The question of rabbinic ordination for women — or men, for that matter, is not my primary concern. Of course it should go without saying that the Torah needs to be equally accessible to all, along with the recognition which society confers upon students of the Torah.
The reason that the issue of semikha for women is so important is that it raises the most significant meta-questions for Jews who are committed to the idea of a divinely revealed, eternal Torah which needs to serve both as an authoritative guide as well as an inspiration for living.
What is the relationship between the Torah and God? Where do we fit in as autonomous beings with our deeply felt senses of right and wrong? How do we find God and serve Him? What is the purpose of mitzvot and how are we to become holy? And, what happens when the dictates of the Torah and tradition conflict with our healthy intuitions and common sense born of personal experience and history?
The full fleshing out of these questions is well beyond the scope of this piece. What follows is what I believe to be the primary spiritual challenge facing thoughtful modern and Orthodox Jews today, a brief analysis of the insufficient basic assumptions which are responsible for the inability to meet this challenge and an alternative approach which I propose rooted firmly in tradition. Why I ordained women will emerge from this discussion.
Modern Orthodox people are facing unprecedented challenges today in terms of commitment to tradition on the one hand, and authentic openness to modernity on the other. We embrace western democratic values such as equality of all peoples and between the sexes. Yet, in our religious lives, we profess the revealed absolute truths of the Torah which are often in severe conflict with these values. With growing discussions in our ranks about gender, sexual identity, and the question of spiritual passion versus rote observance, we find ourselves at a crucial crossroads.
We live the bifurcated existence advocated by the mid-nineteenth century maskil, Judah Leib Gordon, as the Haskalah ideal: “Be a Jew in your home and a man outside it”. From a religious and Jewish point of view, however, Y.L. Gordon’s counsel is a spiritual disaster. The sacrifice of religious passion is the cost of the divorce of our Judaism from our humanity. If we venture to contemplate our situation, we are unhappy with our religious lives. Our children sense this and it has become increasingly difficult to pass on our tradition to the next generation.
Predictably and unfortunately, the discussion among the right wing Orthodox leadership that the ordination of women as rabbis as well as other controversial issues has engendered has revolved around the lines of defining the boundaries of Orthodox Judaism and the need to submit to authority.
One right wing Orthodox pundit called the ordination an “insurrection”.
Displaying a Senator Joe McCarthy-like attitude, Rabbi Professor David Berger has justified the RCA’s refusal to recognize semikhas conferred by YCT. He felt there to be insufficient condemnation by Rabbi Asher Lopatin of perceived heretical opinions by Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber, concerning the historical authorship of the Torah. Very little was said about God, revelation or commitment to avodat Hashem. That issues with such momentous religious import should be reduced to sociology or simply dismissed by being labeled as heresy, boggles the mind and is in itself symptomatic of the desperate need for a paradigm shift in our understanding of the relationship between the Torah and God’s will and our interpretation of both.
First, we need to understand the basic theological assumption of the right wing Orthodox establishment which has led to this point, the need it fills and where it is inadequate.
The prevailing assumption of right wing Modern Orthodoxy
God is totally “Other” and His will is inscrutable, a black hole essentially; all that we can know is what God reveals to us through the Law. According to this approach, human experience and intuition are suspect and not a reliable medium for divine revelation.
In the words of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik:
The religious experience is not the primary gesture. It is only secondary. The point of departure must never be the internal subjective experience, no matter how redemptive it is, no matter how colorful it is, no matter how therapeutic it is, no matter how substantial its impact upon the total personality of man…
We can never determine what is a religious experience in contradistinction to a hedonic mundane experience. We know of many hedonic emotions which are provided with enormous power, which are hypnotic, and, at first glance, redemptive… (Noraot HaRav, R. David Schreiber, 1999, p.92)
Religious experience will lead us astray and relying upon it as a guide, Rabbi Soloveitchik continues, is idolatrous. We can only feel secure and certain, the rationale goes, with the explicitly revealed Law.
This approach, as formulated by the Rav, provides driftwood to which to cling in a raging sea of uncertainty and change. If these words filled this need decades ago when they were uttered, they do so even more today. What seem to be time cherished “Torah values” (with or without the quotation marks) are under continued assault by the hedonistic and selfish values of popular culture as well the process of redefining gender issues.
Unfortunately (and entirely unintended by the Rav), this approach also feeds on and nurtures the weaknesses of Modern Orthodox society as well. The stubborn dogmatic assertion that absolute truth can be known and confirmed by exterior authority betrays a thinly veiled adolescent-like need for certainty, a consequence of impoverished religious sensitivity and ultimately a lack of faith in God and the Torah. Taken to the extreme, this approach invalidates healthy religious and moral instincts in favor of what is perceived to be the “pure” Halakha.
The rigidity of thought, the continued, and by now shrill, cries of heresy are indicative of fear to encounter the challenges which the positive values of liberal democratic culture pose to Torah tradition. This fear as well, is born of lack of faith in the Torah.
Precisely because I have absolute faith in the Torah as an expression of the divine in the world, I do not fear the encounter. Nor do I fear the uncertainty the encounter engenders.
The need for a new contemporary theology
People who are yerei shamayim and seek to serve God authentically as whole individuals without compromising their healthy moral and religious convictions require a path which invests them with wholesome self-confidence and their refined sentiments with meaning.
We need a contemporary theology which expresses the authentic ethos of Jewish tradition lived fully within a context of Yirat Shamayim, Ahavat Yisrael and Kevod HaAdam.
I propose such a theology predicated upon the following two principles:
- Humility: We do not have access to certainty or objective truth.
