Thursday, February 23, 2017

Recognition Yes. Authority No.

'Rabbi' Nechama Leibowitz?
Perhaps the biggest challenge to Orthodoxy today is the glass ceiling. This is a concept I never heard of until relatively recently a few years ago. It came into vogue at the time feminism began pushing the envelope of egalitarianism more successfully. The idea behind this metaphor is that women have a ‘ceiling’ which they can see through but have been societally prevented from breaking through. Thus women are being unfairly denied opportunities automatically given to men. 

I actually support breaking those glass ceilings. No one should ever be denied achieving any goal they seek. Gender should never be an issue. The only thing that should count is merit. If one is the best qualified for a given job, they should get it - no matter whether they are a man or a woman.

But as I have said so many times, in Judaism egalitarianism is not a value. Judaism sees men and women each in their own roles. And although there is much overlap, there are some areas that don’t. The one glass ceiling which cannot be broken is that of the rabbinate. It is no secret that I oppose the ordination of women (for a variety of reasons that I will not rehash here). I in fact strongly support the recent OU statement that made it clear that this innovation is not acceptable. Thus adding yet another Orthodox institutional voice in opposition to it.

This is old news. But I don’t think it has been emphasized enough that there are roles for women in much of what is done in the rabbinate by men. Roles that have been increasingly accepted even by the right wing.  The OU statement made specific reference to that in their statement. 

There are highly educated and knowledgeable women that teach Torah in girls schools all over the world. Some of them are principals. And they do so with the full support of Orthodox establishment rabbis.

There are women that do pastoral counseling. 

There are women that will answer questions about Taharas HaMishpacha (Niddah issues). Even among the right wing. They are rebbetzins – married to rabbis that are Poskim in these matters. They have been around their husbands so long and have heard these Shailos asked to and answered by their husbands hundreds of times. They know exactly what he would say. To the best of my knowledge no one on the right discourages this practice.  Should they not be given a title recognizing their achievement and status?

The Centrist community has actually done this in at least one case. We now have women that actually study those laws and can answer most of the common questions via what they have studied instead of through osmosis from their husbands. They are called Yoatzot – Halachic advisers. The right has rejected that as too much of a leadership role. While not universally accepted by all Centrist Poskim, there are those that do.

Laura Shaw Frank has addressed this issue in a recent article on Lehrhaus. She asks readers to consider recognizing these accomplishments. And points to the fact that such recognition does actually exist in right wing circles. Most notably in Jewish outreach. Especially in  Chabad. It is pretty clear that rebbetzins – the wives of Chabad Shiluchim who have had excellent Jewish educations play an essential leadership role – equal to that of their husbands in reaching out to fellow Jews. This is how they are seen by the Jews they reach out to. This is how they see themselves. This is how their husbands see them… and this is how Chabad itself sees them.

Even the Agudah approves of women taking upon themselves certain aspects the rabbinate. And they have no problem referring to them as clergy when seeking parsonage – a tax benefit given only to members of the clergy. Which the courts have granted to them.

Is this not a contradiction to the utter rejection of women as rabbis by Chabad, the Agudah, the RCA and the OU? On the surface it may seem so.

I think it is something else. If one examines the positions of all three of these (Chabad the Agudah and the RCA/OU) all are on board with women that have assumed some of responsibilities normally associated with rabbis. There have been female teachers formally teaching women since at least the advent of the Beis Yaakov system. There have been Rebbetzins giving Taharas HaMishpacha advice longer than that. And when it comes to outreach clearly both men and women have equal roles to play.

What about titles? Should there not be some sort of recognition of those leadership roles that is more than honorary – which is the way the word rebbetzin is used? What about calling them rabbis? …breaking the ultimate Orthodox glass ceiling? That would seem logical. And yet not a single Orthodox faction agrees to that. Why not?

It isn’t that I am opposed to giving women authority over men in Judaism. It is Halacha that is opposed. The title ‘rabbi’ grants more than recognition. It grants authority. And places women into a new category of leadership that according to virtually all Poskim contradicts the issue of Serrara – authority over men. The prophetess Devorah often cited as proof that a woman may indeed have authority over men was an exception by virtue of the fact that she was given the gift of prophesy by God.

Recognizing achievement does not grant authority. Conferring the title ‘rabbi’ (or any substitute title for rabbi) does. And that is the crux of the issue. No matter how much Torah knowledge a woman might have she may not - according to Halacha be given Serrara; the ability to rule as an authority over men. It may not be fair. But it is Halacha. In almost all of the examples above, it is women dealing with women. And in those cases where women deal with men, it is not in an authoritative way. By definition, a rabbi is an authority in Halacha.

Truly great women do not need titles in any case. Nechama Leibowitz, was perhaps the greatest living expert on Tanach in her day bar none – including male rabbis. If any woman deserved the title rabbi - she did. But she did not seek the title, rabbi. She did however, deserve the recognition. In spades! Which she got! 

I realize that this will not satisfy Orthodox feminists who see breaking this particular glass ceiling as a goal – and reject the idea that Serrara applies to a rabbi.  And they have increasingly begun to do so by ordaining women both here and in Israel. But their view has been completely rejected by both the right and the center. Which is increasingly causing a rift between us that may soon be unbridgeable.