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The Future of Women in Orthodox Judaism

I am a big fan of Hakirah, a really nicely done Torah journal. I was turned onto the publication by a friend of mine who was published in the journal and am now a subscriber.

The most recent Hakirah attempted to begin to tackle the issue of women in the rabbinate. It began with a short article from Rabbi Herschel Schachter who did not do the subject justice but concluded, based on the laws of tznius, that a position such as Rabbi is not a preferable place for men or women due to its very public nature. However in choosing who should perform the public duties of a Rabbi, it is better to have men in a position of non-tznius than women.

R’ Schachter’s article is interesting but too short. It leaves way too much wiggle room and seems to be referring mostly to women pulpit rabbis.

The next article does a much more comprehensive job of dealing with the issue. Its authors are Rabbi Michael Broyde and Rabbi Shlomo Brody.

When I first broached this topic on this blog I did so in the context of social change. (PLEASE READ: Patience Is A Virtue and An Important Ingredient For Change) My premise is that all social change happens slowly. Change that is too quick or premature can backfire. I predicted that women would continue to see more prominent roles in areas of religious leadership over time.

My good friend DovBear vehemently disagreed with this wait and see approach. In his mind an injustice cannot be tolerated at all. Since he feels that the current situation for women in orthodox Judaism is an injustice, patience is a curse, not a cure. Now DovBear is entitled to shriek from the rooftops but that doesn’t mean anything will change. Personally, I am concerned with real change not just proclamations.

I view the issue primarily as a social one, not a halachic one. The reason for this is that I believe that the law will adapt to the social environment. However this is only possible if there is a halachic mechanism to give women a more prominent role in religious leadership. It has been demonsrated by Rabbis Broyde and Brody that it can. Certainly it can also be prohibited by law if one makes certain halachic decisions. But it would be equally halachically acceptable to adapt what is currently halachically acceptable. One major factor the Rabbis cite, is the public needs, desires and perception.

I strongly recommend reading the full article. I have uploaded an annotated version of the article with specific key points underlined. Read that here: Hakirah Vol 11.

My summary of the women in religious leadership roles in orthodox Judaism is as follows:

Many women in the Bible are heroes. They frequently possess keener insight than their male counterparts. Sometimes they are stronger than the men. Other times they play a secondary role, but star anyway. Midrashim also speak highly of women. In the law, women are afforded much more liberty and equality than in other ancient legal systems. In ancient times, the Torah was a progressive woman’s best hope. There is no indication in the Torah that women could not and should not be able to achieve the same level of scholarship or religious leadership as men. The one example where women are severely limited is in becoming king or by extension any other position of serara.

The Talmud has several statements that seem to disparage women. The most classic example is the oft repeated prohibition against teaching women Torah. The Talmud explains this statement by one Tanna in a Mishna with the statement “Nashim daatam kalos“. Which literally translated means that women are weak-minded and since that is the case, it is futile to teach them Torah. The Rambam codifies this into halacha.

Throughout the world, for the bulk of the last 2000 years since the beginning of the Mishnaic period the sentiment that women are inferior has been accepted as fact. It is plain as day to see this fact when considering the great lengths women had to go in order to get equal rights in the greatest democracy in the world. Even as few as 103 years ago, the Supreme Court has no problem publishing an opinion based on the fact that women were primarily vehicles of reproductivity and must be protected from working too many hours lest we harm their reproductive prowess. As per the summary on Oyez.org “Brewer’s opinion conveyed the accepted wisdom of the day: that women were unequal and inferior to men.” (Muller v. Oregon).

2000 years ago it was a given. Women are inferior. It took thousands of years for the secular world to escape that mentality.

I am aware of the mental gymnastics and apologetics to excuse or “explain” what the Talmud meant. To me, they are useless. In a world where women have every opportunity that men have, women are choosing to accomplish things their grandmothers could never have dreamed. Orthodox Jewish women expect and should expect to have similar opportunities within their religion. AH! But it wasn’t ever this way! We ALWAYS did it the old way! How can we break from Tradition? Worse, are we violating halacha?!

In my opinion, there is no shame in admitting the mistakes of our past. The rabbis in the Talmud were entirely justified in using the feelings and temperament of their era in applying them to Torah and Law. I don’t believe that we are bound to maintain their opinions of women or anyone. Certainly they were wise and certainly they did the best they could to serve Hashem and teach us for posterity how to do the same. But they were people and people are subject to the notions and vicissitudes of their time.

[I have been accused of being a "Conservative Rabbi" and a "fraud" for holding this position. I don't believe this is a fair criticism. As per the Rambam, the variety of opinions on matters such as these are not part of the Oral Law passed down from Sinai to Moses and beyond. Thus, acknowledging that the rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud were able to formulate their own opinions and were not merely transmitting previously known information that was received at Sinai is not any more the attitude of a "Conservative Rabbinics" than it is the attitude of the Rambam.]

