Michael Lesher
Michael Lesher

The Orthodox Union’s war on women: It’s all about abuse

“If they [women] are victorious now, what will they not attempt?” warned Cato, perhaps ancient Rome’s most eloquent misogynist, back in 195 B.C.E. “As soon as they begin to be your equals, they will have become your superiors.”

Empires come and go, but the logic of patriarchy remains depressingly familiar. With its recent decision to ban the ordination of women as rabbis, the Orthodox Union has declared that Judaism – at least, Judaism as understood by its rabbinate – is fundamentally at odds with women.

And why? Like Cato’s paranoia about having to take orders from a woman, the rabbis’ logic masks the fear that equality for women would expose an all-male leadership to still more painful concessions.

For behind the door the OU is slamming on prospective women clergy are festering realities the rabbinate would still rather conceal than address. The unequal division of power between women and men lies at the root of many abusive practices within the Orthodox religious community, from the mistreatment of ‘agunoth (divorced women whose ex-husbands will not give them a religious divorce, or get) to the suppression of cases of domestic or child abuse committed by Orthodox men. Allowing women into the rabbinate would be a large step – and for the OU’s rabbinic leadership, an unwelcome step – towards solving those abuses.

That’s the real reason for the OU’s harsh stand against breaking the rabbinic gender line.

Now, I realize that my conclusion may itself sound harsh. After all, even a mistaken ruling ousting female clergy doesn’t prove the Orthodox rabbinate’s insensitivity to all questions of domestic misconduct. And the OU’s stated reasons for banning female rabbis have nothing to do with protecting abusive men.

But consider this: if it’s really true that the immutability of tradition guarantees a male-only Jewish clergy (as the OU now argues), why was tradition so much more malleable when rabbis recently decided to try “to prevent romantic relationships between [Israeli] Jewish women and Arab men”? That “danger” inspired Orthodox authorities – including the highly respected Rabbi Shlomo Aviner – to relax traditional Sabbath restrictions, normally among the most stringent in the canon, in order to permit Orthodox Jews to harass Jewish women entering the resort city of Eilat on Saturdays in the company of “Arab partners.”

Yet no Orthodox organization pronounced anathemas against those rabbis. No one accused them, as the OU’s defenders are already accusing the “open Orthodox” rabbis who allow the ordination of women, of “splitting from the Orthodox community on religious matters.”

Inconsistent? Not really – just sexist. So long as the goal is to ensure that “our” women remain under the control of Jewish men, the Orthodox rabbinate will tolerate, perhaps even encourage, modifications of traditional law. It’s only when women seek some independence from male authority that the rabbinate starts to sermonize about the inflexibility of God’s mysterious ways.

Those same priorities swim into focus wherever women bear the brunt of existing Orthodox practice. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, probably the greatest single “modern Orthodox” authority, a champion of reconciling Jewish tradition with modernity, was as rigid as today’s OU when it came to allowing ‘agunoth to remarry. In a recent essay, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo has stressed how extraordinary this intransigence was (and how needlessly costly to women), considering the endorsement of legal remedies by other Orthodox rabbis and Rabbi Soloveitchik’s admitted uncertainty about his own position.

“If Rav Soloveitchik was not even sure himself, and all evidence was against him, he could have singlehandedly liberated many women,” wrote Rabbi Cardozo. “No doubt he must have been worried that such a ruling might be misused. But this is an extremely weak justification…considering the immense suffering of so many women whose husbands refused to grant them a get.”

That critique looks insuperable to me; yet the Orthodox rabbinate closed ranks behind Soloveitchik: as usual, women were expendable, at least as compared with a revered rabbi’s Talmudic conservatism. Can you imagine a mixed-gender rabbinate that would have brushed off suffering women so cavalierly?

For that matter, as far as I know, OU leadership hasn’t even publicly disowned the teaching of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch – the 19th-century progenitor of the “modern Orthodox” movement – that under Torah law (Deut. 21:11) the rape of a woman captured in battle is not subject to punishment because the soldier who assaults her has merely “yielded once to his passion.” Treating rape as no more than a weakness, a “yielding” to male “passion,” dips deeply into the poison of woman-as-object misogyny. But even so noxious a precedent doesn’t seem to trouble the OU’s rabbis nearly as much as the idea of a woman performing religious functions or teaching religious doctrine.

