Orthodox Women’s Growing Influence

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by R. Gil Student

This is an Op-Ed I recently published in Haaretz, using the title I prefer rather than what the editor selected

The Orthodox Jewish community needs women influencers, not women rabbis. So says the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) in a recent resolution forbidding its members to hire women rabbis. Unlike past generations, women today learn leadership skills that enable them to succeed in business and education. We in the Jewish community suffer if we sacrifice the contributions of half of our skilled population. This is especially true because men and women often have different perspectives, particularly in the Orthodox community where we sit on different sides of the mechitzah, the synagogue partition.

But we must define better this need for leadership before advocating radical communal change. In a recent book, Lessons in Leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks differentiates between leadership and authority. Authority means holding a position, occupying an office, wielding power. As we know, sadly too many people in authority fail to lead; they operate without imagination and inspiration. They are functionaries, perhaps fulfilling their tasks adequately but doing nothing more. In contrast, leaders wield influence, not power. They convince, inspire, offer vision.

When we say that we need female leadership, which definition are we invoking? Some people mean that we need women to fill roles in synagogues, much like rabbis do. The rabbi is the “Mara De’Atra,” the authority in his synagogue community. This suggestion is a mistake, not only about leadership but about the Jewish community. The synagogue is the most visible symbol of Judaism but also the weakest form of religious experience. To an outside observer, the goings on of a synagogue seem like the most exciting part of Jewish life but insiders recognize this as a misunderstanding.

The center of Judaism is in the home, in the daily life of a Jew who connects to God in the small devotional acts throughout the day. Jewish worship is not just prayer but living according to Jewish law, reciting blessings, doing good to others, learning Torah. Fulfilling commandments throughout the day keeps us mindful of God and constantly expressing our relationship with our Creator. The center of the Jewish mind is in the classroom, the beit midrash, the sacred text. The Torah we learn inspires us; the mitzvot we perform connect us.

The synagogue is where we gather for a few hours each week, for some each day. Take away the synagogue and you can still have Judaism. Take away the Jewish home or text and Judaism disappears in a generation. The placement of the synagogue in the center of Judaism was a tragic mistake of the non-Orthodox movements. When we prioritize the synagogue in our thought and speech, we eclipse other aspects of Judaism, which in turn diminishes our personal religious experiences. The emphasis within Orthodox circles on women’s roles in the synagogue is similarly short-sighted and inevitably self-defeating.

This focus on synagogue roles is tragically ironic in the Internet age. While our society is decentralizing, we dare not elevate the brick and mortar aspects of religion. Doing so forfeits legitimacy and surrenders Judaism’s crucial advantage. Our portable homeland is the Torah, not the synagogue. Advocates for women’s roles who focus on the synagogue – the rabbinate – betray a mistaken understanding of Judaism and of our times. The Internet era is the wrong time to promote authority, whether that of men or women. A shrewd investor would put his money in the decentralized influence of Torah, not synagogue life.

When it comes to Torah, women have significant room for advancement. You do not need a title to teach Torah – think of the many doctors, professors and rebbetzins who teach Torah to thousands. Nor do you need affiliation with a specific synagogue or community. Anyone who knows Torah can teach it. And with Torah, the quality of your teaching determines your influence, not your gender.

I question whether it is appropriate for me, a man, to preach about the rabbinate, which is open to me but not others. However, I speak as someone with no authority. Whatever influence I may have is unrelated to title or position but acquired solely through teaching Torah. Rabbis can exert influence inside the synagogue and beyond, acting in an age-old position of authority in the community. But today, more than ever, people are reached in many different ways and settings. Rabbis are only one of many influences on a community. Influencing through teaching Torah is the path forward for women, the road that combines tradition and progress. We need more women influencers.

When it comes to authority, we have traditions differentiating between men and women, which the RCA just reiterated. Influence, however, is open to all. Rabbi Sacks points out that there are leaders “who hold no official position at all but who are consulted for advice and held up as role models. They have no power but great influence. Israel’s prophets belonged to this category. So, often, did the gedolei Yisrael, the great sages of each generation. Neither Rashi nor the Rambam held any official position… Wherever leadership depends on personal qualities – what Max Weber called ‘charismatic authority’ – and not on office or title, there is no distinction between women and men.”

In this age of declining importance of authority and growing impact of influence, the emphasis on women rabbis is misguided. We waste our energy when we debate texts and traditions on women rabbis because that is a conversation for a past era. Women’s challenge today is to study and teach Torah, to influence minds and hearts, throughout the global community.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

2 comments

  1. Rav Gil
    I have been a big fan of your writings for a long time.
    I loved your piece in HaAretz about “Influencers”. You are correct.You made the argument I agree with using points I had not thought of.

    Look at Nechama Leibowitz a”h. She was one of the greatest marbitzei Torah of the 20th century. Or Rabbanit Kanievsky.

    Plus, how many of us have been positively influenced by Rebbetzins in our lives.
    So, thank you for the piece.

    If I can just quibble. Rambam was the Nagid of the Egyptian Jewish community. Rashi was the Av Beis Din of Worms. That is not why they were so important in Jewish history. It’s their Torah writings.

  2. I’m confused by some conflicting ideas touched on in the piece.

    According to Rav Sacks, we need leaders who operate with “imagination and inspiration”, but statements like those by the RCA (among others) show strong disagreement on who qualifies and how far they are allowed to go.

    On the one hand, the synagogue is the “weakest form of religious experience”, yet we’re extremely animated about making fundamental changes to it.

    On the one hand “You do not need a title to teach Torah”, but what qualifies as “Torah” and who is qualified to teach it is not universally agreed upon.

    The fundamental question remains: what is the correct thing to do? The answer, not surprisingly, appears to depends upon whom one asks.

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