- Humans are created in God’s image, which means that human consciousness is the instrument of divine revelation. Since God is revealed through human consciousness, our refined moral convictions and religious sensibilities may be considered a form of divine revelation.
The Ba’al HaTanya, R. Shneur Zalman of Lyadi (1745-1812) casts away the naïve notion that there is objective knowledge available to us from some exterior source. Our knowledge of God is a projection of ourselves and a function of our level of personal perfection.
Man visualizes in his mind all the concepts which he wishes to conceive and understand — all as they are within himself. For instance, if he wishes to envisage the essence of Will or the essence of Wisdom or of Understanding or of Knowledge or the essence of the attribute of Kindness and Mercy and the like, he visualizes them all as they are within himself. (Sha’ar Hayihud ve Haemunah, ch. 8)
Mordekhai Yosef of Ishbitz (1801-1854) says that to assert a complete and perfect comprehension of divine revelation is idolatrous (Mei HaShiloah, Yitro). Pretensions to certainty and perfect understanding exist only for idolaters whose gods have distinct and finite dimensions. Total comprehension of the Divine, he goes on to say, leaves no room for human development and is a distortion of the revelation. This is because God and His Will are infinite and we mortals are finite with limited capacity to understand. Insisting upon perfect knowledge of God and His Will is necessarily idolatrous in that the “perfect perception”, at the end of the day, turns out to be but a projection of ourselves. We will be guilty of creating God in our own image.
This teaching desperately needs to be internalized by the orthodox of all faiths. It affects not what we believe but how we believe and is crucial to how we encounter others whose beliefs differ from our own.
Humans are created in God’s image: From my flesh I will perceive God
In the introduction to his monumental work, the Shenei Lukhot HaBrit (Shelah), R. Isaiah Halevi Horovitz (1565-1630) writes as follows:
I will now explain the principle of “From my flesh I will perceive God” (Job 19:26). This means that from the form and likeness of humans the reality of God is known and revealed. If a person clings (davuk) to God and resembles (mitdameh) Him then the person is truly called Adam from the same root as domeh , meaning to resemble God. [As it states] “upon the throne the image of a person…” (see Ezekiel 1:5)…For the name Adam is equivalent in numerical value to the holy name YHVH.
“From my flesh I will perceive God” is the fundamental assumption upon which all of kabbalah and hassidut is predicated and it is the foundation upon which we must construct our contemporary theology.
By employing the gematria equivalent between adam and YHVH, the Shelah has blurred the distinction between the human and the Divine and undermines the basic assumption which Rabbi Soloveitchik articulated above.
Human knowledge, experience and convictions are invested with meaning and they do become the “primary gesture” (to use the Rav’s term) precisely because of the coming together of the human and the Divine.
The Ba’al Shem Tov goes so far as to say that when a person prays to God with all their strength, the words which they express enshroud the thoughts of God which is the unity of the person with God. (Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov, Noah 84)
It follows that we humans are endowed with an intuitive religious faculty which can perceive God and his Will. The contemporary Protestant theologian, Alvin Plantinga put it this way:
[Human beings, created in the image of God], “were created both with appropriate affections and with knowledge of God and his greatness and glory.” (Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press. 2000, p. 200)
And the Ba’al Shem Tov once again:
Behold a person had five physical senses and parallel to them he has five spiritual senses. When he sanctifies and purifies his physical senses, sanctity will descend upon his spiritual senses and the spirit of prophecy will rest upon him. (Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov, Balak 4)
If knowledge is subjective and my personal convictions may be divine revelation, how are we to avoid falling into a totally subjective scheme in which anything goes and my personal preferences take precedence over all else, including the Halakha? Who gets to decide what is divine revelation and what is human caprice, and how? The question of authority has come back to haunt us.
Fortunately our first guiding principle of humility will extract us from this significant critique. We must be forever cognizant of our own limitations, passions and vested interests which may (and too often do) color our perceptions and sentiments. Our subjective determinations must be subject to rigorous introspective investigation. R. Mordekhai Yosef refers to this as the process of berur, clarification. (See, for example, Mei HaShiloah, Ki Tetze)
Fundamentally “clarification” is achieved by bringing the faculty of reason to bear upon the religious-intuitive faculty which we referred to earlier.
Might I have ulterior unconscious motivations which are determining my position? (For example: am I right wing politically because I genuinely believe that that position is the best or because I live in a settlement and would be detrimentally effected by a peace deal with the Palestinians?). It is through the dynamic of the intuitive religious (and in some cases, moral) faculty interacting with the rational faculty which yields the process of clarification and needs to become the basis for determining normative behavior.
And now — finally — to semikha for women.
Ordination of women as rabbis is most certainly a departure from tradition. On what basis can this be justified?
I regard the basic sentiment of fairness and its translation into the principle of equal opportunity for all regardless of gender as fundamental. The clarification process would demand that I ask the following questions under these circumstances. Are those involved acting from a place of fear of Heaven, yirat shamayim? Will this bring people closer to the Torah? Am I alone in my subjective determination? Is this type of inclusiveness good for the Jewish People? Will it strengthen our tradition?
Based upon how I answered these questions, I did not feel free to absolve myself of the moral responsibility to act as I did.
Semikha for women is an instance of where the tradition comes into conflict with deeply held convictions. These convictions, having been tested through the mettle of “clarification”, need to be brought in dialogue with the tradition and in this case determine the normative behavior.
How can we live as whole Jews and human beings? How can we be Jewish both in our homes as well as in the public domain? By granting semikha to women, I wish to model a new contemporary theology in which our refined sentiments are redeemed and our torn souls healed.