Over the past year or so, oceans of ink have been spilled on the issue of women’s ordination within Orthodoxy. I’m not going to rehash the halakhic arguments for or against, or cite specific individuals or organizations either to say that I agree or to hold up for critical examination. I will leave the petty rabbinic bickering to others who enjoy the sport.
I am an Orthodox Jew. I don’t need someone else to speak for me. I can speak for myself. I say this:
A study released last summer of formerly Orthodox Jews in the United States found that 37% of Modern Orthodox women who leave Orthodoxy listed women’s status as a reason they left. Of all the reasons listed on the survey, it was the top reason among women. Now, one can argue about the survey design, how the base sample was selected, the credentials of the individuals conducting the survey, or any of a number of other reasons that might have made the survey results inaccurate. The fact remains that a significant number of women (and men) who took the survey voluntarily checked a box saying they left because of women’s status in Orthodoxy. For every woman who left, I am sure that many more remain within Orthodoxy, silently and deeply troubled by our attitudes towards women’s status.
This is heartbreaking for so many reasons. First and foremost is that the Orthodox leadership seems content to point to studies that show that Orthodoxy is growing as evidence that Orthodoxy must be doing something right. What is missed is that people are not a commodity, and they are not fungible. Whether Orthodoxy is growing as the result of an influx of ba’alei teshuva is irrelevant. We are losing people, and we need to mourn the loss of each and every unique individual, and attempt to address the cause of that loss, rather than pointing to other studies as a way of denying that a problem exists.
Another reason that it is heartbreaking is because our predominantly male leadership has an incredible resource right in front of their noses to help understand and possibly address the problem that they can’t seem to be bothered to consult: women. The fact that women are leaving Orthodoxy and men can’t be bothered to consult them to understand why is fundamentally and deeply problematic.
Perhaps the reason this is not done is because our male leadership is fearful of being labeled as “feminists,” the third rail du jour of Orthodoxy. Being a feminist, “God forbid,” is prima facie evidence of lack of fitness to serve as a leader within the various cabals that purport to represent Orthodoxy and speak on our behalf. Feminists need not apply, and closet feminists who worm their way in and are discovered will be “outed” and evicted.
With all due respect, this is not a feminist issue. This is a matter of basic human decency. When someone is upset, or feels marginalized, or is struggling with some difficult aspect of their religion, the very first thing one must do is to listen, to understand, and to empathize. Even if no tangible relief or solution can be found for the underlying problem, it costs nothing but time to act in a caring way towards someone who is a sister, a wife, or a daughter. It means the world to them. Acknowledging an individual’s personal struggle and letting them be with that struggle is a powerful statement in its own right.
Being that our male Orthodox leadership appears to have chosen to be out of touch with a full 50% of our Orthodox community, it should come as a surprise to no one that women are increasingly finding their own voices and speaking up for what is important to them. Whether this be through advocacy organizations such as JOFA, ORA, or Kolech, or by seeking formal recognition for their leadership skills through programs such as Yeshivat Maharat, Midreshet Lindenbaum, or Beit Midrash Har’El, is unimportant and secondary. That they are doing so, and committed to doing so while remaining fully within Orthodoxy, is what matters and what ought to be acknowledged at the outset of any discussion about women’s ordination.
A rabbi’s job is to relieve pain and suffering where possible, and to inspire individuals to bring God into their lives. Orthodox rabbis believe this is done through observance of halakha and Jewish ritual. Those familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs know that basic needs, such as lack of pain and suffering, are a necessary foundation for an individual to reach the pinnacle of self-actualization. Arguably, unless one wants to view Judaism simplistically as a list of dos or don’ts, the ultimate purpose of Judaism, or any religion, for that matter, is to achieve self-actualization. When rabbis don’t live up to their responsibilities, and deny women their basic needs – to be heard, to be able to express what is important to them, to be understood, to be taken seriously, and to acknowledge or alleviate their pain and suffering – they ultimately deny them the ability to seek a personal relationship with their Creator. It is a perversion of my religion and the religion of my ancestors.
I am deeply humbled to have had an opportunity to meet and learn from a number of giants who appreciate the dimensions of the problem that Orthodoxy faces and who have been brave enough to step forward and articulate a vision about what sort of Orthodox leadership is needed to address that problem. Rav Avi Weiss, Rabba Sara Hurwitz, Rav Jeff Fox, Rabbanit Devorah Zlochower, Rav Herzl Hefter, Rabba Devora Evron, and Rav Shlomo Riskin are all firmly committed to the vibrancy of our community, and are deserving of our undying gratitude. This list of visionary leaders is by no means exhaustive – there are many other individuals whom I have met or not, or whom I may not realize share that vision of Orthodox leadership. May God’s graciousness be upon all of you and let the work of your hands be successful, and may you continue to bring God into this world through that work for many years to come.
And to my wife, Jennifer: I am awed by your commitment to our people and your bravery in seeking ordination at Yeshivat Maharat. While many view Orthodox women’s ordination as an egotistical and political journey, I know that you seek ordination not for your own honor or for political motives, but because of your deeply held convictions and for the benefit of the Jewish people. Thank you for agreeing to share our lives and for letting me accompany you on your journey.
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P.S. I originally posted this on my Facebook page, and a lively discussion followed in the comments section. A number of the commenters, both for and against women’s ordination, pushed the discussion towards a halakhic debate, even though I had made clear at the outset of my post that I did not want to engage in one. The attempt to have a halakhic debate without sufficiently appreciating the human dimension of the problem (well, that’s not fair, maybe they do appreciate it and just don’t take the time to verbally acknowledge it) actually buttresses the central thesis of this piece. It is not just a problem of the “left” or the “right” — it seems to be a universal one. It is deeply troubling to me, as it affects much more in Orthodoxy than this one issue.
Rabbi Daniel Geretz serves as the rabbi of Maayan, An Orthodox shul in West Orange, New Jersey.