A “Changing Self-Perception” of One’s Own: Responses to Dr. Wolowelsky

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Photo: Michlelet Bruria, Jerusalem (1983)

Photo: Michlelet Bruria, Jerusalem (1983)

Sarah Rudolph

For the most part, I agree with Dr. Joel Wolowelsky’s observations in “Looking Backward: Women’s Changing Self-Perception.” Obviously, a short essay could not hope to fully address all the issues Dr. Wolowelsky raised, and I’m sure that was not his intent. But one area to which I’d like to offer more attention is the interplay – whether overlap or, often, discrepancy – between ideology and practice.

This discrepancy comes to mind, for instance, when Dr. Wolowelsky states that “while [the issue of ordination for women] gets lots of publicity, I do not think it is in itself a major issue. Very few women – in America at least – are in these semikha-like programs, and even fewer take synagogue positions.” I wonder about that implied correlation between the low numbers of women actively participating in these “semikha-like programs” and the question of whether or not the issue is a major one in the Modern Orthodox world.

It has been my experience that many individuals become passionate about certain issues even if they themselves do not wish to take part, sometimes judging (potentially choosing or rejecting) a community based on those issues. I’ve encountered many women who believe it is of the utmost importance that women and girls be provided with opportunities for serious Torah study, and wouldn’t want to be part of a community where it wasn’t available – yet choose not to participate themselves, for a variety of reasons. The question of ordination for women seems to be growing in similar significance: there may not be a huge number of women who themselves wish for semikha, but there are many more men and women for whom the issue is increasingly becoming a litmus test of their comfort with any particular community and with Orthodoxy in general. This, to my mind, makes it a rather central issue that our communities can’t afford to simply dismiss.

And of course, the numbers of women applying to programs for ordination, like the numbers of women engaged in serious Torah study, might be misleading: If either enterprise were more widely accepted and supported (including reasonable certainty of employment), would more women consider it as a viable option and seek to do it? To what extent do the numbers and the ideologies reflect a chicken-and-egg cycle?

(Let me state for the record that I am not, at this point, taking any position with regard to “semikha-like” programs for women, though I am somewhat inclined towards Dr. Wolowelsky’s sense that the issue is largely one of semantics. I will passionately advocate for opportunities for, and participation in, serious Torah study for women, but the above analogy should not be taken as implying a similarly defined perspective on ordination.)

A similar question arises with regard to the overlapping issues of minyan attendance and what we might call alternative prayer groups – women’s tefilla groups and the more recent development of partnership minyanim.

Dr. Wolowelsky mentions a lack of traction for both of these alternatives, which surprises me: There was a women’s tefilla group in my hometown for many years and there is a partnership minyan in my current city, and my sense has been that neither was or is so unusual. Perhaps Dr. Wolowelsky and I simply get our anecdotal observations from different circles, but it seems to me that both alternatives have had a great deal of popular support in Modern Orthodox communities – at least in theory, though again, perhaps not always demonstrated by attendance. These innovations, like Torah study, ordination, and others, are often welcomed in our modern world as a mark of progress even by those who haven’t studied the sources to determine their halakhic status and even by those who don’t themselves care very much about participating. (The phenomenon of Modern Orthodox individuals or communities embracing modern “progress,” without necessarily having first engaged with the halakhic sources central to Orthodox practice, is an important topic in itself but one I will not attempt to address here.)

There also seems to be a great deal of popular support for increased female attendance at traditional minyanim – or at least for increased welcome.

It is in this realm of the overlap – or discrepancy – between theory and practice that I would raise some questions different than those addressed by Dr. Wolowelsky. He suggests disingenuity on the part of rabbis who argue that women should participate in tefilla be-tzibbur rather than in a women’s tefilla group, but who don’t encourage “women to participate in tefilla be-tzibbur in the first place.” I would like to back up a bit and ask the questions differently: Why don’t women who care about halakha and prayer attend shul more often? And why don’t rabbis welcome or encourage women to do so more often?

I believe there are many reasons for women’s frequently low shul attendance, many of which are neither about sincerity (as claimed by some opponents of “alternative” services) or encouragement (as claimed by some proponents of those services). Though we might not like to admit it in our modern times, some reasons relate to the same practical considerations (the demands of pregnancy, nursing, or other responsibilities that so often fall on even the most liberated women) that have kept many women home from shul throughout centuries – the likely difference being that more women today are frustrated by those realities than were in earlier years.

