Thursday, April 29, 2010

Why Women "Rabbas" Contort the Message of Judaism

The world's only ordained Orthodox "rabba" (woman rabbi), Sara Hurwitz, smiling in her kerchief from the pages of the Wall Street Journal last week doesn't look like she's undermining the basis of Jewish life--though she is.

No doubt she's as qualified as a male rabbi to teach and lead--brilliant in Torah, obedient to commandments, sincere in her dedication to her faith and serving klal Yisroyal, the Jewish people.  But aside from the protest and division aroused by her "ordination," positioning her as a rabbi who happens to be female drastically undercuts marriage as the central Jewish institution, and slashes the honor traditional Judaism accords women.

And it doesn't help that her mentor, Rabbi Avi Weiss, invented a silly-sounding title (on which he's recently back-pedaled).

Traditionally, the married couple form the highest and most central unit in Jewish life and law.  Since the creation of Eve--which separated from the combo-human Adam a complementary "side" to whom he could feel bound, yet who was different enough to provide him a variant perspective--God has made marriage the primary source of both personal and collective Jewish fulfillment.

"Yentl" aside, unlike other cultures where women may be chattel, Judaism expects women to not only know and apply practical Jewish law, but receive respect for their expertise.

The rabbi of a community may guide liturgy, memorize the Talmud, and make impeccable determinations based on well-researched sources, but he's considered incomplete without a wife, his partner, who carries her own title of respect, "rebbetzen."

Together, as joint leaders of their community, they model life according to halacha, "the path" that includes the panoply of behaviors that constitute a Jewish existence. Essential in these behaviors is consideration and respect for each other within their marriage. As a unit, the rabbi and rebbetzen teach and advise, each with their specialties, and congregants honor them both.

So how does Sara Hurwitz' new elevation to "Rabba" mess this up?

Inventing a strange man-equivalency rather than accepting Judaism's centrality of the married couple echoes the tired and blatantly ridiculous feminist maxim, "a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle."  (Even the phrase's popularizer, Gloria Steinem, married at age 66, finally confident of her own identity. Sadly, her husband succumbed to cancer three years later.)

To deem a female "rabba" the same as a male rabbi is not only wrong on the face of it, but detracts from both. Plenty of recent scientific research, popularized in well-documented books by Steven E. Rhoads, Melissa Hines, Deborah Blum, Louann Brizendine, Leonard Sax, and Anne Moir and David Jessel, among scads of others, confirm that not only the bodies but the minds of the two sexes are wired differently.  Ignoring or negating this reality, rather than appreciating the unique contributions of each toward a most efficient and diverse partnership, implies that there's something "better" or more desirable about being a man than a woman.  It suggests that women's central role in Judaism, usually involving the private, home domain, is somehow inferior to men's more public persona.

The mutual need of men and women for each other bolsters both, and Orthodox Judaism has always insured that both genders respectfully acknowledge the equal value of inherent, fundamental sex differences.

As "Rabba" Hurwitz noted in her speech of March, 2009 accepting her first rabbinic title, "Mahara't" of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, NY (the term is an acronym for Hebrew words for counselor, speaker, Torah scholar and question-resolver), Jewish law allows women to perform 95% of the functions of a rabbi anyway. Over centuries, Jewish women have proven their abilities to excel in scholarship, answering queries, advising and teaching, even if not married to a rabbi. ("Rabba" Hurwitz addressed women at Stern College last November on whether Jewish law permits female rabbis; the fascinating transcript is posted in the blog of a student in attendance.)

In fact, every Orthodox congregation includes women who hold crucial leadership roles.  Jewish law, however, smartly reserves certain public functions for men--providing them an outlet for the same need served by weekly poker pals, the Masons, fraternities, and other regular guy-gatherings.  Women already know they're important--after all, they're necessary to birth and raise the next generation. But men? Where does their status come from?

If it doesn't come from success in the marketplace, too often it comes from exerting their physical power over their women.  The Jewish system addresses this, giving men their unique place to connect with other guys, constructively directing their guy-club need toward introspection and relating to God.

"Rabba" Hurwitz says her new position enables her to take on tasks male rabbis can't, such as helping in the women's section of the synagogue, or answering intimate questions--both functions usually handled by a congregation's rebbetzen.  A petition signed by about 1,500 women waiting with "bated breath" for the major Orthodox organization, The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), to offer greater leadership roles for women seems to ignore the enormous amount of feminine time and talent already visible in the Orthodox world.  Most big-name Torah lecturers may be male, but there are plenty of super-star rebbetzens in high demand as speakers.  Synagogue boards are loaded with women; Yeshiva University's Jewish studies programs eagerly provide fellowships to all women who qualify.

