwards to allow martyrs by suicide not to be condemned is quite instructive. Tosafos looked at a brutal situation - Jews killing themselves rather than dishonouring their faith - and realized there must be a way to justify it.
What they did not do was decide that all suicide was okay.
In much the same way, one must ask why women are suddenly saying that unless they have access to the mythical "keys of power" they are excluded, ignored, oppressed, persecuted, etc.? Is such really the case?
Women can and do study Torah at all but the higher, black-hat levels. They participate in running shuls and schools. They can be yoatzot and mashgichot. Go on line to Naaleh.com and see how many women are giving good shiurim there.
But like Amnon ben David, it's the one thing they can't have that obsesses these women. They can't have a title "rabbi". Well of course not. They can't serve on a beis din or function as witnesses before one either. Judaism does not endorse equality between the genders but rather assigns distinctive roles for each. Who is rich? asks Pirkei Avos. The one who is happy with what he has.
If Rabba Hurwitz wants to be taken seriously, forget a thesis on how she can't be a rabbi. How about she put together a thesis on how she can't and then show how she can overcome each argument?

moshe said...

regarding what you were saying about how it must be a precondition that woman are equally capable as men in wielding political and religious power i would briefly like to make to points. political power in judiasm should be a non issue. while im not sure what form that political authority takes, as we are not self governed, i dont think that any thinking person would object to that point. just because decisions regarding community activities have traditionally been undertaken by the rabbinate, that would seem to be because often they touched on religious/halachic issues. in areas that that is not the case men are not by definition any more qualified then woman because of their gender. again i dont think any thinking person would disagree with this. however, in matters of halacha, where the capacity of a dayan, not a judge, but a halachic decisor, where there are halachic stipulations regarding who is and who is not qualified (for lack of a better word, im trying to differentiate between qualified, meaning knowledge and ability, and qualified as in the famous case of a kohen declaring that someone has tzoraas, it is not that he has the requisite knowledge, even a yisroel who is a greater scholar cannot make that proclamation. what i mean to say is that there may be requirements that go beyond the obvious ones for knowledge, if someone is of that belief, and can make a compelling case for it, why would you begrudge them that belief just because it doesnt coincide with your own? why would you judge them unworthy, out of touch, or bigoted just because they disagree with you?

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

I'm confused. How, exactly, do you think the RCA arrived at a *resolution*? We are discussing here a resolution passed, unopposed, by vote of the very varied group of rabbanim (about 100 or more, I think) at the convention.

I suspect you really don't know, in this case, of what you complain. Rav Schachter was only one voice heard on this topic.

A committee worked in advance on the resolution. I presume you've actually read it. They themselves were a pretty varied cross-section of RCA members. They consulted with four (not one) poskim, and eventually arrived at a formula that all these poskim and the committee members thought appropriate.

The resolution was presented to the convention. The day before, Rav Schachter spoke. He presented his particular position. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein also communicated his view to the convention; though he did not provide a detailed halachic rationale (to the disappointment of many).

Several changes were briefly proposed and discussed to the resolution. There are RCA members who wanted a more strident statement. There are those who wanted a more liberal statement. In the end, it was agreed not to change the document, except in giving it a title.

When it came time to vote, a small number of members who didn't like the resolution as is, nonetheless agreed to register 'no objection'. They could have, but did not, vote against. That says something about their nuanced positions on this issue. No one objected strongly enough to register that by vote, after discussion.

So, even though this was kind of quick, there was quite a broad input and consensus in terms of personalities and opinions. What, exactly, do you object to when you say you find flaw in "the process through which this decision was reached..."? Or, were you unaware of the process you criticized?

Izgad said...

Let us distinguish between thought for thinking’s sake and the public or social use of reason. Within the theoretical realm of pure thought, I certainly do not believe in any restrictions on thinking. As you know from private conversations, I am perfectly willing to play along with any idea, the crazier the better, simply for the fun of it. The moment we leave the private for the social and political realm, the situation changes, though, simply because in the social and political realms there are real consequences to ideas. If this sounds like I am hostile to free speech, keep in mind that I am a follower of J. S. Mill who argued that speech in front of angry mobs was no longer speech, but action. We can have theoretical discussions of killing police officers, but cannot cross that line into actually advocating that someone actual do it. So yes, my commitment to free speech is not absolute. I would argue that the fact that I have a well thought out understanding of the limitations of speech makes me a more effective defender of the sort of speech that I believe should be protected.
In this case of female ordination, we are of course not dealing with a political, but a social issue. The social realm is even more restricted than the political realm. While the government may have to give you a lot of leeway before they toss you in jail, you have far less leeway before I decide that I do not want you to be the rabbi of my shul or the babysitter for my theoretical children and that I will no longer engage in any meaningful discourse with you. I like to think of myself as a pretty open minded person. I am even willing to put up with Obama voters. :) But even I have my limits. For example I will not engage in a social discourse with someone who believes that Jews engage in ritual murder. Ultimately I cannot prove that I do not murder Christian children, but my ability to take part in the social discourse depends on my being given the benefit of the doubt. If you insist on challenging me as a Christian blood user, I will have no choice but to reject your legitimacy as well. This means that no social discourse is possible and that, in essence, leaves us no choice but to pull out our guns and kill each other like civilized people.

