Creative leadership in tenuous times

Rabbi Mitchel Rocklin, a member of the RCA’s executive committee and my childhood friend, recently wrote an article in these pages in the wake of the OU’s decision regarding female clergy. He urges us in the Modern Orthodox community to “close the door” on our Open Orthodox neighbors and colleagues and to encourage the men and women in that cohort to abandon orthodoxy (or perhaps more accurately accuses them of already leaving Orthodoxy), and he hopes that they “help our coreligionists in other denominations.” Rabbi Rocklin asserts that those who support women as clergy are influenced only by external factors and non-Jewish mores, while halakha can only be influenced by internal needs of the Jewish community. Rabbi Rocklin conveniently promotes the narrative that the nefarious forces of egalitarianism and feminism drive women to aspire for recognition of their learning achievement through professional titles and appointments. He is certain that there can be no Jewish communal necessity promoting this change. Rabbi Rocklin and his cadre establish their “knowledge” of the motives of their Open Orthodox counterparts through a process of faux-empathetic disinterest. Just before declaring that the members of Open Orthodoxy are welcome to join other denominations, Rabbi Rocklin tells us that he has friends who are members of other denominations, and “we have profound differences of opinion, and just as I do not expect them to adopt my views, I know that they do not expect me to adopt theirs.” He tells us that he has no interest in truly hearing others’ views, even those of his “great friends,” sure as he is of his own. The Open Orthodox, in other words, belong to the theological other, and need not be heard.

In the following remarks I will focus on three problem areas highlighted by Rabbi Rocklin’s essay. The first problem stems from a failure in creative, productive leadership on the side of those opposing women’s Torah leadership. The second problem flows from a logical misconception that “the way things are and have always been” implies an ethical mandate for “the way things ought to be.” The final problem, as indicated in the introduction, derives from an empirical fallacy concerning the knowledge of those opposed to women’s Torah leadership about the intents and dreams of those promoting women’s Torah leadership.

Creative Leadership is Productive. Ensuring conformity is Destructive

We should not wonder at the fact that addressing difficult questions about novel situations sparks controversy. Yet through the process of conversing and airing differences, we strive for truth – not conformity. Our sages teach us that God, the Torah and Israel are a single unity (for example Arukh Hashulḥan Y”D 246:1). When the people of Israel strive for truth in Torah, they attain unity with the Divine. The most beautiful unity with the Divine requires the participation of the whole, for through the multitude the King is glorified. As Rabbi Yeḥiel Mikhel Epstein writes in the introduction to Arukh Hashulḥan Ḥoshen Mishpat,

If you are bewildered by the multitude of opinions and disputes about distinct halakhot, wisdom has not prodded you to ask, for the Philosopher (presumably Aristotle in Physics II:5) has already stated that there are innumerable aspects to the individual, and all [opinions] are the words of the Living God, as our sages of blessed memory taught…On the contrary, this is the splendor of our holy and pure Torah—the entire Torah is called a ‘song’ and the splendor of a song is in the differing voices. This is the essence of its pleasantness.

Thus only the harmony of countermelodies and the overtones of voices singing in different pitches produce the true beauty of Torah. Only the combination of opinions seeking truth in opposition brings us closer to unity with the Divine. Why exclude those hoping to strengthen Torah? Furthermore, why exclude women from the song of Torah when adding their voices to our chorus will only enhance our holy writ and rites?

With the multi-vocal splendor of Torah in mind, I turn now to highlight a seemingly minor aside in Rabbi Rocklin’s essay. I say “aside,” yet I believe the remark to be emblematic of a larger analytic flaw that leads to a problematic methodology for leadership. In passing, Rabbi Rocklin utilizes the story of Rabban Gamli’el and Rabbi Yehoshu’a’s debate about the calendar (though he leaves the sages unnamed, see mRosh Hashana 2:9) to prove that dissenters cannot be allowed to follow minority opinions if doing so would “disrupt the community’s ability to function.” He fails to tell the continuation of the story, and his decontextualizing the dispute lends credence to his interpretation. While Rabban Gamli’el, who was the Rosh Yeshiva and Nasi (Jewish Communal leader), was able to enforce his opinion through punitive measures and ensured that Rabbi Yehoshu’a complied, after he forced Rabbi Yehoshu’a to abandon his convictions on several other occasions, the gemara tells us that “All of the assembled called out, ‘Stop!’” and they deposed Rabban Gamli’el as leader (see bBerakhot 27b-28a). This story clearly teaches us a second message: even in conflicts which compromise the community’s ability to function, we depend on our leaders to model compassionate leadership and engage in productive, not destructive, politicking.

