Thursday, May 6, 2010

My Last Word on the Woman "Rabba" Controversy

I received a thoughtful comment taking issue with my belief that in Orthodox Judaism, the title "rabbi" should be reserved for men.  Rather than post my lengthy response among the comments, I felt it important enough to reproduce and answer here.

First, the original comment about my previous post from "LRS," followed by my rebuttal.  Comments on that are welcome, of course, but I think I'll be writing future posts on other issues calling my attention.

Here are LRS's remarks:

Pardon me, but I think you are making an unfair assumption here. While some women involved in the movement to advance female leadership in the Orthodox community may be motivated by a quest for recognition, others certainly have purer motivations.

I personally know women who have taken on major leadership roles—not as Rabbas, but in synagogue positions which serve essentially the same functions—who are wonderful, giving people performing what they believe to be an incredibly important service to the community, and I don’t doubt that some of the women studying for the title of Rabba have similarly admirable motivations.

There are a plethora of reasons why having women leaders side-by-side with rabbis would be beneficial to the Orthodox community; assuming that the only possible motivation is an inferiority complex or an inflated ego, leading to an unfettered desire for deference and recognition, is condescending, unfair, and inaccurate.

Having educated women in positions of leadership, with official titles and official roles in the synagogue, provides inspiration to the women of the community, gives young girls positive role models to emulate, and allows female congregants to ask questions they would not feel comfortable addressing to a male rabbi.

Additionally, having women as leaders is important precisely because of the gender differences you are so insistent upon. Giving congregants the chance to learn Torah as only a woman can teach it, to receive counseling from someone attuned to emotions in a different way, to connect to Judaism through a female—as well as a male—perspective, broadens horizons and increases understanding. And contrary to what you may say, a rebbetzin--even a rebbetzin with no day job to distract her--does not fill these needs in a comparable fashion.

Your sweeping generalizations indicate that you haven’t thoroughly considered this issue, and likely have not spoken to anyone who believes sincerely in the cause of women’s leadership. I hope you will pause and recognize that this question is not as simple as you have made it out to be.

And now my response:

LRS, thank you for your respectful tone. I completely support women's active leadership, and I consider myself a feminist, derogatory as that term has become.

The difference between Orthodoxy and the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism is adherence to halacha. Is it halacically forbidden for a woman to be called "rabbi"? I'm not an authority, but I'd guess probably not; again, I don't mind calling people whatever title they prefer. And, I cheer and appreciate the enormous amount of effort and expertise women currently provide the Jewish world, from which I benefit greatly. Women do serve side-by-side with men, and have for millennia, but why is it only now necessary for these dynamic, scholarly women to have the same title as men? Those who hold that changing times require change in established halacha and minhag share the viewpoint of the Conservative and Reform branches, and can be ordained as Rabbis there.

While I fully believe “Rabba” Hurwitz selflessly offers her time and expertise “for the sake of heaven,” and her many beneficiaries, I conclude that a desire for recognition, (not “inflated ego” or “inferiority complex”), at least for future scholarly female leaders, must fuel the “rabba” initiative, because I can’t find any halachic reason for the invention. To the contrary, the only precedent in Orthodoxy is that women are leaders and scholars under respected titles like “teacher,” “President of the Board,” “Principal,” and “rebbetzen.”

 “Rabba” Hurwitz cites biblical and Talumudic achieving women as her inspirations, none of whom had a particular title, even during times when men were called “Rebbe.” In her ordination speech, “Rabba” Hurwitz cites Devorah (the prophet), Yalta, (identified as “wife of Rabbi Nachman”), Bruriah (wife or Rabbi Meir), “The Wife of Jonah” (who is nameless and only known as a wife), Hanna Rochel Verbermacher (“the maiden of Ludmir”—she had no husband with whom to identify so was called “maiden”), and Osnat Barazani, (“the daughter of Rabbi Shmuel Barazani”). None of these stellar examples were titled “Rabbi;” most are identified in connection with a male.

The problem for me is a more basic and philosophical one. A fundamental and biblically-based concept rooted in halacha is that men and women are intrinsically different, and that a man and woman joined in marriage is the unit by which people identify, find fulfillment, and relate to the community.

My main point is that denoting a woman as a rabbi, equivalent to a man, blurs the gender distinction (and making distinctions is what Judaism is all about--havdala emphasizes this).

And it detracts from the couple as the central unit. Having a rabbi and rebbetzen serve the wide-ranging needs of a community has not only met those communities' needs throughout Jewish history, but provided role models for others about living halacically and placing priorities.

Priority in Judaism is not on an individual's success, but on the family, on the couple working toward the same goals and confronting problems via the differing perspectives each can bring.

As far as I'm concerned, men and women should both offer their talents in the religious realm, and both should receive respect and recognition for their contributions. It's just important that each gender's unique characteristics and vantage be acknowledged rather than combined or negated. And it's important that the Torah approach to gender roles (confirmed by brain research) be maintained: women are hard-wired with abilities that incline toward the private, family domain while men are hard-wired with abilities that incline toward the public, competitive domain.

That doesn't mean either are limited to those inclinations, only that the system is set up to honor and facilitate them, and calling women and men both "rabbis" suggests misleadingly that they're the same.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent retort - sensitive, pointed and grounded in Jewish tradition.