There is no shame in recognizing that the social environment and scientific data have changed our opinion of what women are capable of accomplishing. It would be foolish to assume that women are able to function at the highest levels of academia, science, politics, or any non-physical activity but would be unable to achieve great accomplishments in Torah and religious leadership. Indeed, they can.

The question is “may they?”.

To this question Rabbis Broyde and Brody answer a resounding… “Possibly”. But a key to their analysis is public acceptance of change in attitude towards women’s ever increasing role in orthodox Jewish religious life.

A century ago women had far fewer opportunities than they do today. As I wrote previously, the fact that women can study Torah in schools and places of higher learning and maintain positions of authority in Torah institutions is certainly a great innovation of the last 100 years. It is not to be taken lightly or for granted. The wisdom of our rabbis in allowing this change must be noted. The point is that women are on a track and the track is leading to a place of even greater opportunity for women. The only remaining question is how long it will take to get there.

When the public demands it, it will happen. When it becomes necessary it will happen. When the only obvious choice is to take that train to the next station, it will happen.

To be clear, I am not condoning the recent ordination of orthodox Jewish women as Rabbis (or Rabbas, or whatever). Nor am I proposing that within a few decades women will be taking positions as pulpit rabbis and Roshei Yeshiva. I am saying that there will be more opportunities for scholarship at least on par with the opportunities men have to study Torah vigorously. Correspondingly, there will be a need for women leaders and educators who have demonstrated mastery over their studies. Today, women are chosen as teachers and educators and yet, generally, compared with a mediocre yeshiva student they are ignoramuses. Creating greater opportunities for higher learning will change that. Women who are so inclined will able to receive recognition for scholarship and Torah knowledge. Our children will benefit from better school teachers. Our synagogues will benefit from better Torah classes given by women.

All this being said, it remains a choice for each woman or family to decide. Every family is different and some women may be happy or happier with more traditional roles. But those roles will be borne out of a choice as opposed to lack of choice. It will help women who make either choice, or if they can somehow choose both better Jews and better mother, each in their own way.

What should we do in the meantime? Rabbis Broyde and Brody said it best:

Women should sit and study for increasingly long periods of time, write serious scholarship in Torah, develop as inspiring spiritual personas, and lead Torah institutions, in function if not in form. In short, they should build the Orthodox community brick by brick, and see what happens over time.

So to summarize my summary:

Women used to be thought of as inferior. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that. But now we know they aren’t. They may have different roles. That should not preclude them from scholarship and recognition as Torah scholars and leaders. Eventually it won’t. Meanwhile, become scholars as best you can. This is all reconcilable with halacha. Of course it is.


35 Comments
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  • DovBear

    >> I predicted that women would continue to see more prominent roles in areas of religious leadership over time.My good friend DovBear vehemently disagreed
    Your reference to me is ambiguous. I don’t disagree that women will advance; I disagree that we should sit on our hands and let it happen by itself. Nothing changes on its own. 

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      Sorry. I will make it more clear.

  • http://profiles.google.com/holyhyrax Holy Hyrax

    >My good friend DovBear vehemently disagreed with this wait and see approach. In his mind an injustice cannot be tolerated at all.
    LOL

  • http://twitter.com/daniopp Daniopp

    I find your choice of photograph that accompanies the post to be unfair 

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      It was the only appropriate one I could find. I am happy to replace it if you can find a more appropriate photo.

      • http://twitter.com/daniopp Daniopp
        • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

          MUCH worse.

          • http://twitter.com/daniopp Daniopp

            more accurate that womens suffrage.  this is about women rabbis, not womens rights.  religion isnt concerned with equal rights and equality.  its concerned with laws.  putting a picture of a woman rabbi (complete with the women symbol showcasing the feminist bent) is a more accurate approach and illustration of this topic.

            even the line of  ”The most recent Hakirah attempted to begin to tackle the issue of women in the rabbinate.”  there is as much an issue of women in the rabbinate as there is aliens in my donuts….

            • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

              It’s not about rabbis. It is about opportunities. A word that can be loosely exchanged with liberty. That is why I chose that photo.

          • http://twitter.com/daniopp Daniopp

            its about perceived equalities. something that should not be an issue in judaism.

            • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

              I think there two separate issues. First the issue of equality in the classic feminist sense. I don’t believe that works within Judaism. There are roles. But the second issue, of giving women equal opportunities for scholarship and religious leadership is unnecessarily unequal.

            • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

              I think there two separate issues. First the issue of equality in the classic feminist sense. I don’t believe that works within Judaism. There are roles. But the second issue, of giving women equal opportunities for scholarship and religious leadership is unnecessarily unequal.

          • http://twitter.com/daniopp Daniopp

            its about perceived equalities. something that should not be an issue in judaism.

    • Susan Barnes

      The photo is fair. It’s about men unjustly dictating what women are or are not allowed do, despite their capabilities.  It is men, not God, refusing to let women take full leadership roles in Judaism.

      • http://profiles.google.com/holyhyrax Holy Hyrax

        >The photo is fair. It’s about men unjustly dictating what women are or are not allowed do, despite their capabilities.  It is men, not God, refusing to let women take full leadership roles in Judaism.
        If its a matter of justice (as DB would say) what difference would it be if God said so? It would still be unjust. Point is, this is not an issue of justice. That is why the picture does not fit. In my opinion, it actually diminishes what women back then were actually fighting for. 

        • Susan Barnes

          It is about justice. Men are stopping women from doing something they are perfectly capable of doing, and which they should be allowed to do.

          • http://profiles.google.com/holyhyrax Holy Hyrax

            Do you realize I am perfectly capable of  giving the Cohen blessing from the pulpit????? But yet, I am not allowed. Is that an injustice???

            I think the problem is, the left has nearly successfully equated “equality of outcome with justice.” Justice is about law treating everyone as equal. Not favoring one side over the other. 

            This is simply not the same in religion (or any other private club) when there are other rules and rituals at play. 

      • http://profiles.google.com/holyhyrax Holy Hyrax

        >The photo is fair. It’s about men unjustly dictating what women are or are not allowed do, despite their capabilities.  It is men, not God, refusing to let women take full leadership roles in Judaism.
        If its a matter of justice (as DB would say) what difference would it be if God said so? It would still be unjust. Point is, this is not an issue of justice. That is why the picture does not fit. In my opinion, it actually diminishes what women back then were actually fighting for. 

  • Shlomo Pill

    Like so many things in this world, I think this issue demonstrates a beautiful natural harmony that inheres in God’s world.  Female talmidei chachamim and poskim will only have halachic legitimacy is they come to be accepted by the Jewish community.  They will only come to be accepted if they – the sincere ones acting l’sheim shamayim – sit quietly, study, write, and grow into Torah scholars within their own 4 amos, without pushing this development on the klal.  It will be those who conduct themselves with true tznius who will pave the way for the gradual acceptence of female Torah leadership.  The ones that act brazenly, that try to push change on the klal from above instead of allowing it to develop from below will find themselves marginalized and deletimized.  It is the women that should be leaders who will pave the way for leadership, while those who are demogogues in disguise will never gain acceptance as legitimate leaders in the halachic community.

  • http://yeshivaforum.wordpress.com/ itchemeyer

    I’m very mesupak on this. It will certainly be interesting to look back on in 50 years (I’ll be looking forward to your post then;)).
    We have an American post-1960′s attitude that’s causing some friction. I wonder if it’s enough to cause change though. Enough women are following the mainstream path that dissenters are cast aside. The issue is the same with everything that cant be legally changed. Evolution discussions, going to college, this is no different.
    Even in the secular world, there was a survey done (I forget where) that most women dont rise as high in the corporate ladder as men because they aren’t as committed to ‘just business’. They want kids as well.

    This might not be a problem there for the women that do want to go into business because there’s space to do it if you want to. In the frum world though, there’s one rule. The rabbonim make the rules, and everybody sticks with the tzibbur or is outside. This may be necessary to keep the religion intact, but it doesn’t allow for individualized halachos.
    The upshot is that even if some women start to learn and argue halacha, the establishment is not going to take them seriously. In fact, there have always been yechidos who have been bona fide talmidei chachamim, and they’ve made no dent.

    The only difference we have today is the modern orthodox movement. They are walking a tightrope, but if they can create places for women to learn and get involved in a rabbinically monitored environment, and keep publishing good stuff, while not openly saying they’re trying to change anything, the mainstream frum world will take notice and start the gears of change moving.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      Evolution discussions, going to college, this is no different.

      It is different because even in ultra orthodox communities women already have substantial roles they did not have a few decades ago.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_M5TFA2LNGNXLLMLJJ6GVEK23BQ Willbe

    Do Orthodox women want to be “liberated” ?  Do they want to obligate themselves to go to a minyan three times a day for prayer?  Must we burden them with tzitzit and tefillin?  There is a very good reason why women are exempt from time-bound positive laws – it’s very very hard to raise children and run a household if you need to be concerned about making it to minchah on time!