I admit that this tana’itic story remains somewhat ambiguous: Rabban Gamli’el is later partially reinstated (he becomes co-leader with Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya), and he has a semi-prophetic dream in which some of his harsher decrees are validated. In the end, though, the halakha disputed in this sugya, whether Ma’ariv is hova or reshut, is decided for posterity in accordance with Rabbi Yehoshu’a. Rabban Gamli’el’s tactics ultimately backfire. Do the OU and RCA want to engage in a similar sort of punitive enforcement of policies in order to quell dispute? Might not the very history to which Rabbi Rocklin refers indicate that the pleasant path and peaceful way may be most effective? Might not conversation and conciliation be a better vehicle toward the communal unity Rabbi Rocklin seeks?

Why might the alternative conciliatory path be more productive? To answer this question, I look no further than the very historical disputes Rabbi Rocklin mentions: the canonization of Tanakh and establishing the calendar (in two iterations). In the debates about the calendar, there were camps proposing alternative, specific answers to the same social problem. The calendar debates focused on calculating the time for the holidays in the wake of the disruption of the biblically mandated system of establishing the months based on witness testimony to the Sanhedrin. Different opinions were proposed, and in each case, one of these won the day. Rabbi Rocklin correctly points out that this was an area of special concern, for had we not resolved this debate in a uniform way, when traveling from my home to a different community, I might inadvertently violate Yom Kippur or any other holiday per local custom if our calendars did not align. How different is our current debate! Does the establishment of religious leadership positions for women disrupt our ability to navigate successful communal life in the same way? Would a visitor from one community to another be in violation of biblical ordinances as locally interpreted if his home community and the community he is visiting have different approaches to women’s communal leadership? Even if you answer all of these in the affirmative, the most important difference remains: in the calendar debates there were two opposing answers to the same question. In our situation the proponents and opponents of women’s religious leadership address overlapping, but different questions. The opponents of women as clergy answer a single simple question: “Can women act in the capacity of rabbi?” They clearly answer in the negative, and are ready to be done with the entire affair. Proponents of women’s leadership recognize a dual deficit in the community: on the one hand our community stands to benefit from including women in official religious leadership capacity, and on the other hand the situation we have created in which women are encouraged to delve into the texts of our tradition and achieve academically, but are shunned when they hope to parley this knowledge into a professional capacity is untenable. Rabbi Rocklin himself suggests that women interested in Talmud or Biblical study pursue graduate training and contribute to the field academically. Aside from the impracticality of this advice (is oversaturated academia really the best terminal solution of all interested women?), he explicitly advocates for an imbalance between the secular and religious experience for women: he tells our sisters, daughters and mothers, “Unlike in the secular aspect of your life, where the doors are open for both academic and professional achievement, Jewish women may attain Jewish success academically, but you are barred from Jewish professional achievement.” Does Rabbi Rocklin believe that promoting the secular at the expense of the religious for half of our community is the best long-term solution for the success of Modern Orthodoxy?

