Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

Last year’s Maharat graduation ceremony - (Forward)
I guess there is no more pretense. Rabbi Avi Weiss is in the business of giving women Semicha. This means they are rabbis. They will Paskin. You can call these women Maharat all day long. A rose by any other name is still a rose (to paraphrase Shakespeare).

Rabbi Weiss was warned about ordaining women by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). They told him if he wanted to retain his membership in that august body, he would have to cease and desist doing that.

Rabbi Weiss had at the time ordained Sara Hurwitz. He graced her with the title Rabba – which he said is just the grammatically correct way to refer to a female rabbi. It is somewhat strange that he did that. The word ‘rabbi’ is the anglicization of the Hebrew word ‘Rebbi’ (teacher). When that word was rendered into English it became gender neutral. There is no male or female word for rabbi in English. He made that up.

I think Rabbi Weiss simply tried to dodge the issue by saying that she was not exactly a rabbi like a man is. But she was and is. And in my view she ought to be called Rabbi Hurwitz.

Nonetheless Rabbi Weiss backed off calling future female Musmachim rabba - and went back to the more cumbersome Maharat (Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit, “one who is teacher of Jewish law and spirituality.”)  But now he has apparently made it clear. He has given these women Semicha. And yet at the same time it seems to be denied: It may look like “Yoreh Yoreh,” but it ain’t. 

That’s kind of schizophrenic if you ask me. Just to be clear, I have always had a problem myself with this issue. As a young Semicha student I once penned an article in a local magazine here in Chicago questioning the validity of denying women Semicha. I said that becoming a rabbi just meant that you were becoming a teacher. Why can’t women do that? What is the problem with calling them rabbis?

If that was all there was to it, then I would still feel the same way. But there is more than Halacha at stake here. There are other considerations like Serara. Not to mention the practical side of a woman becoming a pulpit rabbi being very awkward. A female rabbi cannot be counted into a Minyan… Must sit behind the Mechitza aand cannot sit with those who are counted towards a Minyan - men. Being a Rabbi in a Shul from behind the Mechitza is not normal. 

But more than that it is a break from centuries of tradition.  Tradition should not be so easily broken. That is precisely the problem I had with YCT and OO. Although I still believed them to be members of Orthodoxy in good standing (until the recent controversy with respect to allowing an Apikores into their midst) - I never supported breaking with tradition the way they have.

The issue was never about the learning for me. I believe women can and perhaps should study Torah at any level they are capable of. Same as men. But when it comes to making them rabbis… well that goes beyond achievement in Torah study  and enters the realm of breaking barriers.

Why should that be a goal? Why must we turn Judaism into something unrecognizable?

I sympathize with Rabbi Weiss’s desire to equalize women’s status in Orthodox Judaism. It does seem unfair to the modern mind to bar women from opportunities that men have. But Judaism is not about having equal roles for men and women. It is the opposite of that. Men have their roles and women theirs. That does not make a woman any less of a Jew. It just makes them a different kind of Jew from that of a man. It makes them a female Jew.

If knowledge is all a woman wants, God bless her. I am all for it. But if it Semicha, that tells me that it’s more than just knowledge they are after. They are after breaking the glass ceiling. This is something they will never be able to completely do – and still call themselves Orthodox.

As Orthodox Jews -they know that. But the counter-claim is that they want to go as close as they can to equality with men without violating Halacha.

Well… guess what? Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Why push the envelope in Orthodoxy by seeking equality with men when it can never fully happen? Why cause all this discord in Orthodoxy? Why not be the best Jew you can be in the role that God has given you?

No matter how much I want to be a Kohen (a Jewish priest) - there is no way I can ever be one. My job in the eyes of God is not to be a Kohen but to be the best Yisroel I can be… I cannot seek the priesthood. It is unavailable to me. It is not my role as a Jew.

Judaism does not prevent any Jew, man or woman, from high achievement in any and all areas that do not violate Halacha.  If for example a woman wants to become President of the United States, that is just fine with Judaism. But when the desire crosses over into religious activity, a woman takes on the role of a Jewish woman – a role that is different than that of a Jewish man.

Yes there is a lot of overlap in Halachic observance. But there are differences too. Significant ones. And while there are many Mitzvos specific to men that women are allowed and even encouraged to do, there are some that should be discouraged. When tradition is broken because of a spirit of the times, it’s time to examine if that spirit has undue influence on you.

That said, it is not my place to judge anyone’s motives. I’m sure that those women getting Semicha from Rabbi Weiss are fine religious Jews – sincere in what they are doing. But even in all that sincerity, I can’t help but believe that they have been influenced by the spirit of the times in seeking that goal.

There is a lot of opposition to it by mainstream Orthodoxy – including the Modern Orthodox RCA.  I am curious to see how they will react to this.