Looking Backward: Women’s Changing Self-Perception

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Michlelet Bruria (1978)

Looking Backward: Women’s Changing Self-Perception

Joel B. Wolowelsky

[“Looking Backward” is an occasional feature on TraditionOnline.org in which we ask authors to reflect on their contributions to the pages of TRADITION from years ago, or in which we re-explore classic essays and their ongoing contributions to religious thought.] 

Photo: Michlelet Bruria, circa 1978.

Looking back at a distance of over three decades I now admit that I was a bit overconfident when I wrote “Modern Orthodoxy and Women’s Changing Self-Perception” (TRADITION 22:1, Spring 1986), as well as some earlier and subsequent essays, on the emerging trend of increased female participation in halakhic life. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik had quickly allowed women mourners to say kaddish when his opinion was sought; he and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and others had noted that it was common for women mourners to do so in pre-war Lita. Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik had written that is forbidden to prevent women from saying kaddish. Surely it was only a matter of some additional time for Modern Orthodox rabbis to inform their male and female congregants of this option, and to start making women feel comfortable when they chose to say kaddish in shul. I also expected writers within our and other camps who had quoted only the negative position of the Havot Yair in their mourner’s guides to correct things when these halakhic positions were brought to their attention. I certainly did not expect the continued ad hominem assaults on the motivation of these women or the authorities who supported them. “Feminism” became a simple on-going strategy to dismiss positions that were, for one reason or another, uncomfortable. This is slowly changing, but I think not quickly enough. As the halakhic truth emerges, it is impossible to dismiss the sincerity and integrity of those women who want to say kaddish, especially when the halakhic permissibility is out there for all to read.

I also thought that zimmun for women would become more widespread. There is no halakhic debate about its permissibility; the Shulhan Arukh is clear on that matter, and the Vilna Gaon maintains that it is obligatory, not simply permissible. The Mishna Berura notes that the rabbis didn’t make it obligatory because women were too unlearned to know how to make a zimmun; surely, I thought, now that women are indeed learned, they would forgo the exemption and undertake this fully permissible expression of eating in a fellowship as do the men. However, I continue to find general resistance. When I ask why, people say simply, “We’re not feminists.” When I ask in response how this is different from women eating in the sukka – likewise permissible but not obligatory – the best response I can get is “It’s different.” I think this confused response is unfortunately characteristic when sincere women take on non-obligatory but permitted activities.

In 1986 I mentioned, almost in passing, that Modern Orthodox women are generally not interested in getting aliyot or rabbinic ordination. There are, however, some important observations to be made here.

Women’s Tefilla Groups never got much traction and, if truth be told, it was, to a large degree, the ad hominem and disingenuous opposition that kept the enterprise alive. One of the particularly irksome arguments regularly presented in opposition was to note that even though women could not constitute a minyan for a tzibbur, when they were in shul they nevertheless fully participated in tefilla be-tzibbur. Thus, the opposition continued, when women relinquished that privilege to attend a Women’s Tefilla Group they showed a distortion of halakhic values, by absenting themselves from communal prayer, even if not technically violating a prohibition.

There is logic to such an argument but its disingenuous quality is exposed when we see that there is no encouragement among most rabbis for women to participate in tefilla be-tzibbur in the first place! Look around a shul on Shabbat during Kabbalat Shabbat, shaharit or minha, and one sees few women – and those that are present at such times are sometimes made to feel that they are intruding, especially when men had taken to sit in an empty ezrat nashim. During the week, services are often held in a beit medrash that has no mehitza.

It remains to be seen if the new phenomenon of Partnership Minyanim will gain traction. The technical arguments against a woman getting an aliya are not convincing to many, but these Partnership Minyanim seem to be more limited mainly to campus minyanim. I suspect that they will not spread quickly beyond that. We shall have to wait and see what happens when college graduates join mainstream communal shuls.

The issue of ordination is more complicated – and I think it is to a large extent a matter of semantics. It is surely true that women are increasingly interested in the serious study of halakha from the sources. Why would one think otherwise? Serious people want serious understanding of things important to them. It is unfortunate and telling that the Modern Orthodox community in America cannot duplicate and support large women’s educational institutions parallel to the Israeli Midreshet Lindenbaum, Matan, Migdal Oz, or Nishmat. That is part of the move of the center of Modern Orthodoxy from America to Israel.

