Friday, April 23, 2010

A Sticky Situation

JTA reports that the Rabbinical Council of America is about to have a three day conference where they will discuss the role of women in Orthodox leadership.

This is truly a hot button issue - one which is fraught with tremendous controversy. It hit the fan when Rabbi Avi Weiss ordained the first female Rabbi (Rabba) – Sara Hurwitz (pictured) – followed by opening up a seminary for just that purpose. After tremendous criticism from both the Charedi Agudath Israel and the Centrist RCA he backed away from ordaining women. Although his seminary is up and running, it is going to find another title for its graduates. It is my understanding that Rabba Hurwitz is going to be allowed to retain her title of Rabba.

Be that as it may - it raises a very important question. What role will this new breed of woman play? What will be the role of a female who is educated along the same lines as a male rabbi? Is it appropriate for a woman to have any new role that is not completely traditional? Does ‘Kevudah Bas Melech Penima’ (the honor of the King’s daughter is ‘inside’) require her never to take any public leadership position whatsoever?

This question will not go away just because some people wish it. The fact is that even though the Charedi world discourages women from pursuing the kind of intensive Torah study that is demanded of its men, there are still many women who are motivated enough to do it. What is one to do with such women? Are we to simply ignore them? Should we just figuratively pat them on the back and say nice job! What’s for supper?

I realize women have clearly defined roles in Judaism and over the centuries that role was not altered much. In the past women had no formal Torah education at all. The Torah world only began thinking about that in the early 20th century. But that has all changed now. Women in even the most right wing seminaries study limited Torah subjects very deeply and intensively. Rav Soloveitchik saw that the time was right for yet another change and innovated classes for motivated young women in Gemarah. He in fact gave the first Gemarah Shiur at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women.

That has led to institutions like Drisha where women study Gemarah at a much higher level than ever before. Some of those women want to use that knowledge to contribute and better their world. In Israel that has led to Yoatzot who have studied family purity laws well enough to advise other women on Halachic practices.

Rabbi Weiss took the next logical step and declared that women may now be participants in the rabbinate to the fullest extent that Halacha allows. But as I said he was rebuffed. The question remains what does a woman do with all that training? Should she have any role at all? If so what should that role be - how far may she go?

In order to answer that question I turn to the past. Even though women had no official role in the rabbinate, they did participate unofficially as Rebbetzins. Being married to a Rav meant that they were often consulted by other women for advice about marital or female issues. The feeling of the community was that since a Rebbetzin was married to a Rav over time she has attained - through osmosis if in no other way -some practical knowledge that can help. Difficult Halachic issues that arose were referred to her husband.

Fast forward to today. The same scenario might exist. Only instead of a Rebbetzin with no formal training we have a trained Yoetzet doing it.

We should recognize these highly trained women. I believe that any human being trained to be an expert in any field should be recognized. That is only fair. This does not mean that a woman should be given the title rabbi. But that recognition should in some way be on par with recognition given to men.

The creation of Yoatzot rocked some traditional boats but I don’t think it rocked them to the point of leaving Yoatzot outside the pale of Orthodoxy. The next question is, how far does a woman progress from this point as a leader? What additional leadership roles can she fulfill in a Shul – if any?

Can she be a pastoral counselor? I don’t see any reason why not. If for example a woman has learned the same Halachic material as a man and has a PhD in psychology or a masters in social work, why not take on such a role?! Her title? Can it simply be pastoral counselor of congregation X? I see no objection to that even in Charedi circles. But is that enough?

Presiding at lifecycle events is a more tricky question. I’m not sure if – for example - Orthodoxy is ready for a female Mesader Kedushin – although I don’t think there is any Halachic impediment from doing so. But it would be a radical departure from tradition and the same objections would arise as did over the title rabbi.

Certainly a woman should not in any way function as a Shul Rav. I’m sorry, it is ridiculous for a woman who cannot enter the synagogue during a prayer service to function at that level.

What about in other areas where women are already in the same role as men - such as teachers? A man who has become a teacher is normally called a rabbi. A woman is called a Morah - which is Hebrew for teacher. Is it fair that a woman receive a lesser title for qualifying and doing the same thing as a man?

What about as a principal of a high school? What about as a chaplain in a hospital, or the army, or the prison system? Can a woman fill those roles Halachicly without breaking tradition? In my view she can. What possible objection can anyone have? If she has ‘graduated’ from a seminary having studied the same material as a man what should she be called that would be in concert with her achievement and her position - that will not offend tradition?

These are not simple questions and for me - there are no simple answers. Calling a woman a rabbi will get one ostracized from Orthodoxy. That has been made clear by both the right (the Agudah) and the Center (the RCA). And yet fairness demands that we honor them for their achievements with an appropriate title.

This is what the RCA has to grapple with. They have members on both the right and left that will be pulling in opposite directions. The RCA does not want to get into a Hashkafic dispute with the Agudah either. So they are currently between a rock and a hard place. It is going to be difficult for them to come out of this satisfying everyone. Possibly they will satisfy no one.

Perhaps things ought to be left as they are - ambiguous. Hard stances on one side will only alienate people from the other side. Let them decide each individual case that comes up on its own merit. The last thing we need right now in Klal Yisroel is more divisiveness.