Friday, February 26, 2010

Going Too Far - and the Right to Criticize

There has been a lot of criticism about Agudah’s recent statement condemning the ordination of women in Orthodoxy.

Here is their statement which is very brief and signed by all the members of their Moetzes:

Rabbi Avi Weiss has conferred “semikha” upon a woman, has made her an Assistant Rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale where she carries out certain traditional rabbinical functions, and has now given her the title of “Rabbah” (formerly “Maharat”). He has stated that the change in title is designed to “make it clear that Sara Hurwitz is a full member of our rabbinic staff, a rabbi with the additional quality of a distinct woman’s voice.”

These developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah, and must be condemned in the strongest terms. Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.

Although I am basically opposed to the ordination of women for reasons I won’t get into here, I take exception to denying membership to Orthodoxy of Shuls who hire them – as long as Halacha is not violated.

I hate to sound like a lefty on this since I am opposed to the idea of radical departures from normative practices. But writing them out of Orthodoxy sounds a bit extreme. True it is a radical break from the Mesorah. But Orthodoxy should not ostracize Jews who follow Halacha just because they institute a non normative practice. Especially if there was precedent in Tanach such was the case with the Shofetes Devorah. It may not be a good idea to do so in our day but how you can call what Devorah did anti Orthodox?

Is hiring a woman to serve as a rabbi in a capacity that follows Halacha worse than becoming a leader of the entire nation? They say this innovation is a dangerous departure. They are probably referring to the slippery slope argument. I can certainly buy that argument. Many people in opposition to radical departures like this have pointed out that when the Conservative Movement started they too followed Halacha. And look what happened to them.

Once you make radical departures from the Mesorah - even if they are technically within the bounds of Halacha - things like this are bound to happen. But I believe their condemnations are premature and they ought to have waited until those Halachic lines are crossed - if they ever are. I don't think they have been yet, nor do I think the Moetzes would say they were.

There are those who condemned the Agudah for a different reason. One that on the surface makes those condemnations seem valid. The criticism goes something like this:

Why is the Agudah more concerned with this than they are with all the much bigger problems in the Frum world? They have been relatively silent about Frum people caught in major Chilulei HaShem – whether in financial matters or sexual scandals. No similar signed public condemnations of any of those people who have committed them. Not one! But Rabbi Weiss gets singled out for special condemnation. Not because of any scandal. But because of his ideology.

Is there a reason for this? Can it be anything more than prejudice against modern Orthodoxy? If one were to look at the criminals involved in those scandals one would find that most of them were perpetrated by Charedim! This makes Agudah’s motives look very self serving and highly suspect to most fair minded people.

Is this really is a fair criticism?

I don’t think it is. It is certainly valid for any Orthodox organization to criticize an ideology with which they are in complete opposition and see as an existential danger to the very institution of Orthodoxy. This is how they see this break from tradition by a fellow Orthodox Rabbi. As such they have a right and perhaps even a duty to express their views publicly. Ideology is no small thing.

Scandals are an entirely separate matter and unrelated to ideology. That they should have spoken out more forcefully on those issues - and have not - is a valid criticism. They should have – as I have pointed out many times. But that does not mean they shouldn’t speak out on other issues.

I defend their right to do so here. I disagree with the extent of their criticism which was to condemn and ostracize. Chances are the phenomenon of female rabbis Orthodoxy will peter out for lack of job opportunity. Or that any sort of serious change in Orthodoxy will morph into a something not Halachic – in which case I would condemn it too. For now they should have let it alone. Nothing is more motivating to a movement than a condemnation from on high.