Women Rabbis: Further Questions and Considerations

Last week, I published an article advocating for women’s ordination and considering a number of arguments that have traditionally been made against women’s ordination.  I did so in the hope of promoting substantive dialogue of the issue.  Thankfully, a number of commentators joined the discussion and voiced their own opinions and criticisms, all respectful and well-taken, which I urge you to read along with my responses in the piece’s comments section.

There were two recurring themes in those comments—Daas Torah and Open Orthodoxy—which I did not address in my prior piece and which are deserving of a more fulsome treatment.  Accordingly, with the same caveats as I made in my prior piece, I address them here.

Should we care about what the Gedolim say about Women Rabbis?

Some commentators argued that since Gedolim, rabbinical sages, oppose the notion of women rabbis, we should oppose it as well.  It is an argument that assumes that I believe in the notion of Daas Torah, that Jews are duty-bound to unquestioningly follow their sages on all matters.  And the argument fails because that assumption is in fact incorrect—I do not accept Daas Torah (though I respect those who do) and would submit that neither do most Modern Orthodox Jews.  Here is why.

On a very basic level, Daas Torah seems perfectly reasonable.  One should have intellectual honesty and humility, and be deferential towards those who know more than one does.

But Daas Torah asks us to do more than simply show deference.  One can be deferential and still ask questions and disagree.  What characterizes deference is the way in which the question is asked and the disagreement is expressed, whether it reflects a sense of respect for the thought and scholarship of the person with whom one disagrees.  Put another way, deference does not require us to suspend disbelief; it requires us to substantiate disbelief.

Daas Torah, on the other hand, requires us to suspend disbelief and disregard substance.  Our research, analysis and perception of truth are all irrelevant.  In the final analysis, Daas Torah asserts that what matters is what the Gedolim say.  Indeed, commenters who made Daas Torah arguments cited no independent, substantive reasons for their opposition to women’s ordination.  For them, the Gedolim’s opposition to women rabbis was itself enough of a reason to oppose it.

I find such a notion is problematic for the following four reasons.

First, fundamentally, Daas Torah asks us to prioritize rabbinic authority over truth—indeed, to even follow rabbinic positions that we think are wrong.  And that simply cannot be. Truth is the source of rabbinic authority—it is, after all, our perception of a rabbi’s grasp of truth that leads us to follow any rabbi in the first place—and rabbinic authority cannot exist in the absence of truth.

Second, Daas Torah deprives individuals of the very power that Judaism seeks to invest in them. Judaism, unlike Christianity and other intermediary-based religions, believed that any individual could achieve ultimate closeness to God.  And at the heart of that belief, in turn, is Judaism’s belief in each human’s inherent worth and limitless potential.  Judaism rejects “trickle-down divinity.”

Precisely the opposite belief lies at the core of Daas Torah.  Whereas Judaism has faith in all individuals, Daas Torah believes that only certain individuals, Gedolim, can truly achieve that closeness to God.  For the rest of us, Daas Torah posits that approaching God is simply too difficult or perilous a venture, and should be “left to the professionals.”  And so, to essentially protect Jews from themselves, Daas Torah inserts an artificial system of tiers and barriers that disrupt the personal, individual relationship that Judaism sought for individuals with God.

Third, Daas Torah effectively quashes the personal religious experience that is the handmaiden of Jewish practice.  Judaism is not merely a set of rote practices; those practices have meaning, and are actually expressions of a larger idea.  And Jewish experience is the process through which one comes closer to God by considering the nuances of Jewish practice and piecing together a personal understanding of God’s truth.  But how can one achieve that experience if one intellectually outsources understanding to Gedolim, as Daas Torah demands?  Daas Torah leaves us with Jewish practice, but deprives us of its understanding, the heart and soul of the Jewish experience.

The final problem with Daas Torah is practical.  Even if one accepts the absolute primacy of Gedolim (I do not), how does one identify who a Gadol is and what the “position” of the Gedolim is in order to follow that position?

First, with respect to identity, one can be a “sage” in many different ways.  One can be sagely because of extraordinary knowledge, because of outstanding raw intellectual and deductive ability, or, alternatively, vast experience.  Which quality is determinative?  Are different qualities determinative for different issues, or does one’s qualification as a “sage” because of one quality render one a “sage” for everything?

And who makes the determination that an individual is a Gadol?  Individuals, communal institutions?  And who vests them with the authority to make that determination?  And can the determination be revoked or qualified?  Are all Gedolim created equal or do we have tiers of Gedolim?  And who establishes those tiers and on what basis?

And, with respect to positions, what if, as they often do, one Gadol disagrees with another Gadol?  The reality is that there are different institutions of higher learning—Torah Vodaas, Yeshiva University, the Mir and Chovevei Torah—each of which have their own set of Gedolim and ideologies (to say nothing of individual variety among Gedolim in individual institutions).  Is there any objective reason to follow one Gadol or institution over the other?  The answer is that there is not.  Individuals make a personal decision.

And therein lies Daas Torah’s fatal flaw—it is a practical impossibility.  One way or another, upstream or downstream, directly or directly, the individual practitioner guides the process and effectively dictates the outcome.  The Gadol is merely “window dressing,” a façade that legitimizes the position that individuals already want to take.  For when an individual decides which Gadol or institution he or she “likes” (or dislikes) that is what is really happening.

Nevertheless, rejecting Daas Torah does not mean that one rejects the proposition that those who possess outstanding qualities deserve our respect.  On the contrary.  Although we do not have to agree with them, I do think that we are duty bound to consider what they have to say and, if we disagree, to do so respectfully and substantively.  And that goes for all scholars, across the spectrum of ideologies.