It seems to me that we have, once more, a chicken-and-egg phenomenon: in many communities, few women go to shul, so rabbis assume they won’t come; in those same communities, rabbis don’t expect or bother encouraging women to come to shul – and men spill into the women’s section or otherwise indicate their surprise when women do show up, leaving women to feel not just un-encouraged but unwelcome. What would happen if we stopped playing chicken-and-egg, or perhaps just “chicken” – if we stopped waiting for the other side to move first? If all the shul rabbis announced that women are welcome, and made it so with spacious and pleasant women’s sections, would we attend in droves? If we started attending in droves, would the shuls notice and become more welcoming?

What we need, I think, is to strive to avoid making too many assumptions based on the degree of attendance of the masses or of encouragement from on high. How many women embrace any opportunity is not a barometer of how many women want to, and certainly not of how many people think it is valuable for women to have the opportunity – and active encouragement (or its absence) is not always a barometer of welcome and support, or evidence of disingenuity, either.

What we need, as communities and as individuals, is to figure out which opportunities are important to us, and why. We need more accessible and honest communication about the halakhic and practical issues surrounding those opportunities. And we need to figure out ways to maintain awareness and availability of those options we believe it is important that women have, even when few women take advantage of them.

Sarah Rudolph is a freelance Jewish educator, writer, and editor.


Anne Gordon

I was sixteen years old when Dr. Joel Wolowelsky wrote his “Modern Orthodoxy and Women’s Changing Self-Perception” in 1986. I did not read the piece until several years later, but coming of age in that same era, I share some of Dr. Wolowelsky’s surprise at the changes (and lack thereof) in women’s experience of Modern Orthodoxy, as expressed in his reflection, “Looking Backward: Women’s Changing Self-Perception” (he speaks not of surprise per se, but unmet expectations). His examples of areas of observance in which women’s participation has been slow to take hold – zimmun and kaddish, hardly controversial from a halakhic perspective – have surprised me too. In both cases, these rituals when performed by women are too often labeled acts of feminism, rendering them off-limits to the very population whose commitment to Torah observance would have them take on as a matter of course. At the same time, I’ve been surprised at the rapid expansion of “women’s semikha” programs – a phenomenon largely dismissed by Dr. Wolowelsky, but one that I see as already having a significant impact on the community at large – both positive, in terms of influence, and negative, in terms of push-back.

I’m sure future sociologists will have a good deal to unpack about the shifting norms of twenty-first century Modern Orthodoxy, but what I perceive as one who entered the world of women’s full-time batei midrash in 1992 (nearly as soon as they opened) is that the Orthodox world has changed in the past 25+ years – one might suggest it has become two worlds, where the “right-wing Orthodox” and the “liberal Orthodox” have, in moving further in each respective direction, torn the middle ground they shared out from between themselves. One of the few improvements across the spectrum, I maintain, is the arena that Dr. Wolowelsky credits towards the end of his article and one that I know well: women’s access to Torah study.

This is a fundamental change that has been taking place around me and before my eyes since 1986. I have been part of this shift, and I therefore would like to attest to the fact that I do not think that the underlying motivations, if one can truly extract them, of at least most of the women who learn are largely because of some Orthodox feminists “pushing the envelope.” To the contrary – the world has changed over many, many decades, and the Orthodox world has changed with it: secular feminism and a changing world that recognizes women as equal and practicing members of society has surely had an impact on the expectations of Orthodox women and girls for themselves, even given the non-egalitarian society in which they live. As a matter of course, therefore, once women in the world at large related to education and professional advancement as a given, it was a short order to expect comparable advancement in the Jewish world as well.

The aggregate advance to the community is far more profound than the depth of Torah scholarship in more, increasingly learned individuals. That women (and girls) are subjected to push-back, as some question their motivations and some denigrate their religiosity, is a crying shame. If women and girls who engage with the sacrosanct are regarded with suspicion, then why, really, would any of them undertake the practices that make others look askance, no matter how permitted the practice and no matter how pure one’s motivations. Indeed, the negative reaction to the more prominent roles women and girls have achieved through Torah study may explain why zimmun and kaddish have not become as widespread as we all once thought they would be.

Anne Gordon is the deputy editor of Ops & Blogs at The Times of Israel and a co-founder of Chochmat Nashim.

[Published on Monday, September 16, 2019]

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