The past six weeks have been monumental for my wonderful wife, Noa Jeselsohn. On the first day of Hanukkah, she altruistically donated a kidney to a 67-year-old man from Tel Aviv she had never met before. Two weeks later, she completed a seven and a half year Talmudic marathon by finishing a full Daf Yomi cycle. I was telling everyone that she was the first person to accomplish both feats in the same month until we discovered that Devora Steinmetz had already done this at the conclusion of the previous cycle. It turns out that Erica Brown has also done both, though not in the same month.
At first glance, it seems that we are talking about two great achievements sharing no connection. Many learned Talmudists do not dream of donating a kidney while many donors have never opened a Talmudic page. One act exemplifies benevolence and courage whereas the other reflects dedication and love of learning. Nonetheless, I think we can locate a common theme.
Modernity has been threatening to traditional religious communities in numerous ways and this essay will focus on two of them. The scientific worldview crowds God out of the picture and adopts a perspective focused on the quantifiable, the testable, and the concrete, often leaving little room for the transcendent. Scientists tend towards a mechanical determinism that denies human freedom and goodness. Not coincidentally, the most strident contemporary atheists (i.e. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris) are almost all from the world of science. Given such a tense backdrop, religious individuals may adopt a powerfully negative view of the scientific community.
Such a view does not do justice to some of the amazing gifts contemporary science gives us. Thinking about the percentages of mothers dying in childbirth and children not making it to adolescence in the pre – modern world should inspire expression of appreciative awe at the current situation. Considering science’s ability to help the infertile and the ill should instigate singing out in gratitude. The capacity to significantly prolong another’s life by donating an organ belongs on this list as well. We should not let some scientific hostility towards religion blind us to science’s major contributions to human flourishing.
The role of women in modernity also challenges traditional religion. Women did not traditionally have the educational, leadership, or ritual opportunities that men did and this reality leads to great tension in our more egalitarian world. While women’s role has changed in almost every religious community, the degree and pace of change as well as the challenge of endorsing novelty while remaining within traditional religious frameworks generates much communal conflict. Reactionary voices draw additional red lines and portray feminism as an ideological monster attempting to swallow traditional society and destroy the family.
As with regard to science, the dangers here are real but so is the contribution. The dangers include a more strident feminist voice downplaying the value of having children and raising a family or seeing the world entirely through the lens of a constant battle for power between the sexes. Yet the dangers do not cancel the benefits. Whether or not they call it feminism, all sectors of Orthodox Jewish society benefit from women’s expanded opportunities. Haredi women can be lawyers, doctors, and Torah teachers. Almost all of today’s Jewish women are far more educated than their great – grandmothers, something that enhances the quality of their religious lives. When I hear women say that they aspire to be exactly like their great grandmothers, I am astounded. Do they truly want to remain ignorant, unable to appreciate the beauty and wisdom of a page of Gemara, a Ramban al Hatorah, or an essay of Rav Hutner?
In his introduction to Ein Ayah, his aggadic commentary, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook outlines a model in which something forced upon the community by circumstances develops into an ideal. It may be true historically that Jewish women’s education initially expanded as a response to the crisis of modernity but I believe that it is no longer only a matter of damage control. Let us say forthrightly that we are thrilled that women have much greater access to the deep insights of our tradition.
Last month’s Jerusalem Hadran Siyum Hashas for women, run ably by our friend Rabbanit Michelle Farber, was an inspiring event. The various learned female speakers did not talk about overthrowing the patriarchy; they simply conveyed their profound love for Torah. Only an insensitive person could hear their talks and remain indifferent to the power of this love. If feminism helped produce this, it could not be the complete monster its opponents portray it as.
One could certainly distinguish between the two items addressed here and contend that the risk – benefit analysis plays out differently regarding science and women’s issues. Even so, a balanced and honest portrayal must incorporate both gains and losses. Feminism need not be a dirty word with purely negative associations in the Orthodox community since varieties of feminism exist and all Orthodox groups have benefitted from the expansion of religious and secular opportunities for women.
I am extremely proud of what Noa has done. Though her acts are certainly worthwhile in their own right, they also convey an important message. Despite all the threats that religious life has in the contemporary world, we should not adopt a black and white rejectionist perspective false to our experience. Such a view sees contemporary Western culture as fully evil and claims that we have nothing to learn from it. Instead, we should candidly assert that science and the changing role of women have both provided great benefits to religious society.