The canonization of Tanakh, cited by Rabbi Rocklin as an example of religious fiat, is in reality perhaps the best example of inclusiveness achieved through creative thinking on the part of our sages. When our sages canonized Tanakh, they confronted various theological questions concerning the books contending for readership amongst the Jewish people. Thus, our sages needed to decide which were truly holy and deserved sacred space in our theological corpus. They struggled mightily with some of the texts. Even the book of Ezekiel, known today as one of the three major prophets of the late First Temple period, fell into danger of being left out of the cannon, for “his words conflict with the words of the Torah.” Thus Ḥananya ben Ḥizqiya interpreted the problematic verses to align them with normative theological precepts (see bShabbat 13b). This story enlightens us about an important feature of the rabbinic process: difficult questions require creative solutions. When the rabbis of that time asked the simple question, “Does the Book of Ezekiel match the theology of the Mosaic text?” – the obvious answer was, “No.” They did not stop there, but looked past the obvious difficulty to the broader question of how inclusion of Ezekiel through creative re-interpretation would strengthen our theological cannon. While both the RCA and the OU have opened the space for creative opportunities for women on paper, the reality confirms that practical leadership in this area lacks conviction among those who hope to deny women from the clergy. Rather than focusing on negating others’ specific solution to the problem of women’s role in communal Jewish life (and banishing them from your camp), why not simply work with renewed enthusiasm to promote the solutions you feel are appropriate? If you truly hope to learn the lessons from the calendar controversies and Biblical cannonization, create your own models to elevate the Daughters of Israel and increase Torah and glorify it.

The Naturalistic Fallacy – A failure of teleology

Rabbi Rocklin claims that the insistence on all male clergy was unique to the Jews. Since the ancient Jews were aware of cultures with female clergy and rejected this ritual approach, there must be some unique Jewish value in a distinctly male clergy. In formulating this argument Rabbi Rocklin makes two errors: one historical the other logical.

On a historical plain, Rabbi Rocklin’s specific claim is, “The insistence on male clergy was also unique, and carried over to the synagogue, which the prophet Ezekiel and the rabbis understood as constituting a “small temple.” The problem here is twofold. (1) If the synagogue as a small temple is the ritual continuation of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, then the ritual functions in the synagogue replace the ritual functions performed by the kohanim and levyim. This seems to be Rabbi Rocklin’s implication, as only males performed the temple rituals in these capacities. The problem is that Rabbis are not kohanim (although kohanim can certainly become rabbis). As the first mishna in Avot tells us, the theological heritage of the rabbis derives from the teachings passed through the generations from Moses to contemporary times. This mesorah, the linking of the generations, passed from Moses to Joshua to the shoftim then to the nevi’im and on to the Men of the Great Assembly before reaching the Rabbis of the Mishna period. Both the period of the shoftim and the period of the nevi’im include female Torah leaders who filled the capacity described, and were thus instrumental to the continuation of the Mesorah! (2) The second problem with Rabbi Rocklin’s historical analysis: Ezekiel never compared the synagogue to a “small temple.” In fact through Ezekiel, Hashem tells his newly diasporic people, “Though I have sent them far amongst the nations and dispersed them in the lands, I will be for them a small temple in the lands to which they come” (Ezek. 11:16). Temple service is not replaced by synagogue service for those in Babylon with fresh loss and acute agony of separation from the Holy Temple; the Divine presence itself is their comfort and their salvation. The sages living centuries later, habituated to diaspora and with a heritage of social institutions erected to serve as conduits for Jewish communal expression explain that this verse refers to the Divine presence which resides in the synagogues and the yeshivot (see bMegilla 29a; note too, that it is not only the synagogue that has replaced the Temple, but the yeshiva as well, and the RCA and the OU have not barred women from learning or teaching or even taking leadership roles in the Yeshiva setting). The rabbinic interpretation becomes the normative interpretation of the verse, but that should not shroud from our consciousness that Jewish history does not trundle forward in monolithic unity, but Jewish communal life in Ezekiel’s time responded to the needs of his suffering constituents while the sages responded to their own.