And what about child abuse? That scandal, too, would be much harder for the rabbinate to suppress if women had the same access as men to positions of rabbinic authority. As far back as November 1996, I reported in the Jewish Week the statement of the former chief counsel for an important New York State Senate committee that, presumably under political pressure from Orthodox leadership, the Brooklyn Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (the agency that handled cases of intra-familial child abuse) was “known for assisting divorced Orthodox Jewish fathers in custody proceedings.” That favoritism meant that BSPCC often took action against an Orthodox Jewish mother who suspected her ex-husband of sexually abusing their child. An Orthodox rabbinate that included women would hardly encourage that.

I’m not the only person to notice the connection between the denial of equality to Orthodox Jewish women and the institutionalizing of their mistreatment by Orthodox men. Naomi Chazan, in a recent Times of Israel blog article, made the same point: “The perpetuation of women’s unequal status [among Orthodox Jews]…adds large doses of self-righteousness if not hypocrisy to the assertion of ownership. From here, it is but a very short step to sexual abuse…”

Naturally, the OU’s apologists have been quick to deny that the Orthodox rabbinate has any such intention. But that claim is only as strong as the arguments the OU’s rabbinic advisers have actually marshaled in support of the ban on women rabbis. And the advisers’ rationalizations are embarrassingly flimsy.

In fact, it’s hard to believe the rabbis themselves fully credited their own arguments. (Could this be why their defenders seldom even mention them?) If, as the rabbis insist, Maimonides’ prohibition against the appointment of female rulers (Hil. M’lakhim 1:4-5) applies to the rabbinate (a controversial reading in itself), the same ruling ought to prohibit women from holding any responsible post in Jewish communities, including precisely those “senior managerial and administrative positions, such as executive director” that the OU rabbis specifically endorse for them.

Not only that: since Maimonides brackets women with converts in this context, the rabbis’ position should likewise bar converts from being rabbis – or, for that matter, from “the regular practice of delivering sermons” or “presiding over or ‘leading services’ at a minyan,” things the OU rabbis have decreed off-limits to women but would hesitate, I think, to openly forbid to every man who has converted to Orthodox Judaism.

All this is bad enough – but pro-OU propaganda in the Jewish press has been even worse. Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin, a member of the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, claims Jewish authorities have barred women from the clergy for more than 2,000 years because of the prevalence of female priests throughout “the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world as well as Zoroastrianism and Christianity.” That will be news, I’ll wager, to the Catholic Church; it’s certainly news to anyone even marginally familiar with the relevant halakhic texts, which never hint at such a motive for excluding women from the rabbinate.

Not content with rewriting religious history, Rahel Rocklin blames the whole thing on “angry and dissatisfied” Orthodox Jewish women who “defy their very natures” by wanting to be rabbis in the first place. I really cannot bear to quote Ms. Rocklin at any length; I’ll just note that she blames “feminists” (or “Communists,” since she seems to conflate the two) for “ruining” tradition, rendering men unwilling “to defend women physically,” and for the “elimination of the family-based living wage.” Not even the OU’s rabbinic advisers had the chutzpah to attack Orthodox women for their own second-rate status – to say nothing of blaming them for the state of the U.S. economy.

But what’s done is done. How can we Orthodox Jews fight back?

It is heartening to note that Cato’s anti-feminist rhetoric in 195 B.C.E. was bested by a display of female political power, as the women of Rome “poured forth in public” to protest conservative attempts to block the repeal of the discriminatory Oppian Law, and “as a single body…besieged the doors of the Brutuses, who were vetoing their colleagues’ motion, and they did not stop until the tribunes took back their veto.”

Nor is Roman history the only source for hope. In the famous hundred-year-old Pentateuch commentary known as Torah T’mimah, Rabbi Baruch Epstein suggests (Num. 27:1a) that the daughters of Tz’lof’had were inspired to challenge a Mosaic law that allowed only men to inherit real property because – given the discriminatory nature of rulings emanating from all-male Jewish lawgivers – these women concluded that “it is the nature of men to favor their own kind over females,” whereas God’s mercies do not play favorites.

Maybe it’s time for all Orthodox Jews, male and female, to emulate those early Jewish feminists. Even within the traditionalist citadels of post-Talmudic analysis, a rabbi in 1904 could recognize that an all-male clergy is inherently unjust; today, we should be ashamed of ourselves if we don’t all see it.

In fact, we should see more than that – and do more. If we accede passively to the OU’s war on women, we will not only be acquiescing in a wrongheaded and sexist organizational posture. We will be tacitly encouraging more of the abuses – against women, against children – that Orthodox leadership continues to protect in the name of a misogynistic status quo. We must not be co-opted into such a campaign. Jewish tradition was never meant to encourage Jewish wrongdoing.

About the Author
Michael Lesher is an author, lawyer and Orthodox Jew who lives in Passaic, NJ. His most recent book is Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co., 2014).
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