Friday, May 21, 2010

The Maharats

I finally read the thread on Gil's blog starting from R' Kenny Brander's "clarification" of R' Herschel Schachter's lecture at the RCA convention. And I agree with it, for the most part - the issue regarding women's ordination is socio-historical, not halachic. But I have some problems with the shiur as described, and with the thread in general.

First off, many people made the main issue into one of reportage. There had been rumors that RHS had used terminology like "Yehareg v'al yaavor" in his lecture, that this was a situation where one should accept martyrdom in preference to ordaining women. IOW, that women's ordination is comparably serious to idolatry, incest or murder - the Big Three sins for which one must always allow oneself to be killed rather that be forced to violate.

RKB's report did not use such extreme language, although it did use an apparently rare Hebrew term, harisas hadas, the destruction of the religion. Gil had similarly used a rare/late term, "chikui haminim", giving strength the the heretics' cause, in earlier critiques of women's ordination. Harisas hadas, according to a Bar-Ilan search, only appears in the 19th century, and only in the 20th century is it used to describe heterodox inroads on Orthodox society.

Many commentators thus called for a tape or transcript of RHS' original speech be released, so that it could be compared to RKB's precis. I suspect, though, that given the rumors, what privately excited this call was a desire to see how RHS had put his foot into his mouth this time. After all, in a TorahWeb post, he had compared women to "parrots and monkeys". And he has had other choice words for women who wanted to expand their communal contributions within Orthodoxy. So I'm dismissing that call. Let's just deal with RKB's precis.

RKB/RHS apparently dismisses serarah, the Rambam's concern that women not be placed in any position of power, as insignificant (and R' Steg Belsky points out that in an earlier shiur, RHS had noted that serarah was not a real impediment to women's ordination) compared to the change to the fabric of Orthodoxy.

It is not just an issue of a particular halakhic issur; it is the challenge to the fabric of what defines Orthodoxy in contrast to other movements. Therefore it requires a response which is reflective of more than dealing with a particular issur.

And that's the heart of the argument for me. While RHS, who has been moving in more RWMO/Daas Torah circles, chose to frame the argument around a quasi-halachic term, so as to give it some of the trappings of Daas Torah, I feel that this is not the proper mode to convince people who are not already convinced. The Moderns characterize themselves in contrast to the Chareidim by disbelief in Daas Torah, the mystical authority granted to Torah sages to pronounce decrees on non-legal subjects for which they have no direct training.

Rather, since it is a non-halachic argument (and there really are no insurmountable halachic obstacles to women's ordination as yoreh yoreh, while there are a few rishonim/acharonim who actually support it), it should be made in non-pseudo-halachic terms.

We see this issue arising in American Protestant society in the late 19th century. As women move into leadership positions in the churches, men come to regard church as a women's realm, and stop going. Mark C. Carnes (Secret Rituals and Manhood in Victorian America) has noted that men seem to have an innate need for ritual; this male exodus from the churches fueled a rise in highly ritualistic fraternal orders, such as the Masons. For Catholics, this began to happen in the 13th-14th century, as church rituals shifted to a "bride mysticism", portraying the man/church relationship as bride/groom. Men didn't want to be cast in the role of the bride, so they left, while women's orders were on the rise.

My wife has argued that she does not like the idea of women's ordination for a similar reason to her dislike of partnership minyanim and, to a lesser extent, women's tefillah groups - it's a distortion of Judaism, in that it demeans the women's role, and promotes the men's role as the only proper role and goal for women. I'm aware of Simone de Beauvoir's critique, where there are women's roles and people's roles, and when women try to take on people's roles, they are accused of wanting to be men. But to flip that on its head, in traditional Judaism, which is largely predicated on the existence of different classes of people with complementary responsibilities to the community, to promote only the men's role, demeans and dismisses the women's role, which distorts the whole fabric of Judaism.

This shift has already happened in the heterodox movements - as women are admitted to the rabbinate and cantorate, male applications and admissions to the rabbinic and cantorial schools diminished, until in some cases, there are more women than men training for these positions. (See some statistics for JTSA - now majority women) In part this can be attributed to the general shift in perception of "women's work." As various job categories shift from men to "equal opportunity", they become "women's work," and thus not a suitable career for a man. Take bank tellers - they used to be all men, and a fairly high-status job with a lot of responsibility and trust. Then they let women become bank tellers, and today they are almost all women, and the job has become a low-status job. This is already happening in the heterodox movements.

Experience shows that such shifts will happen. Admitting women to the rabbinate will, willy nilly, disrupt the fabric and society of Orthodox Judaism. Whether this is a good or a bad thing can be debated, on halachic or social bases. But if it happens, history will probably repeat itself. And I'm not comfortable with that happening to Mod-O, the type of Judaism to which I have aspired and worked on myself to accept.

My wife thinks that this will continue the trend towards a total realignment of the Jewish movements. Mod-O will split between the Left and the Right; UTJ has fizzled, Conservative is becoming less halachic and more Reform, the right wing of C will join with an "egalitarian" LWMO under R' Avi Weiss or his successors, and the black hats will continue to grow. The Chasidim have become more Misnagdish, after all, who really follows the path of the Baal Shem Tov any more? while the Yeshivish have become more Chasidish, imbuing their leaders with a Chasidic infallibility and intimacy with God. And the melting pot of Judaism will continue to stir, queasily.

On an individual level, I can't say anything. The program exists, if someone believes that this is the right thing for them to do, and it follows from their principles, then more power to them. People should certainly maximize their opportunities and abilities. But I worry about what it will do to us as a community.


micha berger said...

Actually, RHS employed a reductio ad absurdum -- not a comparison. Since the only point of reading the kesuvah is to create an interruption between eirusin and nissuin, it is "valid", ie a real interruption, even if the reading were done by monkey or parrot. Lo kol shekein a woman.


Garnel Ironhaert said...

When a group agitates for change, one must ask why.
Sometimes it's easy. When slaves want to be freed and treated with dignity and respect, for example.
Early feminism was similar in this respect. In a secular society there was no reason women should be treated differently from men when it came to employment opportunities, professional development, salaries or the right to vote.

Radical feminism, on the other hand, is about jealousy. It's about wanting what men "have" while wanting to deny it to men at the same time. Hence the emphasis on affirmative action quotas, hiring restrictions, selective allocation of resources to favoured groups etc.

The religious Jewish feminist movement is currently in the early feminist stage. Like secular early feminists, it has identified inequalities in the system and seeks to eliminate them.

But the significant problem with this is that inequality is fundemental to the system. Men are not women and vice versa. Judiasm proclaims different, unequal (but NOT necessarily superior/inferior) roles to each. A man cannot fulfill a woman's role in the Jewish family or community and a woman cannot replace a man. This isn't predjudice but God's understanding of how society should be set up.

Are Maharats and Rabbas really interested in being more Jewish or in assuaging their secular annoyance at the inequality Judaism espouses? Rav Schachter seems to favour the latter and has spoken against it. A Judaism that endorsed complete equality in roles and titles between men and women would not be real Judaism, just a feel-good equivalent to it.