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Women must be agents, not objects, in Modern Orthodoxy

The current generation of women is the most Jewishly literate ever, so why are men still dominating the discourse?

A friend of mine once defined herself as “Modern Orthodox – heavy on the modern.” There is an implicit assumption that the more “modern,” the more permissive. A similar assumption underlies debates about adopting initiatives within observance, such as the recent discussion as to whether high school girls should be allowed to wear tefillin in Modern Orthodox day schools. The question is usually framed as whether the school administration will break towards “Modern” (accommodating, accepting) or “Orthodox” (rigid, traditional) in setting policy.

This dichotomy largely misses the point. Modern Orthodoxy is not essentially about the halakhic arguments, or even the conclusions. Instead, what makes the discourse “modern” is how it is conducted.  In particular, it is about who participates. Recent examples from the world of politics illustrate my point.

Appearing on Meet The Press this past Sunday morning, Senator Rand Paul denied allegations that the Republican Party is waging a “War on Women” with policies that disadvantage them in the workplace and limit their access to reproductive health care. He said, “You know, the women in my family are incredibly successful. I have a niece at Cornell vet school…My younger sister’s an ob-gyn with six kids and doing great…I don’t see so much that women are downtrodden; I see women rising up and doing great things.”

Paul drew sharp, deserved criticism for his unwillingness to consider policies with the potential to dramatically improve the lives of thousands of women across America because the women in his own life, based largely on the accident of being born into an affluent, white family, had managed to succeed without needing them. The Nation’s Annie Shields noted, though, that a larger, structural problem was Paul’s language itself, which placed his discussion of women wholly within the context of their relationship to him, the man who is, ostensibly, “responsible” for them.

In this second concern, Paul shares surprisingly common ground with President Barack Obama. In his 2013 State of the Union Address, Obama said, “We know our economy is stronger when our wives, our mothers, our daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace, and free from the fear of domestic violence.” The State of the Union was televised nationally, but was addressed only to the men in the audience, trying to convince them to support proposals that would improve the lives of “their women.” You would not know from the President’s language that women make up half of the American electorate, or even that they have the right to vote at all in support of even the policies that may impact positively on their lives.

Paul’s language, problematic on both levels, is strikingly similar to that of Agudath Yisroel Director of Public Affairs Rabbi Avi Shafran. Writing in The Forward about women’s participation in synagogue ritual life, Shafran, who takes a more traditional, limiting view, finds the whole issue very difficult to understand.

“My wonderful wife and our wonderful daughters, for instance, have never looked to the synagogue for validation or fulfillment…Among our daughters are teachers, a graphic designer, a sonographer, a special education tutor, an author — and mothers. They are all greatly accomplished, but they still don’t consider synagogue attendance terribly important, and none of them aspires to leading services.” Shafran is careful to stipulate that he is presenting, not, prescribing, a model that works for his family, though it is fairly clear that he thinks it should work just as well for everyone else as well.

In fact, though, a girl raised and educated in a Modern Orthodox milieu will ask different questions, explore different options, and see her role in the world and Jewish community in a very different way than the Shafran daughters. As JTA’s Uriel Heilman recently wrote, the tension between traditional and halakhic gender norms on one hand, and modern egalitarian values on the other, will likely come to define Modern Orthodoxy in the years to come.

The current debate surrounding tefillin for women in Modern Orthodox day schools has featured a series of well-reasoned and passionate opinions taking into account halakhic, social, and theological factors. However, they have almost all been written by men, and even the more permissive opinions have taken the form of men dictating to women what their role should be, where the lines are, what motivations should drive them, and why. This is disturbing on that second, structural level. Even if the answers turn out to be more lenient, the tone is just as condescending and paternalistic.

Just as women are not a minority of America, they are not a minority of the Jewish community. The conversations that are currently taking place, as well as the conversations that will take place, must not just be about women; they must be with women. Among the great successes of the past fifty years has been the democratization of Torah literacy, and, in particular, the rise of a generation of women with a mastery of halakhic literature unparalleled in Jewish history. Whether the answers eventually move us towards innovation or tradition, we should be focused on having inclusive conversations in which all of the stakeholders are affirmed and heard; that is the truest hallmark of a vibrant, participative Modern Orthodoxy.

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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