Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Upon Further Review…

After watching the video of Rabbi Hurwitz commenting on the controversy over her ordination to the Rabbinate, I feel compelled to once again comment.

Rabbi Hurwitz is about as sincere and committed to Orthodox Judaism as anyone could be. But much of her speech seemed to be addressing the feminist concerns of her audience at JOFA – the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. She seemed to be saying that by her achievement - women have finally arrived! In other words another barrier to women has been toppled.

To her credit she agreed that now is not the time to insist on the title rabbi (or rabba). Nor should the term ordination be used for what she was granted. She settled for ‘Maharat’ and ‘conferring’ in place of those terms. But she was also disappointed by it. Nonetheless she realizes that there is no benefit in fighting a battle that could undermine her real accomplishment of becoming the first female spiritual leader in Orthodoxy and adding for the first time a female voice to the Rabbinate. Perhaps someday - she speculated - female rabbis will get the appropriate title. But not now. The thrust of her speech seemed to be all about what women breaking barriers to better serve the Jewish people.

But is precisely the breaking of this barrier that is being condemned by opponents like Agudah and the Rabbinical Council of America. I don’t really think it is the title they object to. It is the concept itself. Let’s call a spade a spade. Maharat – Rabbi – Rabba… it’s all the same thing. Rabbi Weiss tried to give her a title which indicated she was a female rabbi. He was rebuffed by his own rabbinic fraternity in a compromise that allowed him to retain membership while continuing his program of conferring spiritual leadership status upon women who complete a Semicha program.

I understand and appreciate Rabbi Hurwitz’s sincerity. I even applaud it. It speaks of her own high spiritual goals. But there is no question in my mind that she was in part influenced by feminist notions of egalitarianism. If men can be rabbis - why not women?! That seemed clear to me in her speech to JOFA. I don’t see how anyone can avoid noting that.

I don’t really have any issues with her personally. She is a sincere young lady seeking to serve the Jewish people in a non-traditional way. She has received an education virtually identical to that of her male counterparts. And although she is limited in her ability to fully serve Judaism as a Rabbi by the very Orthodoxy she is so committed to - she has nevertheless achieved her goal of becoming the first female rabbi and can now minister to her constituents in Halachicly permissible ways.

But the controversy is not about Halacha. It is about breaking tradition. It is not about whether women are capable of doing what men do. Of course they are. It is about whether breaking tradition for this purpose is a laudable goal worthy it.

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel put it well in a response on behalf of Agudah to an editorial in the Jerusalem Post criticizing Agudah for ‘excommunicating’ Shuls that hire female rabbis. He correctly posited that it was decidedly not an excommunication but the break from Orthodox tradition that was at issue:

...a refusal to jettison any part of the Jewish religious tradition is precisely what defines Orthodoxy. Yes, changes can occur, and have occurred, in normative Orthodox practice. But such changes are rare, and they are instituted only after the deepest deliberations of the greatest Torah leaders of a generation, not as fiats motivated by the Zeitgeist.

And so there should be nothing shocking about recognized rabbinic leaders rejecting a proposed radical change in Jewish tradition.

That is the real question here. Is this radical change warranted now? After listening to Rabbi Hurwitz, I remain unconvinced.

The contributions of Jewishly educated women are indeed already an important part of Orthodoxy which spans almost all of its streams to one extent or another -from left to right. It should not be minimized. It should in fact be formally be recognized with a carefully crafted degree program. As I have said many times in the past - I completely support programs that educate women Jewishly in any area of their choosing.

If they want to become experts in Halacha – they should be encouraged to do so, provided the opportunity and given recognition for their achievement. But ordaining women goes well beyond that. Aside from the impracticality of a woman functioning as a Shul rabbi – the primary area of rabbinic service - it breaks tradition for no real purpose other than to advance the cause of feminism. Women can do the kinds of things that a female rabbi would do without being ordained – as they already are.

Feminist goals may be worthy goals in many cases. But is a feminist goal valid enough make such a radical break from tradition? Those kinds of changes should be reserved for existential purposes. The lack of female rabbis is not a threat to Orthodoxy. Tradition should not be so easy to change. Radical change if done for less than existential reasons can destroy rather than preserve Judaism - turning it into something unrecognizable.