Tuesday, July 27, 2010

women serving in leadership positions (II)

Yesterday (link) we reviewed the relevant Rishonim and concluded that it would be permissible according to almost all views other than the Rambam for women to hold positions of authority. So why did I leave off saying that Rabbi Riskin’s analysis was incomplete? Because you can’t justify sociological change with legal proof. When Barry Goldwater said, “You can’t legislate morality,” he was on to something. The reason the ordination of a woman has met with such resistance, with terms like “ye’hareig v’al ya’avor” and “bizayon haTorah” being brandied about, is not because poskim are so dead set on following the Rambam’s opinion against all other Rishonim, but rather because poskim and Rabbanim (rightly or wrongly) see the issue as a threat to the fabric of Orthodoxy. It’s not a question of asur vs. mutar, but rather a question of what Orthodox Jewry is all about.

Rabbi Riskin began his address by discussing the topic of women learning Torah, noting that Beis Ya’akov in its time was a revolutionary departure from previous norms. Why was Beis Ya’akov accepted? The few lines the Chofetz Chaim wrote in his Likutei Halachos to Mes. Sotah that justify Torah study for women were more than simply a psak halacha -- they represented the stamp of approval of the tzadik hador, one of the gedolei hador, to the entire enterprise of Beis Ya’akov. Without first obtaining the approval of the Belzer Rebbe, the Gerrer Rebbe, and finally the Chofetz Chaim, Beis Ya’akov would have suffered the same fate of previous unsuccessful efforts to accomplish the same goal.

It was not only the approval of Rabbinic luminaries that made Sarah Schenirer successful, but there were a number of other factors as well, some of which are highlighted in this article by Dr. Yoel Finkelman:
1) Sarah Schenirer was a charismatic leader who developed trust and admiration.
2) The time was ripe for a movement like Beis Ya’akov.
3) Agudah provided backing once the schools began to gain traction.

Do those factors apply to the situation of women’s ordination? To date, not a single major Rabbinic luminary whom the Torah world respects as a gadol has signed onto the idea. To date, not a single major Rabbinic organization has voiced approval. Lastly, there is the question of personality. When Branch Rickey realized the time was ripe to break the color barrier in baseball, he looked for a specific type of player – Jackie Robinson was one of many excellent players; he was chosen as much for his personality as for his ability. What woman’s ordination needs is a Jackie Robinson. I do not know Sarah Hurvitz and do not chas v’shalom mean to criticize her achievements or ability. However, the fact that she would address JOFA and thank them for their support obviously distances her from myself and others who have serious questions about an organization whose leader espouses the philosophy, “Where there’s a Rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way.” Regardless of whether modern scholars may choose to portray Sarah Schenirer as proto-feminist, I have little doubt that the Chofetz Chaim did not see her in that light, nor would being seen in that light have helped her cause.

And finally, there is the question of timing. Sarah Schenirer addressed the pressing need of youth falling prey to assimilation because of a lack of Jewish education. She provided a solution to what was fast becoming a crisis. Is there a crisis in Jewish leadership that would demand the ordination of women? When Rav Moshe wrote that a woman could serve as mashgiach despite the Rambam’s prohibition of serara, he writes that his psak applies to the scenario of tzorech gadol for an almanah’s parnasa. Are we in a state of tzorech gadol with respect to the question of women’s ordination? Are there more than a handful of women in the entire United States who are sitting a learning gemara and Rishonim, Shulchan Aruch with Shach and Taz, and who would feel unfulfilled without the recognition that comes from receiving ordination? Clearly this issue has caused a rift even within the modern orthodox community – are the net gains worth fighting the battle over at this point in time, and realistically was there ever a chance of success?

This post is no more than a summary of issues raised by many others, none of which Rabbi Riskin contended with. They must be more fully addressed by those who wish to enable women to take leadership positions. I have some further thoughts in that regard, but I'll leave them for another post.


  1. Garnel Ironheart4:24 PM

    First of all, kol hakavod for presenting the issue in a balanced and complete way.
    I'm lousy with page references but there's a gemara in which a couple of Tanaim go to visit a new place and, while there, practice some of the leniencies they personally held by. The only problem was that in this place those leniencies were not accepted. When confronted by the locals, they noted that these were valid leniencies and that they weren't paskening for others, only themselves. The response was "lo ra'inu k'zeh". And that was enough to get them to stop.
    There is an emphmeral metahalachic quality to Jewish behaviour that colours cold, logical halachic applications. Just because you can find a posek who says there's no problem with issue X doesn't mean issue X is permitted if the society doesn't accept it.
    The problem is that for some halachic analysis is based on a precedent system - find a posek, any posek no matter how obscure, and take his approval or possibly lack of disapproval as your standard to wave. But that's not how halachic behaviour works.

  2. I don't know the exact gemara you have in mind, but it sounds like it demonstrates minhag hamakom as a deciding factor in halacha. It's for that very reason that I think the local Rabbi should decide what is best for his community and pronouncements by organizations matter very little. I am very leery of "metahalacha" -- without standards, how and when does it apply and what are the parameters?