Guest post by R. Raphael Davidovich
R. Raphael Davidovich is the rabbi of Heights Jewish Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
Rabbi Michael Broyde’s recent article, in which he expresses mild disapproval of Simchas Torah women’s Torah reading, troubles me. I do not dispute the sources but believe that analysis misses the point. But I do not want this article to be about Rabbi Broyde’s particular piece because it is but one example, albeit impressive, of a larger phenomenon I have noticed over the past few years. Articles about the particulars fall into the category of missing the forest for the trees and ignoring a very significant and halachically dangerous movement.
Many articles, impeccably researched, can be written on the following questions:
May women receive synagogue honors, such as pesicha or gelila?
Should women be discouraged from wearing taleisim?
Is there is a way we can permit a double-ring wedding ceremony?
Articles on any of these topics, while interesting on their merit as is any Torah article, are beside the point; they conceal the real issue. Simply put, the real issue is female equality in Halacha and Minhag.
In Western society today, women have virtually achieved full legal and constitutional equality. There is no job, career or personal path that is not theoretically as available to women as it is to men. This equality of opportunity is seen as an ethical imperative, not merely a societal preference. Denying women full equality is considered immoral.
This is the issue at hand. It is bigger than gelila, Simchas Torah or hair covering because it flows into all these areas and far more. It would be a terrible mistake to classify this issue as one of public policy. Such a classification would only serve to minimize or even deny entirely its significance to the world of halacha.
Without getting bogged down in the details of the analogy, I like to use a phrase that became famous in the Supreme Court debates of the 1960s and 70s: I believe it is clear as day that the halachic system has penumbras that emanate from the lawsfound in both the Written and Oral Torahs.
Jews in America can invent or reform any practice they wish to. They have and halacha disapproves. But as the cliche goes, “It’s a free country!” Our discussion is not about freedom. It is about defining the parameters of halachic discussion and the spectrum of valid halacha. Any conversation that claims to be a valid halachic discussion must have as its premise the acceptance of the moral framework of Tanach as understood by Chazal.
According to the Written Torah and the Talmudic tradition, there are repeated and pronounced differences between men and women in regard to the sphere of ritual and relating to God.
According to the Written Torah and the Talmudic tradition, women relate to each other, to men and to God differently than men.
One would be hardpressed to find any area of halacha where the Torah doesn’t make dozens of legal distinctions between men and women. To name just a few:
- The creation of woman in Bereishis Ch 2.
- Marriage consists of a Man taking (being “lokeiach”) the woman.
- The laws of Nedarim place the father and then the husband in charge of the vows and commitments of daughter then wife.
- The laws of adultery and Sotah only apply if the woman is married.
- The laws of inheritance have only the sons inherit, with daughters only inheriting when there are no sons at all.
- Cohanim are only male descendants of Aharon.
Chazal make hundreds of distinctions in Halacha between men and women:
- The laws of bentching state that 3 people men and women, do not make a zimun.
- The entire seder Nashim in the Talmud is built on the significant differences between men and women that are to be found in the Written Torah and declarations of Chazal.
Were these distinctions between the sexes merely a sign of the times? I consider that approach antithetical to the halachic process. Until 30 years ago, so did the rest of the halachic instructors of the Torah observant community. (And no, the No-true-Scotsman fallacy is not being employed here.) The core difference between men and women is not open to a “The Times (or nature) have Changed – Nishtaneh Hateva” loophole. The erasure of the glass ceiling in modern western culture and law has no bearing on the Jewish system which is built on a foundation that in this area is impervious to nishtaneh hateva. Unlike Prozbul, there is no competing premise in Tanach or Rabbinic law or lore that supports this wholesale abandonment of this foundation of halacha.
A vocal core of leaders, men and women, have been working very hard to uproot this most fundamental axiom of the halachic system.
At times, I thought that I may have been making a mountain out of a molehill. Perhaps it’s just a matter of wanting to make people feel more included in ways that halacha, upon deeper analysis, may permit. Why not just let it go?
