Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Egalitarianism and Modern Orthodoxy

The right stuff: Judge Ruchie Freier - Egalitarian yet traditional (Jewish Link)
I have been reflecting a bit on the current trend in the modern world towards egalitarianism between the sexes.  On the surface, the desire for all people to be treated equally seems like the noblest of goals.

And yet when it comes to Orthodox Judaism, there are a lot of ‘nos’ to full equality of the sexes. This is one of the main points of contention between Progressive Orthodoxy (formerly known as Open or Liberal) and mainstream Orthodoxy. In short this means that certain roles in Orthodox Judaism are available to men while being denied to women.

By now it should be well understood that Orthodoxy is not fully egalitarian - even if you are an adherent of its progressive arm.  A woman for example can never be counted toward a Minayn – the minimum number of people required for a public prayer service. The Kaddish prayer cannot be recited among a group 9 men and even 99 women. Clearly this is counter to the egalitarian ideal.

YCT (Yeshivat Chovevei Torah) Talmud Chair, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz made an indirect reference to this lack of egalitarianism in a recent article.  And yet he and the progressive wing to which he adheres believes it is permissible for women to become rabbis and serve synagogues in that capacity. He believes strongly that this concession in the very spirit of egalitarianism it is not only permitted, but to be encouraged to those women that seek it. Even while conceding that Orthodoxy cannot be fully egalitarian.

Mainstream Orthodoxy rejects that position totally. Which is why the OU has recently required the few member Shuls who have hired women as rabbis to remedy the situation within 3 years - or be expelled from membership. Why Rabbi Katz draws the line there in opposition to all mainstream Orthodox organizations and Poskim is a question only he can answer.

This got me to thinking about this is the stridency with which modern day Orthodox Jewish feminists pursue this particular form of egalitarianism while at the same time so many modern day Orthodox Jewish women do not feel the slightest bit less equal without it. I am not talking about the women of Meah Shearim.  Not even about women that live in the Charedi world.

I am talking about Modern Orthodox women that participate fully in the culture. Women that actually believe in egalitarianism in all aspects of life except the theological one. I know many women like that. They are MDs, PhDs, CEOs, authors, academicians, artists… and all manner of successful career women. They have taken advantage of the egalitarian spirit of the times and yet do not feel for a minute that they are any less of a human being because they cannot enter one particular profession – the rabbinate.

Although there have been some notable exceptions where women have led the Jewish people (e.g. the prophetess, Devorah) - the vast majority of women throughout Jewish history have not felt the need to pursue that kind of equality. Even as the inequality of women in the general culture was clear and hurtful to women, Jewish women never saw Judaism hurting them that way. Why do some women see it that way now? Why are some Modern Orthodox women pursuing that ‘right’ now while others accept their roles as women in Judaism and pursue equality outside of it?

I can only surmise that it is the influence of general culture in which we live. A culture that applies the ideal of equality into all spheres of life.  Overriding any other ideal with which it comes into conflict. That is my theory.

But it has been rejected by those that pursue a full egalitarian agenda.  They do have a legitimate point about questioning the sincere motives of these women. Who am I to question their sincere motives?! But that is not what I am doing at all. All I am saying is that it is virtually impossible NOT to be influenced by a popular ideal that at its core makes a lot of sense.  Which is what the ideal of egalitarianism is.

I believe that in most instances women that want to become rabbis are sincere. They desire to serve God in ways they feel they best can. That is what is in their hearts and minds. But I am also convinced that had they not be influenced by a culture that espouses an ideal of equaility in all areas - there would be no real desire for women to break with thousands of year of tradition. A tradition that is clearly supported by all of mainstream Orthodoxy.  A tradition based on a theology where men and women have different roles.

In western culture today, the very concept of a male or female role has been virtually obliterated. There is no such thing to an egalitarian. Men and women should have the right to pursue any goal they choose. If that choice conflicts with a religious principle – the religious principle loses.

To be clear this is not about preventing women from achiving the same level of knowledge as men. It isn’t even about preventing full participation in Jewish life. Women can and should pariticipate fully using the knowledge they have attained.   Among areas that they can contribute right along with men WITHOUT trampling on the tradition mainstream Orhtodxy says must be followed  is pastoral counseling, Halachic advisors (such as Yoatzot), teachers, principals, and public speakers.

Why do some women have the need pursue egalitarianism to the point of breaking with Jewish tradition - while others are quite content to pursuing egalitrainsim in areas outside of Judaism – like the ones mentioned above?

Can it be that our female ancestors would be on board with any of this had they been alive today? Are we to believe that they suffered in silence for thousands of years - watching men do what they couldn’t?  Were they really that unhappy with their lot in life? I somehow doubt that. And yet that is what we are told to believe.

The foregoing was not meant to be a criticism of women that want to serve the Jewish people as rabbis. While I remain opposed to that for reasons beyond the scope of this post  – that was not my purpose. It was only to explore attitudes among Modern Orthodox women that are on opposite sides of the issue. And these were my thoughts about it.