By Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel
An editorialist in the Jerusalem Post was greatly exercised by the fact that Orthodox rabbinic leaders, including most notably Agudath Israel of America’s Council of Torah Sages (Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah), have gone on record stating what is and is not acceptable for Orthodox congregations (“Women’s rabbinical rights”, 1/03/10).
So exercised, in fact, that the editorialist saw fit to distort the words of the rabbinic sages in an effort to score debating points.
The distortion begins with the editorial’s very first word: “‘Assertive’ Orthodox women are making some men very nervous.” The placement of quotation marks around the word “assertive” is designed to imply that the pejorative is taken from the mouths (or pens) of the “nervous” rabbis themselves – when in fact it is the invention of the editorialist.
In the scientific world, one invention often leads to another. So too, apparently, in the editorial world. The second sentence of the editorial informs readers that the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah “has excommunicated the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale…for recognizing Sara Hurwitz…as a rabbi.” In fact, the rabbinic sages excommunicated no one and no thing. Stories of excommunication may make for interesting reading, but at least in this case it is absolute fiction.
What the Council of Torah Sages did say is that placing a woman in a rabbinic position is outside the bounds of Jewish Orthodoxy. The Council’s members, deeply respected senior rabbis and heads of American yeshivot, felt it important to make clear that Rabbi Avi Weiss’ conferral of rabbinical status on a woman, and her assumption of certain traditional rabbinic functions at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, represent a “radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition,” and that “any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.” A strong position, to be sure – as befitting the gravity of the issue – but a far cry from excommunication.
The editorial then proceeds from distortion to armchair analysis with its assertion that fear of “challenge to their hegemony” motivated the rabbinic sages.
“The male-dominated rabbinic establishment seems to have a visceral (Freudian?) fear,” the editorial explains, “that female clergy will outperform them on the pulpit.” The rabbis’ rejection of the ordaining of women is further motivated, says the editorial, by their chauvinistic conviction that women should be relegated to their traditional roles of “cooking, cleaning and rearing children.” One can only marvel at the editorialist’s psychoanalytic prowess.
It is worth recalling, though, that the Torah itself establishes Judaism as a deeply role-based faith. There is a role for a Cohein, a role for a Levi, roles for men and roles for women. Contemporary feminism insists that women fill every conceivable role traditionally filled by men. And many are the Jews who have stumbled over one another in a rush to jump on that bandwagon. But from an Orthodox perspective, the Torah’s truths, including the role-assignments so deeply embedded in our tradition, transcend contemporary notions, today as in the past.
That Jews faithful to their religious tradition reserve the role of rabbi for men is no insult to women. What truly insult women are insinuations, like the editorialist’s, that the traditional roles of wives and mothers – including “raising children” – are somehow demeaning.
Anyone interested not in reacting to the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah’s statement from a preconceived stance but in actually understanding it would do well to focus on what it said. To wit: that creating a rabbinic role for women is a radical departure from the Jewish mesorah, or religious tradition.
Now, to be sure, many in our anchorless world would react with a shrug and a “so what?”. But a refusal to jettison any part of the Jewish religious tradition is precisely what defines Orthodoxy. Yes, changes can occur, and have occurred, in normative Orthodox practice. But such changes are rare, and they are instituted only after the deepest deliberations of the greatest Torah leaders of a generation, not as fiats motivated by the Zeitgeist.
And so there should be nothing shocking about recognized rabbinic leaders rejecting a proposed radical change in Jewish tradition. The rejection is born not of fear but of fealty – to the tradition that is the heritage of all Jews.
This article, which originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post, was distributed by Am Echad Resources.