Why a shul absolutely needs a Maharat

David Benkof in his latest blog post for the TOI, posits the question, ‘Why does a shul need a Maharat?’ His essay is in response to Barbara Zakheim’s enthusiastic endorsement of her synagogue’s Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman. He concludes that since feminism has infected the institution of Maharat, it has no place in Orthodox Judaism. His belief therefore is that feminism and its values are an anathema to traditional Orthodox Judaism. He disturbingly states, ‘…Showing young boys that a woman can not only play a feminine leadership role, but also be just as “official” as a male clergyman is not a goal contained in any of our religious texts. It is simply Western political feminism grafted onto traditional Judaism, and does not deserve to be called Orthodox.’

Now, frankly as Modern Orthodox feminist, I neither have the time or the inclination to school Mr. Benkof on what feminism really is and how its values and concepts mesh very nicely with Modern Orthodoxy. It is 2014 afterall. What is most interesting here, however, is that Mr. Benkof arguments, weak as they are, prove precisely why a shul needs a Maharat. In legal terminology, res ipsa loquitur, the thing , here his thoughts, speak for themselves. His argument is only personal and simply reveals his unsettling biases.

Let’s break it down. His first objection is that it might be a very bad idea for young boys, in particular, to see a woman in an official role within the Jewish community. What about this is so horrific, I truly cannot fathom. Does Mr. Benkof have an underlying fear of female authority in general? I don’t mean to be personal but that is all his post offers. If a woman was in an unofficial role, would he feel less threatened? What if that particular woman went out of her way to declare that she was 100% not a feminist? Would this appease Mr. Benkof? Probably not.

Let’s look at the next statement. “…[Maharat] is not a goal contained in any of our religious texts.” While this statement is technically true, it does not represent the entire picture. If relying on texts alone, there would not be any Maharat but the whole spectrum of Jewish life for women even within right wing Orthodoxy would cease to exist. The texts Mr. Benkof holds in such high esteem contain prohibitions that forbid women from learning (not just Talmud but learning to read!), forbid them from traveling outside the home unless accompanied by a male relative (think Taliban Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia), forbid them from attending the synagogue and many other prohibitions that today even in the most Haredi communities are not enforced. Since he has somehow conveniently forgotten about these other prohibitions, it becomes clear that his ‘beef’ with the feminists is not exactly halakhic but personal.

The final statement of this argument shows his cards. ‘[Maharat]… is simply Western political feminism grafted onto traditional Judaism and does not deserve to be called Orthodox…Anyone who supposed an Orthodoxy wedded to our tradition rather than infused with foreign and possibly ephemeral value systems should be anything but ECSTATIC!!..’
To undo this statment, I might after all have to do a short feminism primer for Mr. Benkof. First, what is the definition of feminism? My very short answer here, is that biology should not be the only determinant of my destiny and that all human beings should be treated as such, as humans. Our tradition certainly embodies the second idea in that human beings should be treated as humans regardless of status and even gender. What made Judaism so incredibly revolutionary in the ancient world was not only its monotheism but its belief that human beings should be treated humanely. This was a revolutionary idea for the time and in some places and systems still seems revolutionary. As for the first idea–biology not determining destiny—our tradition regarding the destiny of women not being constrained by biology has a very, very long history of evolution. Even Mr. Benkof acknowledges that women in the Orthodox community have the substantive knowledge to give a decent d’var Torah, teach women and even answer questions about Taharat Hamishpacha. The ideas of feminism are not only not foreign or ephemeral but have been tacitly part of the evolving serious religious tradition. If not, then following Mr. Benkof’s argument, women within Orthodoxy would not only not be able to give a d’var Torah but they would not have been allowed to have the basic skills to even open a sefer.

So then, what exactly is bothering Mr. Benkof? Is he bothered by the assumption that a Maharat is a violation of halakha? Is he upset that the values of in the words of Tamar Ross, ‘Expanding the Palace of the Torah’ embodied in feminism are taking root? He is not really having a snit over feminism or Maharat. What’s really bothering him is the idea of women in general. He is bothered that he and especially those ‘young boys’ might eventually have to share positions of authority within the Orthodox community with women. He might even be bothered by the idea of women within Orthodoxy especially a Maharat who just might have more knowledge about halakha and its application than he does. He is upset that he might have to retire his ‘Boys Only- No Girls Allowed’ sign from his men’s only Orthodox play house. It is precisely for these destructive and frankly misogynist ideas, that a shul absolutely needs a Maharat.

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group. She recently joined the Judaic studies faculty at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago, IL.
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