Friday, September 25, 2009

A Woman’s Spiritual Quest

My cousin Elana Maryles Sztokman has written a very insightful and heartfelt article in the Forward rebutting a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago. It was about a new Orthodox Yeshiva that will be ordaining women. I hear her. But I think she misunderstand my position on this issue.

From the article:

Rabbi Maryles presents women with a Catch-22: a woman who wants a greater role is by definition outside of Orthodoxy and therefore undeserving. The pseudo-logic according to which women must somehow demonstrate some kind of obscure purity of thought and motivation (i.e., lacking a desire to count and serve equally) is unfair and disingenuous. It dismisses women’s spiritual quests, ignores Torah values of social justice and compassion, and expresses a horrifying distrust of women.

I do not believe this - nor do I think I said it - nor do I believe that. As I have said many times I am a feminist. I believe in equal rights and treatment for women. I further believe that women are just as serious – or just as ‘not serious’ - about their Judaism as men are. Those she quotes in her article as thinking women are less serious than men are indeed somewhat misogynous. And I support women advancing in every way – competing with men equally in any field they choose.

But I do not support it unequivocally in all facets of Judaism. Judaism is not about ‘wanting a greater role’. It is about doing God’s will. In Judaism the gender roles are more clearly defined. This does not mean that there is no overlap in Mitzvah observance. Of course there is – in the vast majority of Mitzvah observance.

Men and women are equally required by Halacha to observe Laavin (Lo Sa’asehs or negative commandments) with men. For example the requirement and reward for Shabbat observance -and punishment for lacking Shabbat observance is the same. Both men and women have an equal requirement to follow an Aseh SheLo HaZman Gramma - positive commandments that are not time bound. But only men are required to follow Mitzvos Aseh SheHaZ’man Gramma – time bound positive commandments. Women are exempt.

Women can if they so choose observe those Mitzvos too – and often do. God certainly considers it worthy in His eyes. But those Mitzvos when performed by women are not given equal status in Judaism as when men do them. This is what Chazal tell us. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this essay. But Chazal had this ‘rule’ transmitted to them orally all the way back to the time of Moshe Rabbenu. And it applies to both biblical level laws as well as rabbinic laws.

This is – for example - why women are not counted toward a Minyan. Even a thousand women in a Shul does not qualify as a Halachic Minyan. Although it may enhance their own personal spiritual feeling during prayer ten women or more who Daven in a Shul without the requisite ten men do not fulfill any Mitzvah by doing it. It is considered in Halacha as though they were Davening alone. Not only that - Halacha dictates that if a woman is in a Shul of ten or more men and not separated by a Halachic Mechitza she actually invalidates the Minyan. This is not misogynistic. It is simply the Halacha as transmitted by the sages down to our own time.

A woman who chooses the to be a pulpit or Shul rabbi as a career which has this major limitation of impeding her functioning fully as a rabbi seems to be at least in part motivated by something other than a spiritual quest. It seems to be part sincere desire to serve God - and part equalizing gender roles.

The role of Shul rabbi is by dint of Halacha limited in scope to women. How does one serve a constituency if one is hampered by Halacha from doing it properly in all its manifestations?

If one will answer that she will at least serve in the capacity she can - that still means limiting her services as a Shul rabbi and would require the additional services of a male rabbi. That is not gender equality. But it is Halacha.

That said, I still believe strongly that a woman should be able to learn Torah at the same level as any man. And that she should be rewarded for her efforts with a degree of some kind that reflects her achievements. I like the term rabbanit – even though it currently has the connotations of being the rabbi’s wife. But I believe that if women who are awarded these degrees by seminaries start using it enough it will take on the truer meaning of the word. Rabbanit implies female rabbi in its word structure.

And in her role as rabbanit she can actually perform equally with men in some areas. In fact many women do exactly that even in among Charedim – including important areas like pastoral counseling or education. It is when a woman wants to push the envelope of mainstream tradition in ways that are clearly influenced by notions of gender equality – even if they are sincere in their desire to serve God - that I question it. Why must supporting the concept of a female rabbi leading a Shul be the test for my support of feminist goals of equality? Why – this mode? Especially since it is so limited?

In conclusion, I respectfully submit to my dear cousin that I remain true the legitimate goal of equality of the sexes in every way possible except in the religious sphere where equality of the sexes does not necessarily mean equal participation in all of its components. That is God’s realm – not man’s realm. In my view proving one’s worth in Judaism is not about what women - or men – want. It is about trying to know what God wants and doing it in the best way we can.