There has been so much written on the topic of women rabbis by rabbis, feminists, traditional men and women, etc. but I have yet to read anything that represents what I think and perhaps needs to be said. As with many heated topics the extremes on both sides make the most noise and get the most attention while the voice in the middle goes unheard.
I am an Orthodox Jewish woman who loves our rich tradition and I have tremendous respect for our esteemed rabbis. I am proud and thankful to be a part of something that has given me the ethics, values and a rich full life that I do not believe I could have gotten anywhere else. Yet, at the same time, I can not blind myself to issues that cause extreme pain to others especially when done so in the name of upholding our tradition.
I come from a long line of very devoted religious orthodox Jews on both sides, not to mention, a close knit family, that takes tradition very seriously. I fully understand the value of keeping tradition alive and do so as much as possible. Traditions usually start for a valid reason and continue either out of necessity and are valuable or are harmless. However, there are times when traditions are adamantly upheld long after the need has gone and can end up being detrimental.
There is a classic story my father once told me. A man notices that every time his wife made a pot roast she cut off a quarter of it and only cooked the remainder. When he asked his wife why she does so she responded that it’s what her mother always did. When they asked her mother she also said she doesn’t know why but it’s what her mother always did. After investigating further they found out that it was originally done because the great grandmother only had a pot that fit three quarters of the roast. Sometimes it simply is the right thing to veer from tradition.
A recent blog post entitled, “Woman Rabbis Ruin Judaism For All Women” written by Rahel Rocklin attempts to show how there is no place in Orthodoxy for women rabbis. In her effort to defend Judaism’s treatment of women, she gave examples from the Torah where G-d Himself sanctioned progressive attitudes toward women that were at odds with the practice of the day. This argument actually works against her and can be more logically applied in favor of women attaining leadership positions that up till now were forbidden due to tradition.
She argues that women should be happy with their lot as should the poor and uneducated. She confuses the fight for education, position and equal pay with a desire to create a “sameness” squelching the uniqueness of men and women. Whereas, the women advocating for female positions are trying to fill a role that men can’t fill precisely because they are men!
She further makes a plea to Jewish Feminists to leave Orthodoxy alone and not to disrespect their mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers who want to maintain “tradition”. She tells women who have a desire to be “rabbis” to either join a different sect of Judaism or start their own.
First of all, if not for women in the past like Sarah Schneirer fighting against “tradition” she would not be the teacher she is today. Had Rahel been around in that era no doubt she would have claimed that women should leave the Torah studies up to men and we would miss out on great contributions like that of Bible scholar and commentator, Nechama Leibowitz. Orthodox women today, including Rahel, benefit greatly from revolutionary women of the past. I understand her fears and concerns about changing something that has seemingly worked well for thousands of years. At the same time, it is wrong for her to tell orthodox women to leave the fold because she perceives they are ruining orthodoxy for “traditional” women. No one is barging into her shul and forcing a female rabbi upon her. How does it ruin things for her if other shuls agree under the interpretations of their rabbi that it is fine to have women in these positions?
Secondly, it is hypocritical to say that they are disrespecting their mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers by fighting for things they need, unless she is willing to forgo the rights and privileges that our female ancestors fought for.
She says, “If you do not respect your ancestors, go ahead and defy them, but do not force us to join you. If you do not feel fulfilled and respected within our tri-millennial tradition, I doubt you will find true fulfillment in breaking it. Try if you must, but I pray that you do not drag us down with you.”
No one is trying to force anyone into doing anything they are not comfortable with. All these women want is to have a place that works for them. It should not be a threat to her shul if another shul has a female rabbi just like it is not a threat to an Ashkenazi shul if there is a Sephardi one down the block. We live in a world with many different people who have many different needs.
They don’t step on her rights. She shouldn’t step on theirs.