(RCA president Rabbi Moshe Kletenik holds Jewish law bars women rabbis, but that doesn't at all impede his wife, Rivy Kletenik, the dynamic principal of Seattle's largest Jewish school and an accomplished Torah scholar in her own right.)
The ideal Jewish woman, after all, is described in the forefather Abraham's eulogy to his wife, Sarah, Proverbs 31:10-31, and includes this: "her husband's heart relies on her, and he shall lack no fortune...she envisions a field and buys it; from the fruit of her handiwork she plants a vineyard...with strength, she girds her loins and invigorates her arms...she spreads out her palm to the poor, and extends her hands to the destitute...She makes a cloak to sell, and delivers a belt to the peddler...She anticipates the ways of her household, and partakes not of the bread of laziness..." 

This is one busy lady, an entrepreneur who goes to the gym.  But she's not taken for granted: "Her children arise and praise her; her husband he lauds her...Give her the fruits of her hand and let her be praised in the gates by her very own deeds."  Traditionally, a family sings this at its Sabbath table to honor the wife/mother; recently it's become common for a groom to sing it to his bride on their wedding day.

If God wanted people to be androgynous, He would have made them that way; instead, the biblical creation story emphasizes that man was lonely, unable to quench his Godly desire to give, even after consorting with all the animals.  To answer this beneficent craving, God took a "side" (sometimes translated as "rib") from Adam to fashion into an "eizer kenegdo," a helpful being designed to be his opposite.  The feminine and masculine "sides" of a couple are meant to function together, helping each other by bringing a divergent view.

When she addressed the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference at Columbia University this March, "Rabba" Hurwitz's audience stood.  Rising when a learned rabbi takes the podium shows respect, and certainly "Rabba" Hurwitz' scholarship is worthy.  But a wise rabbi I know fights his natural embarrassment when an entire room stands by reminding himself--"they stand up not for me, but for the Torah."  Perhaps we need a re-focus on the Torah rather than the individuals who serve it.

When a husband or a wife earns kudos, the spouse shares the glory.  Similarly, when one partner fails the other sinks, too.  Could God have split Adam to remind us that it's not just about "me" but about "us?" And that the sum of husband and wife is greater than either alone?

"Rabba" Hurwitz is married; perhaps her talents lie in religious activities and her husband enjoys another realm of interest. Judaism allows for both to express themselves--but emphasizes that in the end, the relationship that matters the most is not one's link to a job or even a calling, but to one's soul-mate.
By the way, I learned most of this from my rabbi and his achieving rebbetzen.


  1. Thanks for the reminder that men and women both have value to God, but they are not the same. God has given some roles to men and other roles to women. Neither is better or worse, they are just different.

  2. Childs, yes, you're right, but why, oh why can't smart people accept it?

  3. It is inaccurate to imply that the position of rabbi is somehow a rabbi-rebbetzin tag team affair; yes, many great rabbis are supported and enhanced by wise and knowledgeable rebbetzins, but ultimately the position of rabbi belongs to an individual. Unmarried rabbis are no less rabbis than their wedded counterparts.

    Your argument that Judaism assigns to women a different role, and taking on a “rabbi” role negates the Jewish system, is a fair one; however, it is accordingly necessary to acknowledge that Judaism does not provide a forum for educated, passionate women to become leaders of their communities. Saying to a woman who has a passion for Jewish leadership: “Well then, marry a rabbi,” is sadly condescending. The backseat role of rebbetzin cannot be equated to that of a rabbi. Additionally, it cannot be reached by years of study, or acquired based on merit. What if the qualified Jewish woman falls in love with a dentist? Or happens to be unmarried?

  4. LRS, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I disagree that accomplished women have no outlet for leadership in Judaism. For example, our synagogue board includes unmarried women; I've taken excellent shiurim from unmarried women, as well as from women whose husbands are not rabbis. In fact, everything Rabba Hurwitz does can be done by "untitled" women, as she has noted.

    You say "unmarried rabbis are no less rabbis than their wedded counterparts." Maybe not in terms of erudition, but they are indeed handicapped in their ability to reach women and provide a role model for married couples, and again, in Judaism the married couple is the foundational unit for communities and individuals.
    It's true there's no educational requirement for a rebbetzen, but nonetheless, in her capacity she must have a practical education. For academic questions beyond her ability, she can refer congregants to her partner, just as he would refer to her in matters within her realm of expertise--that's why having a team of male-female is superior to an individual rabbi alone.

  5. Thank you for your thoughtful post. It has been my experience, as a woman and a teacher, that my evil inclination can get the best of me when I desire to promote my ideas in a way that does not follow the lines of spiritual authority within my realm. But when I humbly pray for wisdom and guidance, my mouth sometimes opens with helpful words, even in the assembly. We must resist the temptation to self-elevate and let ourselves be elevated from on high.