Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sliding to the Left

Today marks the opening of a new Yeshiva. This one is designed to educate and ordain a new breed of rabbinic leaders in Orthodoxy. This Yeshiva will attempt to recruit the best and brightest among us to serve the Jewish people. But there is a twist. This yeshiva will accept only female applicants.

Well, I’m not sure that’s accurate. Perhaps they will accept male applicants too. But it is specifically designed for women.

It is called Yeshivat Maharat.

You may recall that the term Maharat was coined by Rabbi Avi Weiss. It was used as a compromise term for women who wanted to serve in the rabbinate. For some reason he did not go the extra mile and simply call them rabbis. I of course realize that the Hebrew word for rabbi is Rav. And that is a masculine term. But the word rabbi has come to mean simply an ordained minister of the Jewish faith. Rabbi would therefore be quite appropriate – if you ask me. (although I originally suggested that the word ‘rabbanit’ be co-opted).

Be that as it may, it is indeed a milestone. And another step away from mainstream Orthodoxy.

As I have said in the past, I do not believe any Halacha was violated here. Nor do I think there is anything wrong with attaining Torah knowledge by either sex. But I still object to the idea of conferring Semicha upon a woman . Aside from stepping out of mainstream Orthodoxy - I believe that much of the source motivation is based in social feminism – the idea that men and women should be equal in all areas of life including religion. In my mind that is an illegitimate reason to pursue the role of rabbi. Not because women aren’t capable. They most certainly are.

In some areas they are superior to men. For example in the area of Taharas Mishpahca. Women are simply more comfortable discussing intimacy issues with other women. Why shouldn’t there be women trained in these subjects that can deal directly with them when in need of rabbinic type services? I was -and still am - in favor of Yoatzot who are trained to advise women in these matters. And even if there was a possible feminist motive in some women becoming Yoatzot, the need outweighs that concern. Yoatzot are truly learned and well trained to serve in that capacity.

But a female rabbi (or Maharat) smacks too much of the feminist equality motive rather than a sincere desire to serve – although I’m sure that both are part of their motivation. The push towards Semicha has been ongoing for quite some time now by organizations like The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA).

Doesn’t that name say it all? This is a group of Orthodox women who clearly state that their goals are feminist. They seek equality with men within the framework for Halacha – no matter how far the envelope is pushed.

I must ask. Is that what God wants of His people? Is this how we are to conduct ourselves? In some sort of search for gender equality? Let’s not kid ourselves. This is not a search for religious equality. We are already equal in the eyes of God. That is really the only kind of religious equality that counts.

Men and women each have independent roles as Jews to fulfill in Judaism. The Torah and Mitzvos apply equally to both. Most Mitzvos are sex neutral. There are however specific Mitzvos for men and specific Mitzvos for women. There is absolutely no requirement by God for either sex to pursue avenues of service not demanded of them.

Not that there is anything wrong with a woman trying to fulfill those Mitzvos. It is quite laudable to a Mitzvah even if it is not required. But not when motivations for it are sourced in ideals foreign to The Torah and so far removed from the mainstream.

When a woman takes the Arba Minim (Lulav and Esrog etc.) on Sukkos she has done nothing wrong and everything right. But if she starts studying for Semicha - one must ask why she is doing that?

Any behavior that is sourced in an ideology that is anathematic to Judaism is suspect and should be avoided – even if it is technically permitted. Because it is an all too easy slippery slope from there to violation of Halacha especially when the primary motivation is feminist.

I realize that this new Semicha program will be meticulous in following Halacha. Women will be forbidden from taking full pulpits in mixed seating Shuls – even if they are Traditional and not Conservative. But they will be taking positions that ‘dance’ around being a full pulpit rabbi. They will be giving sermons after the services on Shabbos and doing every other possible thing a rabbi does that falls within the parameters of Halacha. But will still be forbidden by Halkacha from davening together with men in the Shul or leading the services in any way. They cannot even be counted toward a Minyan. They will - in short - be ‘kept behind the Mechitza’ in any case. Will this be enough for Orthodox feminists?

Why is this step necessary? What is gained by pursuing a half baked rabbinic position? Seeking jobs like this will only highlight the perceived disparity between how the sexes are treated in Orhtodoxy.

I understand that it is legitimate to be recognized for one’s achievements. Not that this should be the primary reason for Torah study. But it is certainly understandable, and it is quite correct to offer recognition. But only as an achievement in learning, not as a second class rabbinic leader.

I also understand that women can fulfill a need in other areas of the rabbinate and deserve to be titled in some way. That’s why I support the title Yoetzet. But… Rabbi? …or Maharat?

I suggest that the institution of this new phase in left wing modern orthodoxy is a step in the wrong direction. We will now have a Yeshiva that will be ordaining women. Maharat… Rabbi… What’s the difference? They will be going through the same training as any male rabbinic student.

I have no personal quarrel with Maharat Sara Hurwitz, the first woman to be ordained in Orthodoxy. She wrote the essay which generated this post. I’m sure she is sincere in her beliefs and actions. I am equally certain that she is an exemplary individual who is everything she says she is – and more. She wants to serve Klal Yisroel. That was and is her goal. But why must it be in a way that smacks so strongly of feminist motives? It is fair to ask whether her motives were free of feminism. I’m sorry to say that I don’t think they were free of it. There is at least a hint of social feminism even in Maharat Hurwitz’s motives. Here are her words:

The time has come, the day has come, for women to transform their knowledge into service, to be able to stand together, with our male counterparts, as spiritual leaders of our community.

Need I say more?