"We are closer to G-d when we are asking the questions, than when we think we have the answers" Heschel

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Female Rabbis and filter systems

FNQ – thought for the week

In my previous post that can be accessed here, I posed five questions on the subject of female Orthodox Rabbis.  Here are a few of my thoughts on the topic.

Let me make it clear that I am all for innovation. My Judaism and Avodat Hashem have been enhanced by modern advancement both from within and without. However, while I may not be a believer in a sheltered lifestyle I am a proponent of a filtered lifestyle. Not every new idea should be embraced and not every western value has a place within the sacred walls of the collective Jewish home. Living a filtered life is the challenge that faces every Jew living in the modern world. Each and every individual is responsible for creating their personal filters and at the same time we must to look to our rabbinical leaders for guidance as to what  should be let in and what must remain outside. It is my opinion, that the position of a female Rabbi, Rabbah, Maharat or whatever it will be called must not be allowed to pass through the filter that safeguards Modern Orthodoxy.

The decision of what is let in and what is left out is very complex. Firstly, one has to consider the halachic ramifications. Halacha is, and must always be, our first line of defense. Appointing a woman to a Rabbinical position has halachic problems. However, to argue that this is the basis for why women should not be made Rabbis is tenuous. That is, many of the halachic arguments proposed to forbid women from becoming Rabbis could also be used to forbid other positions currently held by women that have broad support amongst modern orthodox leadership. For example, it would be challenging on the one hand to prohibit female Rabbis and permit yoatzot halacha (female halachic counselors).

Without the halachic argument, one is left with the daunting task of proving that the costs outweigh the benefits. I don't deny that there may be benefits to women serving as Rabbis. That being stated, in my opinion women in the Rabbinate present serious concerns that make such an appointment untenable and outside the purview of Orthodox Judaism. I will attempt to illustrate a few of the costs, although I am aware that all of these points can be argued and looked at from another perspective.Nevertheless, to fear no question means to at least attempt an answer even when you aren't sure that your answer will win the day. Furthermore, since no one is really asking my opinion I guess my thoughts are nothing more than an attempt to engender a discussion. Here goes.

With all the positive that has come as result of the liberation of women there is also a significant amount of negative. There has been a break down of the basic family unit. For many women, careers are chosen over marriage and promotion is chosen over having children.  I believe that Jewish men and women should always choose professions which are conducive to the pursuit of the prime value, that of properly raising a family. The Rabbinical family serves as the model for the community as an example of Jewish family values. The demands of being a Rabbi are such that, in my opinion, a women who seeks to meet them properly will have no choice but to sacrifice the needs of her family. An absent father is harmful to a family but an absent mother is the end of a family.

Innovation requires some modicum of a consensus which in this case is not present. To create a position which is perceived by many as revolutionary and not that is not a natural outgrowth of a specific need is very dangerous. It breaks down walls and barriers in a manner which can have dire consequences on maintaining a halachic lifestyle. In other words, appointing female Rabbis is a slippery slope that in my mind will eventually result in serious breaches of Jewish law.

There is much more to be said but I will suffice with these two points as a beginning and I am looking forward to hearing other points for and against.   I think that this topic needs to be addressed intelligently, however, I don't think that it should be up for debate. I hope that the women's role in Modern Orthodoxy continues to progress and evolve, though it is my opinion that the Rabbinate must remain out of bounds.

What do you think?

Binyamin – always looking for a good question


  1. I'm wondering if you would consider the position of "assistant rabbi" as something that the modern orthodox world could become comfortable with. I say this as I address your two points:

    1. I would agree entirely that a woman who shirks her families responsibility for the sake of her profession (whether that profession be a doctor, teacher, or Rabbi)can not be a "model" for the Jewish community. While this is so, perhaps an assistant position (in which the woman Rabbi does not attend every community function, does not speak in front of the shul-avoiding issues of tzniut- and so on)could serve in this position. Perhaps as the role of the yoetzet halacha, she serves as a female role model for the community, and a spiritual and communal leader for both ladies and young girls in the community (and dare I say perhaps even men!). If so much of the "rabbi" position is guidance, spiritually and emotionally, then I would say women are just as qualified, if not more, to help community members. If you tell me men might not be as comfortable talking to a woman assistant Rabbi, I would say - and why should women feel comfortable speaking to their male Rabbis? If you question the woman assistant rabbi giving out "psak halacha" - I would say the following - Firstly, I would presume that you would agree that a woman could know halacha (and would have to if she was the assistant rabbi) just as well as any man. Secondly, "paskining" halacha is never done but your "typical Young Israel rabbi." When there are real shailot (not I used a milchig fork in my fleishigs pan) - the woman rabbi can (and would) go to a Rav of greater knowledge and authority.
    2. Your second point of a slippery slope is one that is purported by the extreme "right" - and one that I think is very dangerous in mainstrem orthodox Judaism. I must emphasize, assuming there are no Halachik restrictions on a woman becoming a Rabbi, WHY do you see this innovation as one that is slippery? And why do you see the Yoetzet halacha position as being any less slippery? You make it seem like that is accepted mainstream and in truth it is definitely not! Perhaps Rabbi Weiss is trying to innovate "for the sake of the collective Jewish home." Perhaps this should be something brought in to our communities. Why should women be some of the top experts in fields outside of Torah, but when it comes to our Torah community they can't be deemed qualified to serve as "role models." Is it just that we are uncomfortable calling them Rabbis? (I know for me, that is the big issue) Perhaps using a name like Maharat (although that makes many of us laugh) is a good idea. Perhaps, were OK with not fearing questions, but I wonder if we instead fear answers. Innovation can ONLY come when people make big moves that sometimes are NOT accepted as mainstream (ayein the womens suffrage movement, rights for Black people...). Maybe this is just one of those examples?

  2. The challenge to appointing of women as rabbis seems to be "It is different than how we have done things until now." This is the sentiment I am hearing from Agudas Yisroel, from you, and from every Chaim, Shmuel and Harry who are uncomfortable with it.

    The questions you posted and this posting as well reflect the social challenge of female rabbis rather than a clear halachic challenge.

    Allow me to ask a question. Is change wrong simply by dint of it being change? If so than the opposition makes sense.

  3. To respond to the comments of Vivash. I think that there may be room for a women on a rabbinic staff. She could be a valuable asset to a community working in a professional role both in the areas of life couseling and halachic guidance. However, I believe such a position would need to have clear limits in that she would not be serving as a public figure. Obviously it would be challenging to determine the details but perhaps it could be done properly.

    To YS - as i said in my introduction i am all for innovation and change just not this innovation. I think this innovation is a step in the wrong direction.

    Thank you both for your comments