Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Ordination of Women in Orthodoxy

Guest Post by Anonymous

 Newly ordained Maharats Friedman, Finegold, and Scheier
The young woman who penned this post is a personal friend of mine. She wishes to retain her privacy and asked that I not reveal her identity. Although I generally do not publish anonymous submissions, I have made an exception in this case since I know who she is. She is a woman of high integrity; she is passionate about her beliefs; and she writes well.

Her background is Modern Orthodox and she is college educated. She attended coed Modern Orthodox schools for both elementary and high school.  As always the views reflected by the author do not necessarily reflect my own. Her words follow.

I recently read the article from Tablet Magazine regarding Yeshivat Maharat's graduating class of 2013.  I was offended by the article and by many of the issues it raises.  Let me explain.

First, I must admit that the article appears to be remarkably even-handed in its treatment of the subject.  Opinions are cited on both sides of the issue, with a fair share of context to back up both those for and those against (for lack of a better term) female rabbis.  However, upon closer examination, I believe that the article reveals a bias in favor of Yeshivat Maharat.  By downplaying the vast religious and socio-political implications of Orthodox woman rabbis, the article is in fact perpetuating what I believe to be the biggest fallacy behind the concept and institution of the Maharat: that the ordination of women within Orthodox Judaism is "no big deal."

It is a very big deal, and no one knows it more than Rabbi Avi Weiss and the women he is training to be rabbis.  (Women of Yeshivat Maharat, kindly forgive the term.)  With the exceptions of the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, Yeshivat Maharat is the first Jewish institution to challenge the fact that rabbis must be men. 

Rabbis Weiss and Sperber stand alone in their position that women can and should be rabbis.  They stand against every single one of our gedolei hador (the universally accepted leaders of the Jewish people), both in this generation and in previous generations. Our gedolim (great rabbinic leaders) have spoken clearly: the fact that rabbis have always been men is no mere legal technicality, nor is it a misrepresentation of our religious constitution. Call them what you want: Women should not be rabbis.

Rabbi Avi Weiss and his students, like many thinking Jews (myself included), are asking a very simple question: Why not?  Why can't women be rabbis?  After all, just because no one has ever attempted something doesn't mean it is wrong.  Again, I belive that the gedolim have answered this question quite clearly, albeit not to the satisfaction of everyone asking the question.  The gedolim have stated that the concept of a female rabbi, even if it meets strict Halachic guidelines (which Yeshivat Maharat assumes to be true), is nevertheless against the spirit of Orthodox Judaism.  I am personally acquainted with several of the members of Yeshivat Maharat, and I believe that they are truly good Jews and good people.  However, I also believe that on this particular issue, they have unfortunately been led astray and continue to lead others astray. 

So what exactly is the problem with women becoming rabbis?  If I may, I would like to suggest that our rabbis' objection is twofold.  Our rabbis are fighting against the advent of Orthodox women rabbis because they are fiercely defending two essential Jewish values that comprise the fabric of Jewish belief and practice, namely, tzniut (modesty) and mesorah (tradition).  

Rabbi Avi Weiss and the women of Yeshivat Maharat are all thinking and well-meaning individuals, striving (as I believe we all are) to approach G-d and Judaism in an authentic and correct way.  However, that does not give them license to argue against normative Orthodox Judaism or to overrule centuries, nay millenniums, of mesorah.  Fiddler on the Roof notwithstanding, the concept of tradition, mesorah, is vital to the very survival and integrity of Judaism and the Jewish people.  We have rules when it comes to implementing a new idea or a new norm within Orthodox Judaism.  Our rabbis taught us that no religious court may ever overturn the rulings of another religious court unless the former is greater both in wisdom and in number.  

Rabbi Weiss: The Orthodox Rabbinate, in the form of the RCA, has rejected your idea.  You are not a religious court.  You are but one man with a handful of loud supporters.  Why do you persist in rallying support for an idea that the religious world has already rejected? How can you insist upon and demand the respect of the Orthodox community, while at the same time engaging the Orthodox community with such pitiful disrespect?!  

If you want the respect of your rabbinic colleagues, you must afford them respect as well, by honoring their religious principles, precedents and rules.  If it were a good idea for the Jewish People to have woman rabbis, wouldn't someone greater than we have already thought of it?...  Someone like Moshe Rabbeinu, Yehoshua HaNavi, Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi, Ravina and Rav Ashi, Rav Saadia Gaon, Maimonides, the Vilna Goan, the Baal Shem Tov, the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Kook, or Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, to name a few?... 

Rabbi Weiss has an incredible level of disrespect for the leaders of our people, both living and deceased.  Yet he and his students persist in demanding the respect of us all.

The issue of tzniut, modesty, is also one that gets downplayed in the article.  Contrary to popular misconception, tzniut has very little to do with clothing or other minutia of religious life.  It has everything to do with dignity and self-image.  (The Piskei Uziel's quote, brought by Ms. Brown Schier in the article, alludes to this idea.)  Shlomo HaMelech, wisest of all men, told us that the dignity of a woman, which stems from a sense of royalty, is internal.  The strength of the Jewish woman, much as the strength of the Jewish man, lies in the spiritual power she carries within.  She commands respect not by making a spectacle of herself, but by being respectable herself and radiating respect toward others. 

The public ordination of women, by being radical and unprecedented, flies in the face of tzniut.  At the very least, the manner in which Yeshivat Maharat screams for the world's attention is disgraceful and decidedly undignified.  For a tiny graduating class of three students, Yeshivat Maharat has a disproportionately loud voice.  To wit, hundreds if not thousands of men receive semicha (rabbinic ordination) every year, but we don't hear them screaming for attention.  The attention-seeking behavior of the faces behind Yeshivat Maharat smacks of insecurity and immaturity, and it compromises the credibility of their cause.  It is a disgrace not only to Judaism, but to feminism.

In closing, one final note: Why did I choose to blog about this anonymously?  Why did I choose to put my name on this article, and share it with friends or with the world at large?  The answer is that unfortunately, I did not feel safe revealing my true thoughts and feelings on this subject, lest they be shot down and lest my right to an opinion be violated.  And herein lies an even bigger issue than the others I have mentioned.  Why can't Yeshivat Maharat and its supporters be content to live and let live?  Why must they bolster their viewpoint by ostracizing those who oppose it?  Is this not precisely the kind of religious intolerance and lack of intellectual honesty they are purporting to combat?