Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian
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Dybbuk or voice? On women’s ordination in Orthodoxy

Are the newly-minted female Orthodox rabbis up for making the changes Jewish law needs or are they no more than honorary men?

Mazal tov to the women and men who received s’mikha in Rabbi Herzl Hefter‘s Harel yeshiva last night, and to their teachers and visionary leaders, Rabbi Herzl Hefter, Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber.

Women and men study together in this path breaking yeshiva, pursue the same course of study, take the same tests, get the same ordination.

No one would have predicted even 10 years ago that such a thing would be happening in Orthodoxy, in Israel. Just a few years ago, it was remarkable that there was public ordination of women and men by Rav Daniel Landes, held in an Orthodox shul in Jerusalem, Yedidya. Until then, women who had gotten private s’mikha had to be careful about saying who taught and ordained them; their teachers were all but in hiding.

I am delighted, personally and as a scholar, for this historic development and only regret that my students cannot begin to appreciate that all this was literally, unthinkable, very recently; when I stress the astounding pace of change in just the last 40, 30, even 20 years — which is before they were born and might as well be the Middle Ages.

Of course, women should be learned in all our classic texts and traditions. Of course women should be teachers, leaders, authorities, as their learning and vision mandate. And, as Rabbi Sperber emphasized in his talk to the new rabbis, use this learning ethically, always.

On the other hand, all these texts and traditions are androcentric, patriarchal. They assume a hierarchy of male over female and treat men as the human and Jewish norm and women as Other. Diminish women’s full humanity and Jewishness.

For women simply (or not so simply), to learn how to adjudicate like men, as if we were men; for women to apply the same horrific rules of marriage and divorce; to treat women’s bodies as repositories of impurity and defilement rather than as repositories of Divine Creation, worthy of wonder and blessing; and women as objects of curiosity, horror, and above all, control, by men, is no accomplishment.

When women rule no differently about agunot and about iggun altogether, than men, we have not accomplished anything worth having; worse, we have added a new travesty to a travesty-laden system. Women were not at the table when the rules were written. These rules necessarily and pervasively reflect male bias. It is not enough, the beginning of enough, for women to become learned decisors of these rules and rulings.

I have not heard Orthodox institutions, whether coed or all-women, address this dilemma — a dilemma they and any egalitarian, but not feminist, institution create. That of women as honorary men.

It is the dilemma of traditional, egalitarian Judaism (however much of an oxymoron that term may have sounded until recently); that is, a stance that assumes that the “product” — traditional Judaism, including its wholly masculine language of prayer, is fine; that the only problem was discrimination, barring women’s access to it. That access granted, problem solved.

But, not at all.

In some ways, full access accentuates the problem, as learned women gain insiders’ understanding of how the wholly male system, in which women are always, only, objects, operates, and hear themselves speaking as its dybbuk.

The radical changes of just the last few years should encourage any and all of us who take these texts and traditions seriously, with whatever increasingly meaningless movement labels apply to us or not– to keep pushing. The problem here is deep, difficult, complicated, painful— and I fully understand, frightening; but no one in this company shies from challenge.

I wish the new rabbis and their teachers, first of all, mazal tov, and to us all, strength, and continued determination not to shy away from what Torah demands of us; of that which we, in our generation, can do, as our ancestors could not; and therefore, must do:

Take the teaching of radical, unconditional equality in Genesis 1:27 — that God created humanity in God’s image, female and male — (“And God created the Earth creature [ha’adam] in God’s image; in God’s image did God create it; male and female did God create them”) — and make it a charge to action; make it actionable.

That is, after all, what Torah is about, and what halakha is for.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She is the author of four published books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her new book is the first history of agunot and iggun from medieval times to the present, across the Jewish map. It also presents analysis and critique of current policy on Jewish marital capitivity and proposals to end this abuse. Entitled, "Thinking Outside the Chains About Jewish Marital Captivity," it is forthcoming from NYU Press. She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, the Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post.
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