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.