“Secular” and “Foreign”? A Modern Orthodox Response to Rabbi Shafran

While this, in many ways, a partial response to Rabbi Avi Shafran’s recent thoughts on women’s rabbinic ordination and the Orthodox Union, I’m not taking the time to write because another armchair written response on the subject is required.  This is internal, about the modern orthodox community I live in and others like it (I’m the Rabbi of an Orthodox Union Congregation), and about ceding the terms of this and other similar debates, and about the very basic question regarding what can serve as an authentic source of authority.

Rabbi Shafran notes well a standard Charedi (I use the term non-pejoratively) position:

“While you might think this would provide precedent for female rabbis – the next logical step after education for some – this just isn’t the case. The current proposed innovation for women to serve in congregational leadership roles is very different.

For unlike the push for Jewish girls to be educated, this push is not motivated by a need to address Jewish ignorance, or some other urgent Jewish goal. Rather, it stems from pressures born of broad societal embrace of the idea that women should be able to fill every role that has been traditionally filled exclusively by men.

To put it bluntly, the pressure comes not from within the community or from Jewish values, but             rather, from without – from the desire to satisfy the secular Zeitgeist. As such, it is foreign to us             and our values, not a cause worth compromising over.”

Truthfully, this is something I hear frequently in my own congregation as well.  There are actually two relevant elements to this critique, properly distilled, though they are blurred together a bit.  First, that this is “secular,” and not stemming from concerns regarding the worship of our Blessed Creator, but rather non-spiritual concerns. Second, that they are “external,” for feminism is a modern non-Jewish movement, and therefore suspect, at the very least, if not altogether impure.

The claim that this is a “secular” innovation, not a spiritual one, is in error for several distinct reasons, and ignores the claims of proponents altogether.  First, it often makes an assumption of motive, always risky territory in the the realm of substance-based debate.  Women who are ordained, so the suggestion goes, are more interested in personal aggrandizement and status, or they wouldn’t be pushing for such a change.  But claims of egoistic motive can always be made, on the side of those who support and those who oppose womens’ ordination.  The move to question motive ignores both the Jewish value of ayin tovah, charitable judgement, and the debate technique of arguendo, arguing effectively based on the other side’s presumptions.  In this case, it also happens to be wrong.  Sure, “there is no righteous person  in the land who does good and does not sin.”  As the Vilna Gaon explains, every good action is, to some extent, of mixed motive.  It’s not binary, and we should all strive for awareness and caution, particular when authority is at play.  But if you get to know just some of the women who study, preach, and serve, you get the overwhelming sense that there is a burning desire for Torah, that just as God desires the heart, the heart desires God, and that many women can best actualize that, in the service of all the members of our communities, by teaching, preaching, leading, in important and diverse ways.

But more than that, this ignores the importance of structural organization as a religious value.  The holy Torah included Yitro’s critique of Moshe’s status-quo for organizational structure.  What might be the subject of an ancient board meeting for the new Israelite non-profit was brought to and opined on by the Master of the Universe.  The structure of, access, to, and yes, the gender of our leadership matters.  Partly, it’s a numbers game.  If there are female leaders, teachers, scholars, rabbis, whose holy teachings we might benefit from, we handicap our community’s religious development significantly by cutting the pool approximately in half.  Partly, it’s about agency, and the authority of Jewish law.  When women aren’t at the table as partners in crafting the rules and norms, many of which apply to women specifically, that govern our community, the system loses credibility, particularly to the excluded class.  And the preservation of our mesorah is nothing if not a religious value.  Partly, it’s about the content of the Torah.  Torat imecha, the teachings of righteous Jewish women, are likely to have, on the whole, a different thrust or emphasis, a perspective that adds quantity and richness to the corpus of Jewish teaching.  And partly, it’s about self-actualization, about affording the possibility of female religious leadership to the young women and men bothered ethically by the exclusion of women from only this sphere.  These are absolutely religious concerns, concerns about the loss of Torah, the preservation of tradition, strategies for eliminating cynicism in our communities, and about fostering more connection to God.

Now, the claim that this is “from without” assumes that outside sources of knowledge, be they ethical or otherwise, are somehow excluded or face a higher bar of admission.  This is a plausible position, but not the preferred position of the modern orthodox community.  In his eight chapter introduction to the Mishna in Avot (known as Shemoneh Perakim), Maimonides seeks to forefend controversy as he quotes regularly from Aristotelian, Muslim, and Christian thinkers.  He takes these views seriously, sometimes privileging views “from without” against the Rabbis of the Talmud if they are right.  Views “from without” even cause serious reconsideration regarding the proper interpretation of biblical texts on occasion.  Famously, Maimonides lays down a fundamental principle.  “One should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds.”  Claims are to be judged rationally, by their logic.  Even were this to be a foreign idea (which it is not), that women’s agency is important for us, for them, and the viability of the system as a whole, it would still be worthy of consideration and analysis.  Our community has in the past adopted the Maimonidean approach, and should continue to do so.  A world of rapidly expanding knowledge and increased collaboration necessitates more dialogue and borrowing, not less.  Chazal state that, surprisingly, a wise person is not someone with all the knowledge, but someone willing to live as a student.  “Who is wise?  One who learns from all people.” This too is an internal religious principle, of being secure in our lack of perfect knowledge, and of being open, with discernment, from always trying to learn.

The words of Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, known for his work of brillinat responsa, Seridei Eish, ring powerfully, and demonstrate how great poskim (religious decisors) dealt with similar concerns in the past.  He was writing in the early Twentieth century regarding the controversy of mixed singing of holy songs in the school Yeshurun, and in others, but the foresight and empathy displayed serves as a relevant and valuable model.  “Surely, the authority has been given only to the sages of blessed memory to decide when to apply the principle that ‘It is a time to act for Hashem’ and which laws are permissible to tear up.  However, since our subject is not one of clear prohibition but rather one of customary piety and an aspect of modesty, it is possible to engage in legal interpretations that permit this in France, for the situation of Judaism there is now in crisis.  If we don’t use effective and acclaimed educational techniques for success, like those who do so in the Ezra Academy in Germany and the Yeshurun academy in France, the future might be, God forbid, that the Torah is forgotten in Israel . . . therefore, I have instructed the leaders of the Yeshurun Academy that they may rely on great Ashkenazic scholars. These leaders are experts in education who understand the spirit of the women of this generation, women who receive school-based educational instruction in languages and sciences, who profess feelings of self-respect, and perceive insult and rejection outside of the community when they are not permitted to join in the holy songs.”

It’s time to reclaim pride in the very religiosity of inclusion, and to recognize that ideas from within and without have always served as sources of both debate and truth.

About the Author
Rabbi Barry Dolinger is the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom, a warm and welcoming Orthodox Synagogue in Providence Rhode Island. He also practices as an attorney in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America and the International Rabbinic Fellowship.
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