Women, Rabbis, and the Age of the Selfie

Last week, the RCA issued a resolution on the matter of Orthodox women’s ordination.  A flurry of online chatter ensued, some articles cogent, others more emotional.  In my opinion, the best piece was penned by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.  But there was one piece I read that broke my heart.  It was written by an Orthodox teenager who was questioning her place in Orthodox Jewish life.  As many teenagers, she was confused about her religious character and career future.  She explains how growing up in Orthodox synagogues and schools she saw only men as leaders; but now she was so excited with the new wave of women rabbis that were being ordained.   It was a whole new concept for her.  Now as a woman, she could serve Klal Yisrael.  Can you imagine how crushed she felt when Orthodoxy, in her mind, shut the door on her new found career path?  I silently cried when I read her piece.

In Parshat Toldot, Rivka gives birth to Esav and Yaakov, fraternal twins.  Already in utero, Rivka realizes that they are complete opposites; not only in physical appearance, but in nature and character as well.  Esav was born red and hairy and Yaakov was born holding onto the heel of Esav.  The lads grow up, Esav is an outdoorsy kinda guy and Yaakov is a homebody “dweller of tents”.

The text continues and states: “Isaac loved Esav for he was a tzayid bpiv and Rivka loved Yaakov”.  The Artscroll translation of tzayid bpiv is ‘gaming in his mouth’.  Gaming is a great translation because it captures both interpretations of Rashi. The simple meaning is that the gaming, i.e. the trapping of the hunted food, was in Yitzchak’s mouth while the midrashic explanation is that it was the gaming, i.e. trapping of words, of Esav’s mouth, since he would ensnare Yitzchak and deceive him with his words.  Our Sages explain that Esav would ask complex halachic queries, pretending that he was steeped in Torah study.

Rivka knew both her children really well, as a mother does.  She knew the type of character her son Esav truly was. She knew he was constantly hunting, gaming both animals and human beings, as well as ‘gaming’ his father with his trickery.  So when it was time for Yitzchak to give the firstborn blessings and he called on his elder son Esav believing that he was the more deserving, Rivka understood that the only way to ensure that the blessings would go to the correct son – the son who would continue his father’s tradition of monotheism – was to use his same method of gaming.  She tells her son Yaakov to take her goats, skin them and put them on his arms to trick Yitzchak into believing that he was indeed giving the blessing to Esav. (Yaakov, by the way, used this same method of ‘gaming’ when he purchased the firstborn rights.  Knowing full well that Esav would down the lentil soup after a long day in the field, he gamed his brother into selling it for a bowl of soup, essentially beating him at his own game).

Yaakov is uneasy about the whole situation.

‘I am not a man of deception,’ he tells his mother.

‘This is not about deception,’ Rivka replies, ‘it’s about dressing up in Esav’s clothing and playing his game.’ Sure enough he takes his mother’s advice and ultimately, Yitzchak recognizes that the truth prevailed.

Sometimes the only way to show people the truth is to use their own technique and methods.  Sometimes we must step into their shoes and don their clothing to have an impact on them.

In last week’s parsha, we met Rivka, the kind, quiet, meek girl.  She was the epitome of “kol kevudah bat melech pnimah” – all the honor of a princess is within.  David Hamelech’s sage advice in Tehillim has been the guiding light for Jewish women through the ages.  And yet when she saw that history needed to be made and that the blessings must go to Yaakov she stood up and took action.

Today, we live in the age of selfies, Facebook, and social media. If it’s not in their face, young adults don’t take notice.  The teenage girl who writes that there are no Orthodox women leaders simply doesn’t see them. They have always been present in her life, but they were behind the scenes.   Slowly but surely, stories of great Orthodox women leaders are coming out – such as the wife of the Netziv and countless others – but most we will never know about, because traditionally Orthodox women did not play a public role.  There is no doubt in my mind that this girl’s rebbetzin is an incredible guide, counselor and role model, dispensing religious advice not only to women in the community but even to her husband!  But she doesn’t know it because she doesn’t see it on Facebook.

In the twenty-first century, Orthodox women leaders are told by Rivka to leave the tent and don Esav’s clothing. The generation of Millennials needs to see what these holy women actually do for Jewish life. In Talmudic times, Bruriah taught Torah from behind the mechitzah; today, most modern orthodox synagogues will proudly feature rebbetzins and other female scholars-in-residences speaking from the pulpit.  In the age of the selfie, Orthodox women leaders need to occupy a public role.

Does that mean women need to become rabbis?  Absolutely not. Although the blessings were gained by means of physical deception they still exemplified “hakol kol Yaakov” – Yitzchak acknowledged that the voice was the voice of Yaakov. They were achieved with the voice of Torah.  When women take a public role they must do it according to our holy tradition – with the voice of Yaakov.

Baruch Hashem, this has already started happening.  JLIC (the OU’s university campus initiative) is visibly led by rabbinic couples, both of whom are hired by the OU.  Many Chabad Houses now include shluchos on their letterheads and websites as ‘co-directors’.  Shuls today unabashedly advertise for a rabbi AND a rebbetzin.  And at rabbinic conventions, from the RCA to Young Israel to the charedi  AJOP, rabbis, rebbetzins, and other Jewish professionals sit side by side, learning together and exchanging leadership ideas.

Next week, I will be in Teaneck, along with 120 others, for the annual YU Rebbetzins’ conference. Some of the topics on the agenda include infertility counseling, homosexuality in the Orthodox community, discussing intimacy with children, and dealing with eating disorders.  There you go, now you know what rebbetzins deal with.  For too long, we have worked quietly behind the scenes, as our mothers and grandmothers did.  (My forebears were rebbetzins in Bialystok and Sevisluch).  But it’s time to let these young women know that they have a future and a career path in Orthodoxy.  Some of them might become rebbetzins; others will certify as GPATs or Yoatzot Halacha (a GPAT is a Guide of Parsha And Talmud, having undertaken an intensive course of study at YU’s Graduate Program in Advance Talmudic Studies; a Yoetzet is a halachic advisor specializing in Jewish family law).   Personally, I think we should be inviting these women to the rebbetzin’s conference as they are part of our community of Orthodox women leaders serving in the rabbinate.

At Beth Israel, “The Family Shul,” we recently hired a wonderful new NCSY director.  After many years of having a rabbi or other males in the position, this time we hired a young lady.  I was so surprised at some of the reactions we got.  People told me how wonderful it was that we were progressive and liberal enough to place a woman in a leadership role at the shul.  Can you believe it?!  Sometimes it may seem obvious to us that women have always been Orthodox Jewish leaders but if we want to continue to inspire the selfie generation, we need to shout it out loud to the world!

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbanit Batya

About the Author
Rabbanit Batya Friedman is the senior rebbetzin of Hamsptead Suburb Garden Synagogue in London, UK. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She received her Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Brooklyn College and her MBA from the University of Alberta. She previously served the community in Edmonton, AB Canada.
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