A Woman’s Place

A World War II joke goes as follows. One of the first American soldiers in the occupation force got into a conversation with a Japanese man – asking him if had any idea that Japan was on the verge of defeat before the surrender. To his amazement the Japanese man responded – ‘I could see it coming for a year’. To which the American responded, ‘ But how can that be? Japanese radio kept reporting glorious Japanese victories. ‘Yes.’ said the Japanese man, ‘but each of those glorious victories was closer and closer to our home islands’.

And so it goes with the RCA in its dealing with the role of women. The train left the station some 40 years ago when Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik z”l gave the first Talmud class to women at Stern College. The 2015 resolution of the RCA condemning women rabbis allows new roles for women in comparison to the 2010 resolution which condemned women rabbis. The 2015 resolution reads in part, ‘This resolution does not concern or address non-rabbinic positions such as Yoatzot Halacha, community scholars, Yeshiva University’s GPATS (Graduate Program of Advanced Talmudic Studies), and non-rabbinic school teachers. So long as no rabbinic or ordained title such as “Maharat” is used in these positions, and so long as there is no implication of ordination or a rabbinic status, this resolution is inapplicable.’

There was no mention of Yoatzot Halakha (Halakhic advisers) or GPATS in the RCA 2010 resolution. In spite of its bluster, the RCA is slowly coming to terms with women in halakhicly meaningful positions. Extrapolating slightly, we conjecture that the 2020 resolution condemning women rabbis will permit some additional roles for women, possibly Toanot Halakha (lawyers in religious courts). Women have served as Toanot Halakha in Israel for the last 20 years.

The spring edition of Tradition magazine deals with the changing role of women in the modern orthodox community. A July 18, 2016 statement at reads in part, ‘In an effort to further thoughtful discussion about the question of religious leadership opportunities for women, a subject that has been the focus of much heated debate throughout the Jewish Orthodox community, and beyond, Tradition: A Journal of Jewish Orthodox Thought, a publication of the Rabbinical Council of America, includes in its recently released Spring 2016 issue a collection of articles under the title “Perspectives on Women’s Leadership in Orthodoxy.”‘(You can download the articles from the website.)

So what’s new in the Tradition articles.

In his usual complex style, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l seems to be saying that there is no problem with women serving as officers in a schul (are you listening Young Israel) and semikha is out for women. Rav Lichenstein is careful to define semikha as a ‘formal spiritual status’, which I interpret as meaning ‘mara d’asra’.i.e. a congregational rabbi. Speaking of the growth of Torah scholarship among women in our generation, he states, ‘It will enable qualified women to participate in in Halakhic discourse, through the written and spoken word, without raising troublesome hackles among the denizens of traditional battei midrash.’
He notes the importance of the concept ‘kol kevuda bat melech penima’ which loosely translates as ‘a Jewish woman’s place is in the non-public sphere’. He plays this off against ‘la’asot nachas ruach la’nashim’ translated as ‘Make life pleasant for women’. The interplay between these concepts will help to define the role of women in our community.

Much of the discussion of the other contributors to the Tradition article devolves on the meaning of semikha. Those opposed to women receiving semikha translate it as meaning ordination. Those in favor of women receiving semikha define it as certification or licensing.

In her article, Dr. Rachel Levmore brings an Israeli perspective to the discussion. She points out that women’s halakhic role has already gone far beyond the yoatzot halacha sanctioned by the RCA. In Israel today, and for the past twenty years, women have served as toanot rabbaniyot – advocates who are licensed to represent litigants in the Beit ha-Din ha-Rabbani ha-Mamlakhti (National Rabbinic Court).

The licensing of toanot was instituted by the then chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu at the suggestion of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Women take the same examinations as men who wish to be toanim. Amusingly, as Dr. Levmore mentions, women passed the licensing examination at twice the rate of men. This upset the establishment to the point that women were not allowed to take the exam until the Israeli Supreme Court intervened in their favor. Today women function in this role, representing both men and woment before the rabbinic courts ‘without raising troublesome hackles among the denizens of traditional battei midrash’ in the words of Rav Lichtenstein. In her summary, Dr. Levmore notes that ‘women in Israel are actually and quietly functioning in various roles in which rabbis would function for at least two decades. In Israel, the women do not care what the title is’

Dr. Joel Wolowelsky gets into a detailed analysis of the word semikha. He notes that most graduates of Yeshivot, who receive semikha, are not – and will never be – dayyanim or poskim (judges or determiners of religious law). To argue that semikha for women is out of the question because they cannot serve as congregational rabbis, dayyanim or poskim does not make sense. (In fact a former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Eliyahu Baksi-Doron has ruled that women can serve as poskot.) In the context of today’s America, all that semikha means is that the musmakh has ‘a formal study of halakha, can access and understand halakhic literature, and – like all good lawyers and doctors – has a sense that some questions need to be deferred to an expert for analysis.’ Dr. Wolowelsky then argues that women who meet this standard should also be certified with semikha. Dr. Wolowelsky then goes into a long discussion as to an appropriate title for such women. We pass over this discussion because the the position of Dr. Levmore (titles don’t matter) makes a lot more sense.

Dr. Wolowwelsky makes the important point that the opponents of women’s semikha try to confuse the issue by conflating it with issues such as same sex marriage or I might add partnership minyanim.

Reading through the articles, I was struck by the opponents of expanding the roles of women castigating their opponents as being ‘politically correct’. In fact, it is equally appropriate to characterize them as being ‘politically correct’. They are just mouthing the prevalent attitudes of their in-group, which opposes expanding the role of women.

About the Author
Richard Chasman, 1934-2018, was a member of the Modern Orthodox community in Chicago. Professionally, he was a theoretical nuclear physicist. Richard, who described his perspective as "centrist," wrote a newsletter for more than 20 years called "Chovevai Tsion of Chicago," on subjects of interest to the Modern Orthodox community.
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