    That said – Orthodox women are already free to choose their own lives.  They can marry if they wish, but they are not obligated to do so.  They can (and do) receive advanced degrees from fine universities, and work in all sectors.  An Orthodox woman can make her own choices, make her own money, live her own life – all within halacha.

    It seems that the liberal Jews are much more concerned about frum female “liberation” than are the frum females.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      I think the frum community NEEDS qualified women scholars.

  • g j

    Rabbi Fink,
    If you are willing to disagree with halacha and Rabbi’s of the tlamud on something like this, with no precedent, I fail to see why the next stpe is not your supporting same sex marriage. After all, you can  surely call it “not fair,” isn;t that right? And you can also read the verse about “as one lies with a woman” differently than the rabbis of the talmud. Why not? why can’t readers of your blog just take that same next logical step, even if you don’t? why can’t they say “its perfectly understandable that at that time, rabbis would think this. but now things are different!” why not? please clarify this. you have to udnerstand that this is what a great many of us are thinking. Dov Bear, feel free to pipe in on this one too if you have any insights (not! This question is directed to Rabbi Fink,)

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      Did you even bother reading the article in Hakirah? No precedent? Arguing with the rabbis? Educate yourself before you make statements like those.

      There are no “next steps”. Every issue is an issue unto itself.

      Do you realize how disingenuous you are being by comparing one man d’amar in a mishna to a PASSUK IN THE TORAH?!

      Finally, you have to realize that when an anonymous (supposedly at least, a few people think we know who you are) says “this is what a great many of us are thinking” you have absolutely zero credibility. For now, your questions and ideas are (somewhat) interesting to discuss, but invoking the opinions of a “great many” anonymous people is absolutely meaningless to me. You might as well tell me that you spoke to GD Himself and He agrees with you too…

      • g j

        The only reason that the “Gay orthodox Rabbi” is wrong is because the oral Torah tells us how to interpret that verse of mishkvei isha. It is not open to interpretation since the Rabbis of the talmud said otherwise. Frankly – i am speaking aobut what you have written, not Hakira, and i have made no comment about that publication. to say that i am not educated is silly. I am a learned Jew, I have been through several daf yomi cycles, (this is my 3rd that I will complete) and have spent a large portion of my life studying Torah. Not reading a specific Hakira article hardly make me unlearned on a topic. I don’t care about that article. Im talking about your posts. 

        As for me saying that “many of us are thinking this,” i only know that from the people who i have spoken to. I fail to see how your “many of us think we know who you are” is any more defensible. And who is us? do you actually have a group of people who you sit around with trying to figure out who your anonymous commenters are? Tell me who Dov Bear is, and then i will tell you who I am. what the hel*?

        • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

          If you would have read the article you might have learned more about the subject than you could have possibly gleaned by zipping though it in a daf yomi cycle. As I wrote in the post, the article proves that it is within the confines of accepted orthodox halacha for women to become highly educated in matters of Torah and take positions of authority and religious leadership. It is wrong for you to “call me out” as you have when I am merely asserting an well established halachic position which you would know if you would, you know, ACTUALLY READ the article.

          I don’t know you DovBear is and I don’t care. But yes, plenty of people ask me about the dissenters on this blog and they may venture guesses as to who they are. So there you go.

      • g j

        why was i censored?

        • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

          You weren’t.

  • Garnelironheart

    The fly in the ointment is heterodoxy. Look over the history of halacha and you seen constant slow but progressive evolution in response to social changes and new norms.  All this ends with the rise of the Reformers in Germany and the backlash by the Chasam Sofer.  Now any change is problematic because there is a risk, from the Chareidi side, of having the Reformers say “Aha!  We made that change already, so this means we’ve been right all along!”
    It like why in politics no one in the government ever acts on any good suggestions that the opposition makes.  Same thing here: change means the Reform are right and we can never admit that!

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      There will not be a progressive evolution to permit texting on Shabbos just because some rebellious teens are doing it.

  • TQuinn

    The Moon’s Lost Light. Miriam Heshelis

  • Tigerlilyisrael

    Women once had positions of power. I was with a archaeology class in northern Israel, where I was touring a second temple synagogue when the teacher pointed out the part of the mosiac the declared the leader of the congregation a wealthy women he explained that her position was something like a modern day rabbi. Which shocked much of the flass he pointed out another synagogue in now modern day Syria that had similar mosiac. He held the position that separating men and women as jews currently do is a roman tradition we picked up from idol worshipping women hating homocentric roman friends. The first temple, and the temple under the hasmoneons had no separate womens court, only a peoples court where men and women worshiped together equally. It was herod, educated in rome that built the first Jewish structure that separated men and women. Before him and even for some time after him, women worshiped equally to men and held community positions.