Banning women rabbis is not the Jewish spirit

The Chief Rabbi has chosen to retreat into a supposed tradition that has never really existed

July 01, 2021 15:51

The stated reasons for the refusal of some sectors of what could be called ‘Orthodoxy’ to accept the ordination of women are not convincing. We find weak halachic arguments, such as that women are ineligible to carry authority, or the need to protect “the boundaries of mainstream Orthodoxy”, and other such vapid public policy arguments. So, when there are multiple poor arguments that all lead miraculously to the same conclusion, there is something else going on. The significance of this question goes beyond the issue of women rabbis. It touches upon what religion in general and our Torah in particular are really about.

The key to understanding what else is going on is the recurring phrase “mainstream Orthodoxy.”  The term “Orthodoxy” does not appear in any code of Jewish Law. It is a sociological classification. So the chief rabbinate views itself as reinforcing the boundaries of an ill-defined mainstream of a halachic non-entity called “Orthodoxy.” Upon this basis, the Chief Rabbinate seeks to deprive R. Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz, a student of mine at Yeshivat Maharat and a gifted educator of Torah, of her livelihood and students of Torah of her wisdom and knowledge. 

I know  Chief Rabbi Mirvis (we studied in Yeshivat Har Etzion together) and I know he has the best interests of his community and the Jewish people at heart. That is why it is so important to understand the dynamics of what is happening. Post–modernity is a very unfriendly place for traditional faiths. Peter Berger, the great sociologist of modern religion, characterised the difference between traditional and modern societies. Modernity, he wrote, is characterised by the ability to choose. One can choose anything today, even gender. In traditional societies such choices are unthinkable. It is the open-endedness, lack of clarity and ability to choose and create one’s own reality which causes anxiety for people committed to tradition. I count myself among those. I have studied with them in yeshiva, sat with them in Rav Soloveitchik’s shiur and share their uncompromising commitment to Torah and Mitzvot. 

So let us return to the “mainstream”. There are two ways to respond to this situation. The first, chosen by the chief rabbinate, is to retreat into tradition and seek solace, comfort and security. This is the “security” of belonging to the “mainstream”. The second is to view challenges and change as opportunities to grow into the uncharted territory. As tempting as this first possibility may seem, it is not the traditional Jewish response. By invoking the mainstream, the rabbinate is saying that there are no substantive arguments to be made against women serving as rabbis. We should not tolerate women rabbis because they push us out of our collective comfort zone. 

But tradition is all about pushing up against our comfort zone. If we applaud and look to our tradition solely for providing comfort, we are in the end worshipping only ourselves and our convenience. The great critics of religion from Marx to Nietzsche to Freud, who all viewed religion as some form of opiate of the masses, would be entirely justified in their critiques.  But the Torah is not about making us feel complacent and self-satisfied. The Torah views that mindset as contemptuous and as that which precipitates Exile. Abraham was hailed by our Sages for his courageous ability to stand in opposition to the “mainstream”. They tell us Abraham was called HaIvri, “he who crosses over”, to signify that the entire world was on one side while he stood on the other. Furthermore, the prophets of ancient Israel carry on the tradition of Abraham; if we can say anything about them, it is that they possessed the nasty habit of making the “mainstream” feel very uncomfortable. 

Rabbinic ordination for women, as important as it is, is secondary to what the “mainstream” response to the issue reveals: paternalistic self-contentment and spiritual laziness. When new challenges arise, our tradition always possessed the courage to view them as opportunities rather than threats. I believe that God sends us these challenges to keep us alive spiritually. The complacency of the “mainstream” is spiritual death and it sees life and vibrancy as a threat.  

Courage in the face of a changing world requires that we be willing to resist those changes that to our understanding cannot be accommodated by the tradition, and to embrace those changes that eminently can and should be accommodated.  And here, what are we talking about? Women seeking not only to deepen their understanding and commitment to the Torah but to be included in the chain of our tradition, our mesorah. If I had any anthropomorphic tendencies, I would say that God must be scratching His head in disbelief, saying of the Chief Rabbinate: “Do these guys work for me?” 

Rabbi Herzl Hefter is the founder and Rosh Beit Midrash Har’el in memory of Belda Kaufman Lindenbaum, in Jerusalem

July 01, 2021 15:51

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