Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Torah, Sincerity, and Empowerment

YU Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Mordechai Willig (Forward)
The sincerity of one’s convictions about how to serve God best do not necessarily represent what God wants of His people. That truth is contained in the Torah. And yet this is one of the fundamental mistakes made by many sincere women who refer to themselves as Orthodox feminists. The Torah’s truths are not subject to what any particular individual thinks they are. They are not subjective truths. They are objective truths.

I have said this countless times in countless ways. But people whose convictions have been formed outside of the Torah tend towards disbelief or disapproval. They will say that they want to be as spiritual as possible and that the way to do it is to find out what serves that end best for themselves. When it comes to Orthodox feminists, the modus operandi is invariably egalitarianism. The Conservative movement realized this long ago and has put it into practice. Orthodoxy has strongly resisted this – sticking to the principle of an immutable Torah not being influenced by prevailing social currents.

By now it is well known that Open Orthodoxy has decided to take a route similar to the Conservative Movement. They factor in social currents (in particular feminism) using ‘sledge-hammers’ to insert as many egalitarian reforms as possible without crossing any Halachic lines as they see it.

Why do they insist on being included as part of Orthodoxy?  Yeshiva University Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Mordechai Willig suggested in a Dvar Torah dealing with this subject - that it is because of ‘lifestyle, ideology, value system or social ties’.

I believe he correctly identifies the phenomenon as one of egalitarianism invading certain segments of Orthodoxy to the point of challenging the validity of the Torah. This is hard to deny since there has been so much published about it by Open Orthodox rabbis and others that sympathize with them. Those advocating such change actually seem to say that in light of current thinking, the Torah ‘got it wrong’ in certain areas.

One very obvious area where this is evident is in the support of some leading Open Orthodox leaders of gay marriage. One leader actually turning portions of the Torah on their head to publicly justify it and wishing gay couples Mazel Tov on their marriage. The fact that the Torah clearly rejects such relationships didn’t stop him from ‘Kashering them’. Now I’m sure if he is asked he will acknowledge the Torah’s prohibition against ‘lying with a man as with a woman’. But nowhere is that to be found in his loving embrace of such relationships.

In the area of ordaining women for the rabbinate, Rabbi Willig points to a prominent individual of this mindset, that actually has the nerve to say that the Torah got it wrong in this area. Rabbi Willig quotes the pre-eminent Posek of the 20th century, Rav Moshe Feinstein who warned us of the dangerous road to heresy that those influenced by social currents would lead us to: 
“No battle, even one supported by the entire world, can succeed in changing the Torah, and women who fight to change the Torah's eternal and immutable laws are heretics.” 
In that regard he suggests that one of the things driving this is the Modern Orthodox inclusion of Talmud studies into the curriculum of women’s education. From his Dvar Torah: 
(I)n the words of a ‘pioneer of the religious feminist wave’… “What is happening today is a direct continuation of the beginning of Talmud studies for religious women in the 1980's.” This candid admission must, for the genuinely Orthodox, call into question the wisdom of these studies.  Although there are ample reliable sources that encourage individual women who have proper yiras Shomayim and whose motives are consistent with our mesorah to further their Torah study, the inclusion of Talmud in curricula for all women in Modern Orthodox schools needs to be reevaluated. While the gedolim of the twentieth century saw Torah study to be a way to keep women close to our mesorah, an egalitarian attitude has colored some women's study of Talmud and led them to embrace and advocate egalitarian ideas and practices which are unacceptable to those very gedolim. 
I mostly agree with Rabbi Willig. But he has unfortunately touched the very raw nerve of Rachel Rosenthal, a woman who ‘grew up with feminism’. His Dvar Torah made her both angry and sad. Here is what she said in a Forward response to him: 
As a woman who learns and teaches Talmud full-time, I cannot remain silent as you assault my livelihood, and one of the most central ways I serve God. 
She goes on to say that Rabbi Willig’s words suggesting that women who want to take an active role in communities lack proper  fear of God - is both demeaning and inaccurate: 
My mentors, colleagues, and students come from all different backgrounds and places, but what they share is a desire to better understand their heritage and tradition. They do not learn because it is controversial or to prove something. They learn because that is part of what it means to live an active Jewish life. And it is true, learning changes them. They become more confident and empowered. 
First, Rabbi Willig does not say that all women that want to take an active role in communities lack proper fear of God. He says only that ‘some’ do. I don’t think that is arguable.

More significant is the fact that Ms. Rosenthal’s defense of her position betrays her true motives. As I have said so many times, serving God isn’t about being ‘empowered’. It is about trying to do the will of God – and finding out what that is - free of any thoughts of empowerment.

As Ms. Rosenthal says, women do have to learn what it means to ‘live an active Jewish life’. No one would argue the point.But is empowerment the way to do that? Is becoming a rabbi (for example) the best way for a woman to serve God? 

Although I understand where he is coming from, I don’t know if I agree with Rabbi Willig’s suggestion to reevaluate Talmud in curricula for all women in Modern Orthodox schools. I favor Torah study for anyone that chooses it. Male or female. What I think does needs to be reevaluated is an attitude that allows ideals outside of the Torah to guide how you see the Torah.