Building a vibrant and equitable Orthodoxy

Every fall I have the privilege of interviewing fourth year medical students who are applying for a residency position in neurosurgery at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. Sometimes an intrepid student will ask me, “What are you looking for? What is the most important quality for a successful resident?” And my answer is always: We have a wonderful pool of smart talented applicants, and we will be able to teach them the data, thinking and surgical techniques that they will need.

But we can’t teach caring. So caring is the most important quality that I look for in a resident. The residents who care for the patients will extend themselves to assure the most optimum care, and they will be the best physicians when they graduate. I don’t know if scientific studies support the idea that caring cannot be taught, but at the least it seems to me to be a most difficult quality to instill, and, the most important.

So what does it take to have a vibrant and equitable Orthodoxy? We have to care enough about both Orthodoxy and equity to actively advocate for the combination. And I think what we will find, and are finding, is that there are many people who have similar cares but either didn’t realize it or were afraid to speak up. Because halakhic equity is a basic tenet of our beliefs. We are not supposed to go out of our way to exclude people or impose unnecessary impediments. Our Tanakh includes many passionate calls for justice. The prophets criticize those who oppress others. This is an integral part of our Judaism, and many simply need to be reminded of it.

I suggest that in the realm of equity, instead of asking the question “is it allowed?” we instead should ask “is it halakhically justified to forbid?”  And because we are halakhic Jews, sometimes the answer will be yes, it is forbidden, but I think more than we realize the answer will be no, it is not halakhically forbidden. While we typically think that the burden of proof is on those who advocate for change, that has not been true in practice. For example, in the past it was very common for even the most fundamentalist papers to include the pictures of women.

Over the past decades, there have been “Ultra Orthodox” Jewish publications that have eliminated images of women, a practice that is now seeping into mainstream Orthodox publications.  If one looks hard enough, one can find logically incoherent halakhic  based justifications for this practice, when in reality it  seems that it was done mostly for economic reasons and/or succumbing to social pressure.

So there certainly are areas where the burden of proof is on those who advocate for change, but it doesn’t seem necessary when the practice is not halakhically based in the first place. What is needed is simply the awareness of injustice, and then caring enough to advocate for change. I would hope that the realization that we are needlessly wronging a significant portion of our constituents and population would be an engine for change.

There are many similar issues that need to be addressed. We simply need for the Orthodox world to care about justice, and then advocate for change. For example, women have the same obligation as men in kiddush on Shabbat.  Instead of asking, can women say kiddush, we instead should ask, is there a compelling reason to preclude a woman from reciting kiddush?  And the answer for the vast majority of Orthodox Jews would be ‘No, there isn’t.’  And the discussion rightly would end there, and we would end gender discrimination in kiddush. A similar discussion can and should be had regarding women reading the Megillat Esther (especially if it is just for other women), and women carrying a sefer Torah and dancing with it on Simchat Torah.

Instead of asking, ‘can a woman do this?’, we should ask, “is there a compelling halakhic reason to say that it is forbidden?’ and the answer again, is a resounding no.  It should not be acceptable to discriminate due to social pressure, people wanting to fit it, nor not wanting to make waves. A vibrant equitable Orthodoxy is emerging as more and more people understand the halakhic reality and the demands of halakhic justice.

The history of civilization until recently is the history of gender inequality.  Some halakhic decisions have reflected those outside influences. For example, Maimonides forbade married women from leaving the house more than a few times a month.  This is reality.  By reframing the discussion from “can we permit’, to “is it justified to forbid?’ we can focus on Torah values and cast aside the outside influences that have affected the outcome of halakhic deliberations. I am proud of the role that the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) has played in bringing issue to light and educating the community.

Ultimately, it should not be necessary to use the word ‘Feminist’, because what is at stake is simply the state of not being discriminated against. In the ideal world, advocating for equity would be the norm, and those insisting on oppressing women would be appropriately considered misogynists. To be clear, this is not with regard to legitimate Halakhic disagreements, but applies to those who are willing to discriminate against women due to financial or social gain, or those who go far out of their way to cobble together weak Halakhic arguments against the inclusion of women (thus demonstrating that where there is a Rabbinic will to oppose, a Halachic way will be found).

A number of years ago my employer began sending surveys to patients, obtaining feedback on our service, rating us from 1 to 5 stars.  We then had to achieve a certain percentage of positive results. We were told that the only positive rating was one of 5 stars. While someone who gave us 4 stars was probably happy, only the person who gave us 5 stars was telling their friends about us. We need to care about equitable Orthodoxy. And when each of us does so, to the level of 5 stars, our community will be even more vibrant, and reach optimal equitability.  Together, we can achieve this.

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About the Author
Noam Stadlan, MD is Vice-Chairman, Department of Neurosurgery at NorthShore University Healthcare System and received a Masters in Bioethics from New York Medical College/Touro. He is a member of the JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Alliance Feminist) board. His wife, Rabbi Marianne Novak, is an educator and a graduate of Yeshivat Maharat.
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