Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Orthodoxy and Female Rabbis

I find myself in the uncomfortable position of seeming to argue with one of my own posts. But the truth is I am not which hopefully will become clear as one reads on.

There is a new role for women that seem to be taking hold in certain segments of Orthodox Jewry. It is in the form of a titled religious position of leadership in synagogues. It isn’t being called a rabbinic position. But for all intents and purposes that’s what it is.

The difference between an actual rabbi and what these women do is technical. These women do not have an official ordination. Nor do they undergo exactly the same training that does a rabbinical student. But they are highly educated in religious law. Far more than the average Orthodox male and in some cases more knowledgeable than some Yeshiva students.

Yeshiva University has long had a very liberal approach to teaching women Torah. The Rav held it was entirely Mutar to do so. Stern College for Women has a program headed by Rabbi Shmuel Hain called ‘The Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmudic Studies at Yeshiva University’. That program enables women to study Gemarah seriously.

If I understand correctly the Rav held there was nothing wrong that. He instead held that it is eminently right to teach women Gemarah. This is counter to the generally accepted approach by much of mainstream Orthodoxy. Gemarah programs for women are virtually non existent. The reason for this is based on a Mishnah (Sotah 20A) which considers teaching women Torah is tantemount to teaching them something it calls ‘Tiflus’. The most common understanding of that term is that it refers to some sort of illicit eroticism. And that would be immoral. I suppose the Gemarah says that because it is replete with sexual topics and by teaching this to women it can lead to improper behavior.

But what ever the reason, the great Halachic commenters have debated exactly what women can or cannot be taught so as to avoid ‘Tiflus’. And the consensus seems to be that Gemarah is off the table.

I’m not sure how the Rav deals with this issue but he endorsed women learning all forms of Torah as high service to God. What can be more important than learning about the word of God?

But no matter how much a woman knows, it is still unacceptable for her to become a Rav. Orthodox Shuls, no matter how left wing, do not have female rabbis. There are Halachic obstacles to that. Chief amog them is that women may not be part of a Minyan in a Shul. Their presence among men in a Shul invalidates the Minyan.

The logistics of a female rabbi under those conditions are difficult for me to imagine. Of course there are positions that do not violate the strict letter of the law available to women.. They may be teachers, advisors, and leaders of extra-synogogue activities and groups. And many mainstream groups offer such positions, usually on a volunteer basis.

But what is acceptable in most Orthodox Shuls is evolving into questionable positions in other Orthodox Shuls.

In the current psycho-social atmosphere that is America, total equality between the sexes has become the clarion call of enlightened man. Many modern Othodox men and women have been indoctrinated with this ongoing Zeitgeist. They are now trying to integrate the two worlds: Equality of the sexes and Torah. And as such tradional Judasim has seen some pretty unusual scenarios develop.

Halacha is always of primary importance to Orthodoxy, no matter how left wing. As such ways are sought to implement the tenets of one world without compromising the tenets of the other. That is how Women’s Tefilah Groups developed.

As I have stated in the past, I am opposed to them Hashkafically (though not Halachicly). Anything that is sourced in a philosophy that is alien to Torah is a bad idea. If I understand correctly my attitude is similar to that of the Rav’s. He was opposed on Hashkafic grounds but made exceptions in certain cases as long as Halacha was not violated.

Part of the reason I am opposed is the ‘slippery slope’ effect. Once you have motives that are based on a non Torah Hashkafa, the alien Hashkafa does not go away if it is only partially satisfied. It continues to exert pressure for more change and innovation. Halacha is never compromised, but it inches ever closer to it with every new innovation. Is this really what God prefers from us?

Several years ago if I remember correctly Rabbi Avi Weiss innovated something called the rabbinic intern program in his Shul. It now seems to have progressed further along the path of egalitarianism. Today his Shul has a paid position called the Madricha Ruchanit, or spiritual mentor. From an artilce in JTA:

(Sara) Hurwitz, the madricha ruchanit, or spiritual mentor, at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx, already considers herself to function in much the same role as a rabbi. She delivers sermons on Shabbat, provides counseling and guidance in matters of Jewish law, and has co-officiated at a wedding with a male counterpart.

How far off is this innovation to the next step of giving her the title of rabbi? While ordaining women may be technically permitted (see Tosefos in Bava Kama 15A) is that really a wise course to pursue?

I have called for a ‘hands off’ policy by modern Orthodox institutions like NCYI with respect to these issues. And I feel the same way about Rabbi Weiss’s innovation. Whatever the source motivations are, his Shul members need it and we shouldn’t tamper with it.

But should that be a goal for Orthodoxy? I don’t think so. Judaism is not about equality of the sexes. It is about fulfilling the will of God. We must ask what is it that God truly wants of us. And we must seek honestly an answer to that question. The source for that answer should be the Torah and our Mesorah. Not feminism. So it is a little troubling to see Rabbi Hain so enthusiastically support the idea of expanding leadership roles for his graduates. He may be within the bounds of Halacha, but what fruits will utimately be produced by pro-activity in this regard?

For a slightly different perspective on this issue… one which I also agree with, see what Rav Hershel Shachter wrote.