Tuesday, September 22, 2009

ordination of women and maharats

Unless you've been living in a cave, you know that the ordination of a Maharat has been followed up by the opening of a yeshiva dedicated to training other Maharats. Good idea or bad idea? I want to focus on defining the question in the spirit of she'eilat chacham chatzi tshuvah with the caveat that these thoughts are just tentative musings.

1. The impetus for women's ordination/Maharat stems from the feeling that women are given less than their due as leaders in terms of authority, salary, or opportunity. Given the inequality of such a situation and the moral need to take corrective action, the presumption is that the title of Rabbi or Maharat will grant women who earn it a greater degree of authority and opportunity and also allow them to command a commensurate salary to their male counterparts. One can take issue with any of the three elements of this argument: 1) One might argue that even as the situation now stands women are able to rise to leadership roles and earn recognition, as evidence by examples like Reb. Jungreis; 2) One might accept that women do earn less and are not afforded equal opportunity, but not see any reason to challenge this status quo -- in fact, some would see the inequality as an ideal to be preserved in the name of tzniyus, separate gender roles, etc. 3) Finally, one might accept that there is indeed a problem and something should be done, but disagree that ordination of women is the solution. (I personally have more sympathy for this third objection than for the first two, but all three objections have been voiced.)

2. The papers or tshuvot which have been written regarding the halachic permissibility of ordaining women, even if technically correct, should be the beginning of the discussion, not its end. Obviously that which is clearly prohibited is out of bounds. However, even assuming ordaining women is permitted, the question remains: is it the right thing to do? Here is where public policy considerations, ideological and political considerations, and other meta-halachic considerations need to be weighed and addressed. Is the ordination of a Maharat a victory for Judaism, an opportunity to advance Torah values, or a victory for a form of feminism that views halacha as no more than the expression of the temporal will of its rabbinic decisors and therefore easily molded to meet some desired end? Need we be concerned if some draw the wrong philosophical conclusions from innovation so long as it is technically and morally justified? Rabbi Mayer Twersky cites an illuminating tshuvah of R' Dovid Tzvi Hoffman: "...Even if we would say that it [conditional kiddushin] is being accomplished in a permissible fashion, nevertheless what will the reformist rabbis say: behold those Orthodox [rabbis] have conceded that their laws are no good and the temper of the times cannot tolerate them . . . and they have thereby conceded that the temper of the times is mightier than antiquated laws. And what can we possibly say in response?"

3. Given the broad scope and impact of this issue, who is qualified to offer answers? Quote: "In the same framework, all those who hold to Orthodoxy contend that "new Halakha," which emerges constantly from the wellspring of the halakhic process, must always be based on the highest caliber of religio-legal authority. There must be an exceptional halakhic personality (italics mine) who affirms the new ruling on the grounds of sound halakhic reasoning." In other words, innovation must pass muster by the likes of a gadol, someone of unquestionable integrity, scholarship, and whose voice carries tremendous weight. These words of Rabbi Avi Weiss (Judaism, Fall 1997) are no less true today than when he wrote them. The institution of Maharat needs strong backing from rabbinic leadership if practically it is to become part of the accepted fabric of Orthodoxy instead of a fringe innovation. Yet, to be fair, if rabbinic leadership fails to take account of women's changed social status and ignores or stifles women's professional aspirations to serve the Torah community and contribute to its scholarship, what are these women to do and to whom should they turn?

1 comment:

  1. Tal Benschar10:16 PM

    I heard from my rebbe that HIS rebbe, Rav Yerucham Gorelick, alav ha shalom, who said once that the only difference between Modern Orthodox and Conservative is that one is like a person one step away from the edge of a cliff while the other is like a person ten steps away. If they are moving towards the edge, they will both sooner or later fall over the edge.

    A schism is coming among the nominally "Orthodox." I can see it coming. These actions are simply speeding up the process.