The more important error that Rabbi Rocklin makes is a logical fallacy derived from a teleologic ambition: he assumes that women’s historical exclusion from ritual leadership implies an ethical mandate to exclude. Yet the fact of an object’s or situation’s existence, whether natural, sociological or technological, implies nothing inherent about its ethical right to exist. The existence of poverty does not ethically preclude charity; the existence of illness does not preclude medicine. On the contrary, the existence of any suffering or injustice requires careful examination and, where necessary, intervention to upend the extant structures promoting that suffering or injustice.   Where our mesorah is concerned, as Rabbi Yaaov Yeḥiel Weinberg tells us, “The Jewish heart fastens to the traditions of our parents and teachers and recoils from any change in religious ritual.” This is as it should be. Yet at the same time, Rabbi Weinberg notes that when a tradition runs counter to our intuition about the Right and the Just, we must re-evaluate the necessity of the familiar and traditional. Earlier in the same essay he writes,

There are those who claim against the permissibility of Bat Mitzvah celebration because it conflicts with the traditions of previous generations who never performed this custom. In truth this is not a valid claim, since the generations before ours did not need to invest in religious education of their daughters, because every Jew was filled with Torah and the fear of Heaven. The very atmosphere of every Jewish city was filled and overflowing with the smell and spirit of Judaism. The daughters who grew up in Jewish households smelled the smell of Judaism within them without any additional action, and seemingly suckled Judaism from their mothers’ breasts. Yet now a mighty change has occurred in the generation. The influence of the street removes from the heart of every boy and girl every spark of Judaism. Our daughters study in non-Jewish or secular schools, which do not diligently imbue into the hearts of their students a love of Torah and our holy customs of our perfect Judaism. Today it falls on us to direct all of our efforts to educate our daughters…

I will discuss the specific case of the innovation of Bat Mitzvah later. For our context, Rabbi Weinberg clearly articulates that novelty alone does not disqualify an innovation, even one that runs counter to the norms of our ancestors. The Bat Mitzvah is not neutral, but preferred, even necessary because these tenuous times call for vigilant inculcation of Torah knowledge and values to our daughters. Only thus could his community encounter the changing social reality in his time. We too must respond to the needs of our time and our community.

Don’t assume the worst of others; explore the need for change.

Unlike Rabbi Rocklin, my personal anecdotal experience leads me to see the need for women in the clergy to meet the changing social reality in our time. I have met women who pine for a female rabbi’s guidance. I know learned women shunned when looking to lead. Yet like Rabbi Rocklin, I lack clear empirical data about the pervasiveness and severity of the need. I propose to the RCA and the OU: why not study this problem and ask your Modern Orthodox constituents what problems they hope to address with this change in ritual practice? Eighty years ago physicians were sure that tobacco smoke improved health. Then in the 1940s and 1950s a small minority of scientists began to accumulate evidence that tobacco smoke exposure was linked to lung cancer. These scientists were shunned by the mainstream medical community, until Richard Doll and Bradford Hill thought to investigate the carcinogenic nature of tobacco smoke by prospectively linking cause of death and lifetime smoking history and delineating an epidemiologic methodology for showing cause and effect in populations. In so doing they reshaped medicine’s understanding of this risk, saved millions of lives, and invented a new epidemiologic toolkit (The Emperor of all Maladies 243-275). Even with clear scientific evidence for the harm of tobacco smoke, it took several years to change policy and even longer to change practice, but the tenacity and courage of Doll and Hill and others who worked to promote change must not be forgotten. Ought the OU to rest on its laurels, assuming the worst of those advocating change? Why leave metziut unsearched and obscure while claiming precise knowledge? Do not make the mistake that my medical ancestors made, risking the spiritual health of the entire community because you are sure of knowledge you have left unexplored. The time is ripe for openhearted discourse and investigation for the improvement of our community.

In truth, there is some empirical data in this regard. A 2016 study of people who have left Orthodoxy, which included 855 total respondents, gives us important insight into the factors that have driven people from our midst. Five-hundred fifty-four of these people responded to the question “Please think back to when you started moving away in belief or practice from the Orthodox community in which you were raised. What were the key things that caused your beliefs and practices to change?” and 11.0% of people responded that the “role or status of women” in the Orthodox community was key to that decision (this is a marketing study, not a scientific study. Using their data, though, my calculated 95% confidence interval is 8.34-13.66%). This was the fourth most common reason, and the first three reasons are all variations on “loss of faith” or “contradictions with rational or secular thought,” making the role of women the second most important issue to those who leave Orthodoxy. This sample included former Orthodox Jews from all communities. When looking specifically at the Modern Orthodox community, the role and status of women was the number one reason for leaving the community at 22% (95% CI: 15.0-29.0%). When looking at responses from women alone, 20% of all women and 37% of former Modern Orthodox women had left Orthodoxy because of the role or status of women in their communities (sample size of women was not provided, so standard error could not be calculated). These data make it clear that our Orthodox community as a whole and our Modern Orthodox community in particular fail our mothers, sisters, daughters and wives. These data should alert us to the danger of discrimination against half of our community.