Two recent quotes by advocates of the new order are demonstrative of what I call the ethical grounding of the new trend.
In a post on a well known scholarly blog, a reviewer of the new Koren-Steinsaltz Talmud noted with pleasure that women were actively involved in some elements of its production.
However this approach demonstrates a commitment to a refreshing worldview in Jewish publications in which outstanding scholars are no longer barred from contributing simply because they do not carry a Y chromosome.
The attitude, which I will address shortly, was expressed with less panache in the following piece, excerpted from an article written by an Orthodox rabbi objecting to numerous halachic injustices against women:
Simply for lack of male reproductive organs, otherwise qualified women are still barred from the rabbinate, and from many positions of communal leadership. She can be a judge, but not a dayan. A brain surgeon, but not a posek. And often she must content herself with davening in a cage in shul, from where her desire to say kaddish for a parent may or may not be tolerated. This is no way to run a religion that claims wisdom as its inheritance. But every morning in the daily blessings, we unthinkingly mouth the philosophical justification for these demeaning, arbitrary, discriminatory practices.
While the author subsequently apologized for the stridency of his tone, it is not the stridency that disturbs me. What should alarm the halachic instinct of any observant Jew is the message that the distinctions between men and women made in the Written and Oral Torah are lacking in wisdom, the result of women lacking “male reproductive organs”. One must get past the crudeness to see the real problem: Reductionism. Men and women are not the same. What makes them so is many little things; chemical, biological, physiological. What makes a lulav a lulav and not a date? The placement of some carbon molecules in a different pattern. But the Torah considers that difference meaningful and relevant. Invoking reduced and petty-sounding distinctions like chromosomes and reproductive organs betrays the point of view that these differences shouldn’t really matter, and that those who say they do matter are guilty of committing an injustice. This is a point of view shared by millions of people who have rejected the Torah’s ethic. It should not be the point of view of Torah-observant Jews, let alone leaders.
The real question we need to ask of our fellow Jews and Jewish leadership is: When you think of the structure of Jewish life, as individuals and as communities, do you accept the underlying premise of the Torah and Chazal or the premise of Betty Friedan & Co?
The western canon of the past century has reached its own conclusions on all these matters. Its conclusions are very different from the conclusions of the Torah-Chazal canon. These differences between Classical biblio-rabbinic thought and the modern western view should be celebrated and understood, not undermined. Any discussion of particulars misses the point in its entirety. Such articles encourage the view that our community’s exclusion of women from public roles is “public policy” and unrelated to our Halachic principles.
Yes, it’s difficult to go against the grain but we have done it before and maintained our stances on many issues that were considered unethical to the world at large.
- The Sexual Morality advocated in Acharei Mos-Kedoshim went against the mores of both Egypt and Canaan, and later Greece and Rome.
- Our adherence to the covenant of circumcision has had to fight the hard fight in numerous countries and era, down to this very day and very country.
- Our monotheistic stubbornness has caused us considerable persecution at all times.
The current struggle against the total rewriting of gender-based ethics is also quite difficult. Being in the middle of it makes it seem even harder. But it should be the job of the halachic community’s leaders to find a way to defend and promote those halachic ideals, not to embarrassingly circumvent them with “shtick” and legal tricks.
None of my thoughts here are intended to negate women’s desire to connect to their Creator. The “Closed Orthodox” community, both the Centrist and Chareidi varieties, have dealt with recent societal developments through numerous proposals and programs that have been formed and expanded over the years. This is all an attempt to accommodate this modern phenomenon–which is an outcome of the additional time for self-actualization, itself the result of mechanization and full-day education–and the competing draw of secular forms of ethical pursuit. However, any grassroots attempt to fill the time with added meaning can only be halachically encouraged or tolerated by the Observant community if it is formed in accordance with the ideals of Halacha and Minhag Yisrael.