Sunday, February 26, 2012

Ordaining Women

Whenever this issue comes up, I feel the potential to be misunderstood on both sides of the Hashkafic aisle. I suppose that may come in part from my own mixed feelings about it. The issue is what religious role women should have in the public sphere.

I am very big on the concept of ‘normal’. I have therefore been very consistent in opposing the idea of female pulpit rabbis. The fact is that Halacha precludes a woman’s presence in a synagogue Minyan and invalidates it if she is present. I would therefore not see any form of normalcy in a synagogue where a spiritual leader must remain on the “other side of the Mechitza”.

This is not to say that I am opposed to women striving to achieve the same level of Torah knowledge as men, providing a way for them to achieve it, and to recognize them for achieving it. As Rav Soloveitchik pointed out when he gave the very first Gemarah Shiur to women at Stern – it is ridiculous to say that women who achieve expertise in worldly knowledge in the best universities cannot achieve expertise in Torah knowledge. In the secular world they are recognized by being granted a PhD or the like in various fields. Can we deny a woman motivated to study Torah at the highest level the opportunity to do so? I don’t think so.

It is one thing to recognize achievement. It is another to say that she may use that knowledge to lead a synagogue. I believe it would be a violation of the prohibition of Serrara - the leadership restrictions in the public sphere placed upon women.

There are those who argue in favor of giving women pulpit positions, as does Yeshivat Maharat Rosh HaYeshiva, Rabbi Jeffery Fox (pictured above) in an interview in the New Jersey Jewish News. He would posit that there is no technical barrier to it. That becoming a pulpit rabbi is certianly no more Serrarah than the leadership of the Prophetess Devorah was. She led the entire nation of Israel. But even if they could make that argument, I find that it violates the spirit of normalcy. Just because it is possible to do something, doesn’t make it a good idea to do it.

Maharat a transliteration of a Hebrew acronym created by Rabbi Avi Weiss meaning female spiritual leader is the title granted to female students who passed tests similar to Semicha exams taken by men. The purpose of this Yeshiva is to create female religious leaders. They are not called rabbis, as per the agreement with the Rabbinical Council of America by Rabbi Weiss, the Yeshiva’s founder. But a rose by any other name is still a rose.

The funny thing is I agree with some of what this young YCT graduate says. Women deserve to have a place at the table. Their voices should be heard. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that in principle. But that is not a reason to be ordaining them. And yet that is the reason Rabbi Fox cites behind the existence of Yeshivat Maharat.

There are those who would defend the idea of a female rabbi even though it is abnormal to have a ‘behind the Mechitza’ rabbi in an Orthodox Shul. They would say - if it’s within the parameters of Halacha and both the Maharat and the Shul want it, why not allow it? They will bolster the argument by saying that in certain circles it might be the only way to keep the members Orthodox. If it is not allowed simply because it is unorthodox (in the secular - not religious sense of the word) these members would gravitate to Conservative Shuls.

I hear that argument all the time and it is a difficult one to refute. But I have to ask why a Shul would so radically want to break with tradition? What would make a Shul prefer a female rabbi over a male rabbi? If one would answer that one’s gender should not be a factor, I would counter that I would agree - if the restriction required to make that happen wouldn’t make it so abnormal.

That someone would prefer having a female Rabbi who is not present during public prayer services – which is the primary purpose of a synagogue makes me suspect that there is probably a hidden agenda at least subliminally. I would also suspect that there are some people who see feminism - equality between the sexes - as a primary goal. And that goal is currently being realized by other denominations - one in which Orthodoxy lags far behind. They would simply ask ‘Why not us?” It may not be normal now, but if we start allowing it, it will become normal.

I’m sorry. I don’t buy it. ‘Governing’ from the other side of the Mechitza will never be a normal part of Orthodoxy.

The question may still arise as to why we should not grant the title rabbi to women who study the material and pass the exams? The answer is that the title rabbi is vested with a long standing tradition that sees the primary role of a rabbi as the spiritual leader of a synagogue. Although there are many functions where a female rabbi might be involved in the same way as a man – for example in the classroom – that never was and still isn’t their primary role.

Aside from the Serrara issue - to give a woman Semicha as the only form of recognition of achievement in Torah knowledge or even in for purposes of the classroom would be to create major confusion as to what is and isn’t appropriate for a woman to do in public.

What troubles me most about Rabbi Fox’s perspective is that he thinks that women’s voices are not heard in any Orthodox circles other than his own. I don’t think that is true of any Orthodox Community. Not even Satmar. The only question is how they are listened to. And to what extent. Rabbi Fox seems to conclude that it is only as a spiritual leader that a woman’s voice is important. I’m sorry that does not wash with me. It would be the same as saying that the only time a man’s voice is important is if he is a rabbi.

There are many ways to hear a woman’s voice. It would in fact be criminal not to listen to the views of half of our people. I have been involved in many projects in Chicago where the views of both men and women were given equal weight. I wasn’t one’s sex that mattered. It was the merit of the idea itself that was given weight.

One might argue that as it pertains to a synagogue, a Torah knowledgeable woman will benefit the membership in ways that a man cannot. My answer to that is there is nothing stopping any shul from taking advantage of that. For example I see nothing wrong with a Torah knowledgeable woman being a pastoral counselor out of a Shul office. Or even offering Halachic advice as a Yoetzet. She need not be a rabbi to do that.

The bottom line is that it would be an intolerable situation to not enable a Torah education of the highest order to women who desire it. To recognize them for achievements in that area with some sort of formal title or degree. And it would be criminal not to utilize their wisdom for the betterment of Klal Yisroel. But to create an environment that would produce large pockets of abnormalcy is at best counter-productive and in my view caters to something other than the legitimate yearnings of a Bas Yisroel.