Our community has been warned about the dangers of discriminating against women in the recent past. Rabbi Rocklin readily sites the meḥitza controversy to prove that ritual changes in the synagogue require conformity, and that rabbis have, in recent memory, acted together to promote a uniform halakhic stance for Orthodox schuls. Yet he ignores another important 20th century example in which ritual change was introduced, and after the controversy settled a new reality pervaded the modern orthodox world, distinguishing us from our chareidi counterparts. While I could easily reference the ascent of religious Zionism, which Rabbi Rocklin casts aside as if it were a forgone conclusion with no break from halakhic antecedents (which a quick review of 19th and early twentieth century halakhic literature would easily counter), I refer instead to the innovation of the Bat Mitzvah celebration. The Bat Mitzvah celebration was adopted in America by synagogues in the Reform and Conservative movement in the 1950s and 1960s (though innovated in America by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan in the 1920s). Orthodox Rabbis in the 1950s and 1960s debated the practice and for the most part forbade it. By the mid-1970s, though, through the courage of a few sensitive Rabbis the Bat Mitzvah celebration became accepted in Modern Orthodox schuls and is clearly commonplace today. Even in the 1960s, before widespread acceptance of Bat Mitzvah celebrations, Rabbi Yaakov Yeḥiel Weinberg promoted the custom. He felt that celebrating Benot Mitzvah offered a new opportunity to reinforce religious values in young women, much like the expansion of girls’ Torah education through the Beis Yaakov schools innovated in the previous generation. He wrote in the American journal HaPardes in April of 1963 (same article cited above),

The straight line of logic and the essential pedagogical responsibility nearly compel us to celebrate also for our daughters the arrival at the age of Mitzvah obligation. Discrimination between our sons and our daughters in regard to celebration of maturity strikes a mighty blow to the self-esteem of an adolescent girl, who in other respects has already arrived at a certain level of emancipation, as it were.

Per Rabbi Weinberg’s understanding, the promotion of the dignity of Modern Orthodox women necessitates the elimination of discriminatory communal practices. He worried that if a woman compares the dignity afforded her in her Jewish and secular contexts, the obvious imbalance will propel her away from the community. With this in mind, I again prompt the OU and the RCA vis-à-vis female clergy: study this issue again and consider the plausible damage done to the religious dignity of the daughters of Israel whose professional success in religious life pales in comparison to their professional success in secular life. Though Rabbi Rocklin accuses us otherwise, we in fact turn to women for spiritual leadership not in imitation of anything or anyone, but in recognition of their potential contribution to the Jewish future. Rabbi Weinberg concludes his essay, “In practice it depends on the intent of those wishing to innovate the custom of celebrating the Bat Mitzvah – if they intend it for the purpose of a mitzvah or, woe on us, in imitation of the heretics (presumably the liberal denominations)…The respected Rabbi should not engage in arguments with them but should only concern himself that this custom truly be used as strength and reinforcement for the authority of the spirit of Torah and Mitzvot in the hearts of the daughters of Israel.” May Hashem bless the OU and the RCA with the foresight and courage to engage in education rather than argumentation, and may they steer us forward toward a new generation in which we elevate rather than denigrate our daughters.

About the Author
Rabbi Shalom Schlagman, a former Regional Director of NCSY in Upstate NY and Judaic Studies teacher in Riverdale, is currently completing his MD at the University of Rochester. He lives in Rochester, NY with his wife and two children.
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