Women can do better than the rabbinate
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” read an iconic poster once displayed at Ford Motors.
Walk into a company or an organization with a strong culture, a sense of purpose, and a cohesive team spirit — and you can be sure they are on their way to success. On the other hand, even the most brilliant strategy will not survive without the right social environment.
As a business consultant often called upon to fix an organization’s business issues, I (Leah) find that in nine cases out of 10, the organizations actually suffer from people, communications, and relationships challenges underpinning their other struggles.
The virulent controversy on women in the Orthodox rabbinate is not going anywhere anytime soon. This is because it focuses on placing women into strategy-oriented “do-this” rabbinic positions, instead of creating new culture-building leadership opportunities in which women tend to excel.
The feminist argument suggests that we cannot forgo the talent and the contribution of 50 percent of our community. That’s true, but it’s only half the story. The Jewish community cannot afford to write off women’s leadership, because having women in senior leadership positions is the best indicator of an organization’s (or a community’s) success. Organizations with women at the top consistently outperform those without.
The reason for this is obvious. The Torah, as well as extensive psychological and organizational research, recognizes the disparities in men’s and women’s leadership styles. “Listen, my son, to the admonishments of your father, and do not abandon the Torah of your mother,” is a perfect summary of what we know about how men and women lead.
The gender distinctions do not stem from socialization alone. The “man’s brain/woman’s brain” is not just a comedy routine. It’s an actual anatomical reality, showcased by multiple brain scan studies. In chemistry, processing, and structure, male and female brains work differently.
Statistically, women tend to achieve better results by working harder and building relationships – or in other words, fostering the culture. They create an atmosphere, which permeates the organization, lead by influence, and enable all members to contribute to joint success. Men, on the other hand, are more adapt in “big picture” strategic planning, focusing on establishing linear hierarchical structures. And since culture is by far more important than strategy, women’s efforts produce better results.
Our community doesn’t need more rabbis. What it does need are leadership figures, who can foster a sense of belonging, connection, and cooperation. We need people who can bridge differences and enhance peer relations. We need people who can create a better culture.
Ordaining women as rabbis is not the right solution. For one thing, the various forms of women’s ordination over the past 20 years have not succeeded in making female rabbis mainstream. Instead, the repeated attempts have split the Jewish community and marginalized these female leaders. We failed to gain a strong culture of cooperation, instead finding ourselves in the midst of a bitter debate. Going forward, any such attempts to act contrary to what is perceived to be normative halacha by the majority of the frum community will only deepen the split.
In fact, the assertion that the only way for women to become equal is by taking on male roles is deeply insulting to the female experience. It attempts to put women into positions of authority (srara) against halacha, when modern organizational research points that non-authoritarian leadership models have proven to be much more effective. This is especially true for the emerging Millennial Generation.
Instead of striving to be like men, we need to create new and innovative leadership roles for women. We need to honor widely accepted halachic ruling, yet enable the community to benefit from the unique style of female leadership. These new roles will provide outlets for women’s talents and creativity and nurture women’s religious experience.
Different parts of the frum community have been tapping into this idea. Some communities have embraced yoatzot halacha as educators, counsellors, and advisers, who enhance women’s experience of taharat hamishpacha. By bridging the communication gap between women and rabbanim, the yoatzot enhance the mikveh experience for countless women.
In Chabad, women play active roles as shluchot. They are not just the wives of shluchim, but community leaders in their own right. Most of the shluchot are involved in community building, sometimes from scratch, and so they fill a myriad of roles in establishing and expanding new communities and centers.
Chazal teach us that human relationships — more precisely, the lack of love for a fellow Jew – are the problem keeping us in this galut. Since women are most adept at creating relationships and fostering the right culture, perhaps the way to solve this problem is to create leadership positions of a new kind, positions that will help us overcome this 2,000-year-old hurdle.
Whatever challenges our communities face are not due to a lack of rabbanim and authoritative leadership. They are caused by a lack of a sense of belonging, by a lack in the culture. And this is something only women can fix.
The above was written by Leah Aharoni and Chana Roberts