Sunday, July 26, 2009

Female Rabbis - Recognizing Achievement in Torah Knowledge

Rabbi Michael Broyde has weighed in on the recent controversy surrounding the ‘ordination’ of a female rabbi by Rabbi Avi Weiss. Although Rabbi Weiss carefully avoided calling her rabbi he makes it very clear that she is to be treated the same as any male rabbi would. The term he chose is ‘Maharat’ a Hebrew acronym for a far more elaborate title than rabbi. It stands for Manhiga, Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit meaning ‘a leader in Jewish religious law, spiritual matters and Torah’.

I find myself being pretty much in agreement with Rabbi Broyde’s views. I have in past written about the Halachic propriety of ordaining women as rabbis in Judaism. I do not believe there is any problem with formally acknowledging a woman’s achievement in this field. If she fulfils the requisite study and passes the exams, calling her a rabbi would not in my view violate any Halacha.

Especially since the term ‘rabbi’ as used today does not carry the same authority it once did in ancient times. Today it is granted to those who have successfully completed the required material of study. And it gives them permission to be a preacher and teacher in Israel – part of which allows them to disseminate Halacha. I see no reason a woman knowledgeable in Halacha cannot be relied upon to answer a Halachic question in which she is knowledgeable - same as any male rabbi would. So there is no Halachic reason preventing us from calling a woman by the title rabbi if she earns it.

But that does not mean we should.

The problem lies in how a rabbi’s role has been classically defined in our era – that of being a pulpit rabbi. Aside from the issue of Serrara which limits a woman’s role in Judaism in terms of public leadership roles - there are a myriad of other problems with a woman being a pulpit rabbi. I should note that there have been exceptions to the problem of Serrara for women historically - the most famous one of course being the Shofettes, Devorah. But it is the exception – not the rule.

Judaism defines its roles for men and for women. This does not make their value unequal. It just makes them different. A woman’s role is most often a private not a public one. Tehillim (45:14) tells us: ‘Kol Kevudah Bas Melech Penima’ - The glory of the daughter of a King (i.e all Jewish women) is on the inside. That is usually interpreted to mean that her primary role is on the private side – such as in raising a family. She is never mandated by Halacha to do anything in the public square. She should therefore as a genaral principle shy away from public forums. Indeed as Rav Hershel Schachter puts it modesty demands shying away from public roles even for men. Involvement in the public square by men should be seen only as a necessary evil.

But leaving all that aside there is a Halachic impediment to a woman being a Shul rabbi. And that is the traditionally defined role of a rabbi. He is the spiritual head of a synagogue. The idea of a woman being the spiritual head of a Shul where her Halachic participation is at best peripheral is kind of ridiculous. I’m not saying a woman's participation in prayer at a Shul doesn’t have any value. It has great spiritual value. But being in a Minyan of men is not a part of that.

One has to understand what the primary purpose of a Shul is. It is a house of prayer designed to be optimized via a Minyan – ten males. A woman’s presence in a Shul without a Mechitza - praying together with men - is therefore an impediment to prayer and forbidden by Halacha. I should note that this only applies to a Shul. No Mechitza is necessary in other areas. That is why we can see Minaynim popping up all over the place at weddings where women are present and moving about in full view of the men at the Minyan.

Rabbi Weiss figured out ways to avoid this Halachic pitfall. But even if they are Halachicly sound - they are quite strange in their application. Is it worth all this ‘twisting and turning’t so we can say that a woman is a Shul Rabbi? Leaving aside Halachic questions about its propriety - does giving a speech in a Shul have any real vaue here? What exactly is gained except to say that some artificial feminist social barrier has been broken?

That is the primary objection I have. In my view it is simply not worth the questionable Halachic pretzel one has to turn into in order for a woman to become a Shul rabbi.

That said there are plenty of other functions a woman can fulfill as a rabbi without any problems – and indeed as Rabbi Broyde correctly points out - many already do. Such as pastoral counseling or teaching. Or as being Yoatzot – Halachic advisors for women.

I certainly have no problem with the educational component. The term rabbi is just a title with little Halachic meaning in our day. But it does seem a bit strange to me calling a woman by a traditionally male occupational name. On the other hand the name Maharat seems just as strange – even confusing.

Rabbi Broyde uses the term cleric. I think that’s fine but a bit generic. Perhaps the term Rabbanit would satisfy my sense of strangeness about using the term rabbi or Maharat. The term Rabbanit is sort of a Hebraicizng of the term Rebbitzin – a term usually attributed to the wife of a rabbi. I think that would be the best use of the term and see no reason that female teachers, Halachic advisors and pastoral councilors cannot co-opt that term for themselves as a definitive one for achieving the same level of knowledge that a rabbi does. There is no reason in my mind we can’t recognize achievement in female learning in this way.

What we should not do however is push the envelope of change so far out that we end up making a camel out of a horse. That is in essence what we do when install a woman as the rabbi of a Shul – even if you call her Maharat.