Thursday, December 13, 2007

Human Reason versus Godly Mandates

A commenter by the name of Kylopod challenged me with the following:

If you argue that it isn't women's role to serve in rabbinic positions, you're putting yourself at odds not just with a few left-wing professors, but with the entire body of modern thinking on women's rights. Admit it, and then we can have a discussion.

Is this true? Let me reframe it as a question. Is it sexist to deny equal participation by women based on religious restrictions? I obviously completely disagree with that assessment. Religious restrictions override our own human understanding of the unfairness of sexism. And indeed sexism is unfair from the perspective of human reason.

First let me state that I am for full and equal participation by both sexes in all areas where innate physical differences do not matter. I am however opposed to lowering physical standards of certain professions such as police or the military so as to allow more women to participate. This is not sexist. This is common sense.

But when it comes to religious values, one cannot just apply an external value arbitrarily. One must first try and understand God’s ultimate will and follow it as precisely as one can.

God’s will is not subject to our conceptions of fairness. If it were, I would have a lot more questions of Him about what I think is fair… for example the classic question of Tzadik V’Ra Lo… why bad things happen to good people. There is nothing that seems fair about that if human reason had anything to say about it. And there are plenty of other examples that beg the question of fairness.

Of course fairness is eminently a Godly value. But it isn’t always human reason that defines it. When there is no Godly mandate, we must apply fairness in the best way we understand it. Which is where feminism comes in. In the realm of economic equity mankind can and should apply its own understanding of fairness. Feminism has shown us that women should be paid equally for equal work and that there should be no economic discrimination based on gender. A man and a woman who apply for the same job should be judged on their ability to perform and then be paid according to their ability, not their gender. Leaving out concepts like Yichud and Tznius, this is the right approach.

But in religious ritual feminist concepts of equality of the sexes is at best a secondary consideration. When there are directives by God in how to proceed, we proceed along those lines and not along the lines of our own human reason. When doctrines of feminism contradict Halacha, Halacha wins.

The problem arises in trying to figure out ways to accommodate both Halacha and feminism. The results are often a strange hybrid of Halacha and feminism that resemble male practices. The best example of this is the women’s Tefilah groups (WTGs). They are not vested with any of the Kedusha that attaches to a Minyan of men. Mitzvos that a Minyan of men generates can in no way be generated by a ‘Minyan’ of women. At best one can only achieve a psychological boost in such an arrangement.

I’m not saying there is no benefit at all to WTGs. I’m sure that many women feel a raised sense of spirituality in a group of ten women praying together and reading out a Torah as a form of study. It may actually increase their Kavana (concentration and intent) during prayer. But that is not based on anything more than the psychology of the moment. It is no different than a women’s Tehilim group in that sense. Or any other contrivance that one might feel uplifted by. For example, some people might feel more inspired in their Davening if they are an environment that shows the majesty of God’s creation. Such as the Swiss Alps.

In my view the spiritual boost of a WTG is a psychological one based on the fact that they see men do it and understand all the spirituality that a Minyan generates for them. But that is a real spirituality. It has a special level of Kedusha, holiness vested by the Torah itself. There is Barach Hu, Keduasha, Brachos on the Torah or Kaddish. Those things are forbidden except in the raised level of holiness vested in a male Minyan. That holiness is generated by the Torah thru Chazal whose edicts were themselves vested with a Torah status by virtue of the commandment of Lo Sasur. A ‘Minyan’ of ten women does not generate that Kedusha. And one cannot say any of those things in a ‘Minyan’ of women. Does that seem fair to me? No. But that is the Halacha. It doesn’t matter what I think.

The test of the purity of one’s motive for WTGs is the following. Would any woman have chosen to pray together with ten other women or to read out a Sefer Torah as a value if there were no such practice by men? My answer to that is: absolutely not. Even though there is benefit derived, the entirety of this practice is based on the practice of men.