Objectifying Women and Women as Rabbis

Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is a friend. I met her on my last trip to Israel. She is an intelligent woman whose sense of fairness and justice I admire. I often agree with her view on how certain segments of Orthodoxy treat women. But sometimes I don’t. Her latest contribution to the public discourse is featured in the Times of Israel and demonstrates both.

Shoshanna discusses two entirely different aspects of how women are treated and asserts that in both cases, there are great injustices being done. I agree with her on the first and disagree on the second. I have discussed both issues in the past. She knows my views.

First, there is the issue of erasing women entirely from the public square. I am with her on this 100%. Her point is that it has become increasingly popular in right-wing circles to erase women from the public square.

In the more extreme right of certain Hasidic groups this has always been the case.  But this idea has been slowly creeping into the mainstream. Orthodox publications that in the past have had no halachic — or even hashkafic — issue with publishing pictures of modestly dressed are now beginning to restrict them.

Not long ago, for example, Agudah published two pictures of a group of Agudah activists that were in Washington DC. One picture had all of the participants in it. And one had the women photo-shopped out of it. They did this to accommodate those who wanted to publish a picture, but do not publish pictures of women.

The Agudah Moetzes apparently sees nothing wrong with publishing pictures of women. And even though I disagree with them about photo-shopping women out of a picture, I understand why they did it. They did it out of respect.  So that to those who will not publish such pictures they offered a photo-shopped version of it sans women. They simply want the publicity in as many Orthodox publications as they can get.

We are beginning to witness this type of censorship more than ever. It’s almost becoming the norm. Two major Haredi magazines refuse to do it even though they know there is nothing wrong with it.  Why? What possible reasons does even the extreme right have for not publishing pictures of women?

They will explain it a question of Shmiras Eynayim — guarding your eyes. Men are too easily enticed by the sight of a woman — even in a picture. To avoid being a michshol — a stumbling block to their male readers — they have simply avoided publishing any pictures, no matter how modestly a woman is dressed. That normal men are not enticed by the sight of a modestly dressed woman seems to be lost on them. In our day women are as much in the public square as men. We all encounter each other all the time in all places. Which kind of makes eliminating pictures of women for purposes of michshol ridiculous. Shoshanna also notes another argument they make. That they do this as:

a direct response to the permissiveness and sexualization of women in contemporary society and a way to protect them from men’s inevitable attractions.

That one segment of Orthodoxy still feels this way is up to them. However, once other segments start doing it, it hurts all of us. How does it hurt? Shoshanna explains:

Erasing the female form objectifies women just as much as the secular world’s overexposure does. And removing all images of mothers and daughters implies that a normal nonsexual image is somehow lewd and improper. And so we end up with images of Shabbat tables with no mother or daughters.

I am in complete agreement with her on this. But then she touches on an entirely different subject. Which has been the source of much controversy: leadership positions (as in rabbis) for women in the realm of Orthodoxy.

There I am in total disagreement with her. But not for the reasons she suggests. She believes strongly that women should be able to do whatever a man does as long as they are physically and intellectually capable of doing it. In principle I agree with her. Outside of Orthodox Judaism, the only qualifications for any position in the world are the two things I mentioned: physical and intellectual capacity. Gender should not be a factor at all. But when it comes to leadership positions in Orthodoxy, that is another story.

I have no personal issue with a female rabbi. I have mentioned this before. When I was a rabbinic student in the early 70s, I wrote an essay in a now defunct Chicago Jewish publication advocating the ordination of women. I saw no problem with it then. But I failed to consider the break with Mesorah (tradition) this would be. Although there are other reasons, breaking with Mesorah is the one most frequently given by those opposed to  it.

For me, the more important issue is the broad based opposition to it by virtually all of mainstream Orthodox leadership. The one thing my opposition is not based on is misogyny. To imply that there are misogynistic reasons for my opposition is insulting.

Like it or not, unless there is legitimate dissent among the poskim — we do have to listen to the majority rabbinic leadership in cases where their agreement crosses hashkafic lines. And that is the case here. Even if there is a legitimate opinion by a daas yachid — a rabbi of stature who can show them why they are wrong.

At the risk of citing an analogy to illustrate this point — there is a famous story of the Tanur Shel Achnai in the Gemara in Bava Metzia (59b). God gave man the rabbinic authority to do decide matters of Halacha using certain hermeneutic principles. When they arrive at a decision based on them — it is the law even if they are proven wrong by a rabbi of stature. The highly respected rabbi in the Gemara that tried that was excommunicated!

The opposition to female leadership roles in Orthodoxy is just about universal except for the extreme left. You can’t assert your views against that kind of opposition no matter how knowledgeable you are or how righteous you view your cause.

This is not to say that women can’t have any public role in Orthodoxy. They can and they do. But there has to be a consensus… an acceptance by at least some legitimate rabbinic segment of Orthodoxy if not all of them.  This is the case with Yoetzot Halacha – which I support. As it stands now, only the most extreme left wing of Orthodoxy accepts women as rabbis. (Some would argue that segment is no longer even Orthodox).

What about the prophetess Devorah? Was she not a leader? How could she as a woman do it while we say a woman today cannot? The answer is quite simple. She was a prophetess and accepted by all. Being a prophetess puts her into an entirely different category that even the brightest and most talented woman or man in our day! But perhaps more importantly — Devorah was accepted by all! She was the exception that proved the rule.

I cannot therefore support Shoshanna in this. It has nothing to do with my own personal views. It has to do with acceptance. If a woman is not going to be accepted by virtually all of the mainstream leadership, then she cannot be considered a leader in Klal Yisroel no matter how many laypeople or individual rabbis on the left do.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.