The “yeshivish” community somehow decided that R. Eliezer only prohibited women learning Talmud from a bound Gemara and nothing else. So they began seriously teaching Tanakh with meforshim, and halakha with copies of source sheets. They recognized women as heads of seminaries, supervising male and female faculty members and pubic lecturers. All were called Rebbetzin, irrespective of the status of their husbands; “Rebb.” began appearing as an honorific for such women on stationery and posters. Agudah argued that these female leaders were clergy and were entitled to claim parsonage tax deductions and confidentiality protection granted to minsters and rabbis.

In Israel, institutions comfortable with women learning Talmud and Shulhan Arukh from the sources opened up serious halakha programs covering the same material as in semikha programs, tested their students and certified their accomplishments, indicating that they had mastered the material and could answer halakhic material authoritatively. But they left out a title. The graduates quickly took up the honorific Rabbanit, now reflecting their accomplishments and not those of their husbands (who might be laymen). In America, however, the title unfortunately became the focal issue, distracting attention from the core issue. To me, whether a well-trained woman is called rabbi or rabbanit is as significant (or insignificant) as whether a leading female thespian is called an actor or actress.

These developments bring us the Orthodox Union Rabbinic Statement that women cannot be clergy. Quite frankly, I am not sure what they meant, because clergy is not a halakhic term. I hope they were not undermining parsonage and clerical confidentiality rights for which we have been fighting.

They said that women can speak at religiously significant life-cycle events (e.g., brit mila, baby naming, bar mitzva and bat mitzva, weddings and funerals), but not officiate at them. I think the distinction will be lost on most people. Women can teach ongoing classes and shiurim, deliver lectures and serve as scholars-in-residence. (Women speaking from the pulpit at the conclusion of davening seems to be acceptable; it is not clear why speaking before musaf is halakhically different.) Indeed, women may serve as a synagogue staff member in the role of community educator or institutional scholar to supplement synagogue rabbis in enhancing the community’s educational opportunities. These are all clergy duties in common parlance, and people who do them regularly are clergy.

The actual prohibition seems to be acting as the mara d’atra, “the synagogue’s formal religious leader” and “the ongoing practice of ruling on a full-range of halakhic matters.” This would logically not exclude a woman from taking any assistant position, as that is not the mara d’atra with final halakhic authority.  Yet she seems to be excluded there too. The OU Statement does not explain how or if heading a synagogue community differed from heading a seminary community, a political party, or lay business. It is not clear if the statement is simply suggesting that no woman cannot paskin in any circumstance, even if she is trained in halakha. (But, then again, the Dean of RIETS said that granting semikha to men with the title rabbi does not automatically grant them the right to paskin either.)

In any event, while this issue 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. What should be watched is the phenomenon of Yoetzot Halakha established by Nishmat. This program is accepted – begrudgingly, it would seem – by the OU Rabbinic Statement. There are still many American Orthodox rabbis who are not comfortable including a Yoetzet Halakha on their synagogue staff. They feel that offering halakhic advice in areas of taharat ha-mishpaha should be in the exclusive domain of the rabbi. The result: hundreds of thousands of questions are posed to the Nishmat hotline, bypassing the rabbi completely rather than involving him as the consulting authority for the yoetzet.

It is this latter phenomenon that represents the real shift in women’s self-perception: The recognition that women can be well-trained and competent not only in medicine, law, and finance, but in Torah and all areas of halakha as well. They meet these women not only as communal yoatzot and rabbaniot, but as seminary heads, scholars-in-residence, and eulogizers as well. They expect their rabbis to not only give lip service to such awareness but to express it in concrete communal positions. As with many cultural shifts, this takes time. But we are talking about a shift to greater involvement in Torah for women.

Indeed, this cultural shift is taking longer than I thought it would be. But I think the increased educational level of women will overpower charges of “feminism” and hiding of relevant halakhic sources. As this happens we shall see a greater appreciation for permissible but not obligatory involvement of women in public and private Torah life.

Dr. Wolowelsky, Dean of Faculty at the Yeshivah of Flatbush High School, is a long-time member of TRADITION’s editorial board.

Published August 29, 2019

Read responses to this post at: A “Changing Self-Perception” of One’s Own: Responses to Dr. Wolowelsky

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