Izgad said...

When we are dealing with an organization that sets Jewish policy, I would expect certain things to be off the table as the start for any discussion. I may be perfectly willing to privately put back a few beers and, for the intellectual fun of it, discuss whether we Jews should accept Jesus as our personal savior. That idea needs to be off the table, though, for any Jewish organization. Similarly, there are certain meta-legal values that one must buy into even before you come to the table for discussion and are not, in of themselves up for discussion. One of these things is a commitment to some form of women’s equality as it pertains to taking part in the social and political spheres. (This does not mean that men and women are the same or that they should be given the same things.) It is one thing for Judaism to go along with the patriarchal systems of the surrounding society, but Jews should not be the ones standing at the door defending patriarchy. At the end of the day it might be that women are going to still be in the kitchen, and even that this is for the best. I am not going to be the one to try to keep them there, certainly not as part of any value system of mine.
Whether you agree with me or not, I hope this explains the thought process behind what I wrote. I work from certain premises, which may not be rational in of themselves, but are necessary for a meaningful rational discourse and try to work from there to create an internally coherent system.

Izgad said...


I am willing to give Jewish women the benefit of the doubt and not accuse them of following in the footsteps of Karaites. As a historian, I am almost forced to give Anan himself a more favorable reading and assume that he also was acting for the sake of heaven and was therefore no less legitimate than his rabbinic opponents. I do not think it is irrational for women to want to be rabbis and am not about to hold it against them. You talk about women being involved with higher Jewish education and we have certainly made a lot of progress on this front over the past few decades. That being said, as long as women do not have access to a degree and the accompanied job privileges that come with advance studies, the number of women willing and able to spend several years in advanced Jewish learning is going to be limited, particularly as we do not yet have a society that sees advanced women’s learning as something valuable in of itself. Think of how the Haredi world values men learning. Even within the Modern Orthodox world people still, at least understand and value the concept of individual men sitting and learning. Imagine going to medical school and not being allowed to call yourself doctor or officially practice medicine.

Izgad said...


I would be a lot more willing to go along with someone making the case that women could not rule on tzaras or the New Moon, because these issues involve some direct political authority, which I admit would be difficult to justify bringing women in. In dealing with the rabbinic issues applicable today, with the exception of being a witness, it is plausible to say that we are not dealing with issues of political power, but merely having the rabbi acting as spiritual advisor. With such an obvious way out, what does it say about the values of a rabbi when he does not take it and even goes out of his way to not take it?

Izgad said...


I was not trying to make a blanket condemnation of the RCA nor was I questioning the bureaucratic process through which it reached its decision. I did read the statement it put out. I chose to focus on the statement of Rav Schachter, because his statement was what got the thought process that led to this post going. By process, I meant the thinking that led to the statement. I do not get the sense these people are animated by the assumption that we are living in the twenty-first century and women are fully integrated members of society and we should be fully, without reservation, be behind this.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Izgad, the doctor argument is overused and irrelevant. There is nothing intrinsic about being a doctor that is tied to being a man or woman. A rabbi, being a religious position in a religion that enforces different standards for men and women, is a different paradigm all together.

Izgad said...


I would challenge you on the fact that a rabbi is a religious position in the sense that it is not a sacerdotal position. Rabbis have no specific religious power and there is nothing for which they are specifically needed. A rabbi is simply someone with several more years of religious education than other Jews and has a piece of paper that says so. The Catholic Church believes that a priest is needed to bring about the “miracle” of transubstantiation, just as we believe that a kohen is needed to transform some funny spots into tzarat. This creates a major obstacle for ordaining women, though hardly an insurmountable one. Protestant clergy are not believed to have any special power and because of this the Protestant denominations have accepted female clergy.

The doctor issue is relevant because it relates to the necessary motivation for people to study. If a woman puts in the work and has the intelligence then she deserves in some fashion to enjoy the respect and privileges of the office. This is different from being a kohen, since being a kohen has nothing to do with work, intelligence or in any deserving it. One does not respect the kohen; you respect the institution.

Clarissa said...

" Judaism does not endorse equality between the genders but rather assigns distinctive roles for each."

-This is precisely the reason why the Jewish side of my family rejected Judaism 90 years ago and no one among us has had any interest in it since.