I think it is terribly wrong to simply write-off opponents of women’s ordination as backward chauvinists set on retaining an antiquated power dynamic and, by the same token, to write-off those who support ordination as feminists and reformers hell-bent on destroying Orthodoxy—and particularly so when those making the arguments are scholars (and, on both sides, they often are).  No one has a monopoly on truth, and we owe it to ourselves as a community to thoughtfully listen to and consider the substantive arguments on both sides of this important issue.

Is Supporting Women Rabbis Supporting Open Orthodoxy? 

Another common argument was that we should oppose women rabbis because it is an idea that is advocated by Open Orthodoxy, a movement that they argue is insidiously trying to reshape Orthodoxy to accord with liberal values rather than Torah values.  In other words, even if the idea of women rabbis is itself absolutely fine as a matter of Jewish law and policy, its mere association with Open Orthodoxy irrevocably taints it, and we should oppose it for that reason alone.  Again, I respectfully disagree.

First, factually, Open Orthodoxy did not invent the concept of women rabbis and any “link” between the two is a priori at best.  “Open Orthodoxy” was a term coined by Rabbi Avi Weiss, the former dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, in the late 1990’s, and the first woman to be ordained by the movement, Sara Hurwitz, was ordained only in 2009.   Needless to say, women rabbis—as a concept and a practice—long predated both events.

The Orthodox community, to say nothing of other Jewish denominations, has grappled with the communal role of women for decades.  In The Status of Women in Halakhic Judaism, a landmark article written in Tradition in 1973, for example, Rabbi Dr. Saul Berman urged the Orthodox community to rethink women’s communal role.  Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Frimer recently noted that the question of women serving in communal positions was formally posed to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in the early 1980s (Rabbi Dr. Frimer argues that Rabbi Soloveitchik would oppose women’s ordination), almost twenty years before Open Orthodoxy even existed.  As a historical matter, therefore, “tagging” support for women’s ordination and empowerment as an Open Orthodox position is akin to “tagging” support for tax cuts as a Tea Party position.  Quite simply—women’s ordination and communal role generally is not an Open Orthodox issue, it is a Jewish issue.

Second, even assuming that some Orthodox commentators’ almost pathological obsession with Open Orthodoxy is sensible (and I take no position on that), the notion of “tagging” and prohibiting otherwise valid practices in order to avoid the appearance of making a “concession” to such a movement is dangerous and, ultimately, self-defeating.  It is one thing to oppose Open Orthodoxy—and to oppose it even strongly—but it is quite another to do so by toying with Halakha and declaring perfectly permissible practices taboo in order to undercut that movement’s legitimacy.

Jewish tradition has long recognized that creating taboos and other false religious concepts—even for seemingly good reasons—has devastating consequences.  In Genesis, God originally commands Adam “not to eat” from the tree of knowledge (2:16).  Later, however, in relating the prohibition to the snake, Eve describes God’s command as “not to eat and not to touch” the tree (3:3).  Commentators, including Avot DeRabbeinu Natan, a commentary on Pirkei Avot, assert that this distinction has significance.

According to them, in order to avoid infringing on God’s commandment—which was to merely not eat from the tree—Adam and Eve expanded the commandment further, to include not even touching the tree.  The problem with expansions and taboos is that they often take on a life and significance that they should not have, as Adam and Eve’s taboo did for them.  When the snake asks Eve to describe the prohibition, Eve does not even make a distinction between the prohibition and the add-on; she treats them as one and the same.

The story goes that the snake pushed Eve against the tree—after all, God had said that the consequence of violating God’s injunction would be death (2:17)—and, yet, Eve lived.  The snake’s message to Eve was that she should eat from the tree because, clearly, God lacked the power to enforce his commandment.  But Eve did not violate God’s commandment, she violated her own commandment which she misconstrued as God’s commandment.

According to these sources, the original sin was not the Adam and Eve ate an apple, but that, with the best of intentions, they distorted the truth.  And we should not repeat that sin today.  Judaism’s paramount value is truth and, if one believes that Open Orthodoxy is distorting that truth, the answer is not to also distort the truth, but to speak the truth clearly and convincingly.

Finally, and related to the prior point, the consequence of this strategy of “redistricting” Halakha in order to render Open Orthodoxy “outside the pale” is simply devastating.  We are taking wonderful, passionate and educated women, many (if not most) of whom are not Open Orthodox, and who simply want to dedicate their lives to the betterment of our community, and not only rejecting them and all that they are offering us, but tagging and marginalizing them as individuals out to destroy the very values that they merely want us to allow them to dedicate their lives to preserve.

One could find the irony of it all absolutely infuriating.   I personally find it heartbreaking.

If the goal is to fight Open Orthodoxy and put Yeshivat Maharat out of business (and, again, I take no position on the merits of that goal), the best way to do it is, actually, by ordaining women rabbis.  Instead of acting like the United Nations and passing ill-conceived resolutions, let the RCA, in conjunction with Yeshiva University, launch an ordination program for women whose standards of scholarship and excellence, like those of Nishmat’s Yoetzet program and Yeshiva University’s GPATS program, far exceed those of Yeshivat Maharat and are the envy of the Modern Orthodox world.  Our community certainly has the resources, the scholarship and the talented women necessary to achieve that goal.  The question is whether we have the courage and wisdom to help ourselves by making it happen.  And that’s a question that only we can answer.

About the Author
Yigal M. Gross is an attorney who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey with his wife Tamar Warburg and their children Ella, Sara and Yonatan.
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