Save that seat!

This piece by Corinne Berzon, sounds really good. Yes, women know how to learn now! Yes, we should be allowed a voice! Yes, we should have a say in our own destinies!

But — I have some questions.

First, I think we should ask ourselves what “table” it is to which women should perhaps be invited. I never understood the development of halacha, and the process of issuing halachic rulings, to be that formal or centralized. (At least, not without a functioning Sanhedrin.) People who have opinions to offer, do so. Others either respect those opinions and listen, or don’t. Is there a table somewhere? Am I so far from being invited that I don’t even know it exists?

It is of course a hot topic lately that there are indeed individuals, and institutions, that see themselves as being in a position to set normative standards of halacha with some large degree of authority. But they’re not inviting other men to that table, either – so it doesn’t strike me as a specific rejection of women’s voices. Does one need ordination to issue halachic rulings? Is ordination on its own not always enough? What factors, then, can help us decide which rabbi has the credentials to issue rulings on complicated matters? These questions run deeper and broader than gender alone.

Second, we need to question the premise that women have been excluded from halachic discussion. In fact, I can think of several who have been engaged in it for years, in various public or private forums – there’s a book on my nightstand by one of them now – and I by no means know them all.

I am also curious as to how many learned Orthodox women are even interested in pursuing the particular issues to which Corinne refers. If there are fewer than some would like to see, is it because they have been rejected from the table, or are they simply not coming? Perhaps there are many who could and would speak out if they wanted to, but who are happy with Orthodox practice as they know it and prefer to focus their energies elsewhere. Perhaps this is even because, after studying the sources, they have come to the conclusion that what the men have been saying happens to be correct, and they have nothing to add.

Along those lines, of the assumption that women have particular opinions to contribute on certain matters of halacha, I would also ask the following: Why must women, specifically, be invited to the table?

Trying to come up with an analogy to explain my point here, I thought of the following passage in the Talmud (Kiddushin 31a; loose translation is my own): Rav Yosef – a blind scholar – is quoted as saying that “At first, I would have thought to make a celebration for all if I would be told a blind person is exempt from mitzvot – because I would do them even though not commanded [presumably, an especially meritorious choice]. Now that I have heard Rabbi Chanina’s statement, that “one who is commanded and does is greater than one who is not commanded but does anyway” – on the contrary, I would make a celebration for all if I would be told a blind person is obligated!”

This passage has obvious relevance to questions of women taking on mitzvot in which we are not obligated, but that is not my point at the moment. What occurred to me, for the purposes of this post, is simply that I am not aware of anyone having asked Rav Yosef whether he thought he should be obligated/permitted to perform commandments like a sighted person. Himself a scholar, he nevertheless describes himself as basically waiting around to hear the ruling from others about his mitzvah observance.

Why do women – even deeply scholarly ones – need to be part of The Discussion? Simply because we are women? Nobody asked the blind man how he felt about possible exclusion from mitzvah obligation – and he didn’t sound offended to me.

Whom should we ask about matters of halachic observance? Those who know halacha. Period. Are some of them women? Sure, they might be – but I have a hard time understanding why they should have to be. I do believe that people with something to say, should say it – and that others should do their best to listen when something of value is being said. That goes for men, women, blind, sighted… And maybe women could offer more personal perspectives – like that some feel sidelined by traditional Orthodox practice. But I’ve seen plenty of men talk about those issues as well, and it seems to me more important to see the issues being addressed, than to worry about who is saying which words.

Which brings us to one more question: Is it fair, at this point in history, to make these demands of Orthodoxy?

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had amazing opportunities for high-level study, while my great-grandmother reportedly got her “formal Jewish education” by listening at the door to her brother’s lessons. We have, certainly, come a long way in the realm of Jewish education for women.

BUT – I think what Corinne, and others, are asking for is too much to expect, too soon. That level of study has simply not been going on for long enough, for most of us, to produce enough women who have the requisite knowledge, and skills – not to mention, interest in pursuing extremely high levels of scholarship in general and these particular “women’s issues” in particular.

If learned Orthodox women are not speaking out as much as some would like to see (and again, let’s remember there are some who have and do), it is not because some villainous hierarchy of old white [Jewish] men is shutting us out, but because rendering opinions on halachic questions is something Orthodox Jews take very seriously. (No, I don’t mean other Jews don’t care about halacha; I just happen to be talking about Orthodoxy at the moment.)

Halacha is so vast and intricate that it does, indeed, take years of intense study to grasp it. That’s not just something men say to dismiss women who want a seat at the table.

I give a weekly shiur on women in halacha, and preparation for it is the most awesome project I have ever undertaken. (And I mean “awesome” in every sense of the word!) And we move slowly, and carefully, and I am consistently amazed by how much there is to learn and by how gratifying it is to learn it. (Also by how not misogynistic I find the texts to be – material for another post, or several.) And I am overwhelmed, with every text I read that is full of acronyms and catch phrases and “code” words and obscure references, by how deep a familiarity with halacha is required to grasp the nuances of every discussion of every detail. (Not to mention all the “second-stage” nuances, like history and biographical details of individual scholars, and how different halachic authorities play into and against each other.)

If we want to preserve the integrity of our halachic system – and as Orthodox Jews, I am fairly sure that we do – then halachic discourse has to be rooted within that system. Anyone who wants a respected voice in the conversation will have to demonstrate that he or she has a thorough grounding in it, with the commitment and ability to maintain that integrity.

There are certainly women who are very learned; certainly many who know more than I, and a growing number who are confident enough in their learning to render halachic opinions to various degrees. Some are even accepted pretty widely within many Orthodox communities – the Yoetzet program at Nishmat, for instance. But as far as I can tell, the fact is that there have been, and still are, more men than women who have that kind of expertise. Especially the kind of wide-ranging expertise necessary for the more “complicated” matters – a category which includes a lot of what people term “women’s issues.”

Which I think is a pretty reasonable explanation of why, so far, there have been more men than women offering their halachic views – and also why many are surprised, and even suspicious, at the very idea of women offering theirs.

I don’t hear that surprise, or even (most of) the rejection, as “men” feeling threatened by the idea of “women” contributing to the discussion. I hear it as “scholars and defenders of halacha” feeling threatened by the (perceived) potential for “people who don’t know what they’re talking about” distorting the traditions (why is that suddenly a dirty word?) they hold dear. They might be wrong to think that in our times, women by definition don’t know what we’re talking about – but perhaps we can understand their being misled by thousands of years of a different reality.

I am not offended by that reality. I don’t think the reality was created as some sort of deliberate effort to keep women out of the loop. It is just how things developed, for lots of reasons. While women’s education has come a long way, I don’t think we can reasonably expect that more women be invited, or invite themselves, to the table of halachic decision-making. At least, not yet.

About the Author
Sarah Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah's essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, Lehrhaus, and more. Sarah lives in Ohio with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world.
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