Monday, August 29, 2011
Why Can't Orthodox Women be Rabbis?
Received this from a friend of an acquaintance of my husband's.
I don't know the questioner, but I do know she is a woman who has been doing some extensive learning about classical Judaism.
The questioner is referencing the recent controversy around ordaining Orthodox women rabbis and what title might be used therein.
The email is printed with all errors. Since I don't know the questioner, I didn't want to alter her words at all.
"First of all - what is the big fuss about a woman having a title?? Maybe
it's because I grew up secular and am a grad student, but in my mind if a
woman does the same learning, she should at least be able to have some sort
of title attesting to that. It would be like me going to grad school and not
graduating with a degree. It looks like there are a few "orthodox" female
rabbi type people (Shlomo Carlebach ordained a couple I believe), and I
don't see what the big deal is. They aren't leading men in prayer, or doing
the minyan thing, they studied a long time, and they got some kind of
smicha.....why the controversy? Does it say in the Torah woman can't be
"I spoke about this with Leah once and she said "well there are female
religious leaders, they are just called Rebbetzins" and also "why do women
need a title? just being learned is good enough to do lots in the
community"....yes BUT first of all, a Rebbetzin is married to a Rabbi and
gets that title through the her relationship not of her own learning merits.
Not to say there aren't great rebbetzins out there, but it is not a title
given due to completion of a rigorous program of study, nor is it something
the wife of a business man has ( no matter how learned she is). For the
second issue, I guess I just don't understand why they wouldn't be given a
title of some sort - they did the learning, they put in the work, why deny
them acknowledgment of that? Sure men learn without becoming Rabbi's, but if
she wants to work with people and be a religious leader full time why not
let her have a title that makes her work easier?
"Personally, I would be stoked to learn from a woman, especially the whole
bedika cloth thing and whatnot - she would be the natural person for that I
would think. I have an acquaintance down here that is a girl rabbi ( not
orthodox obviously ;), she is soooooooo freaking awesome - she has had this
amazing life - daughter of a rabbi from a long line of rabbi's, highly
educated, used to be an electrical engineer, sky diver, all around cool
lady, and super educated on jewish stuff....well educated to the extent she
found teachers to teach her. I just wish there were women teachers like that
in orthodox judaism. Anyways, if you can help me understand all this I would
be very grateful.
"I know I am writing with lots of crazy questions - but I love Judaism and am
soooo grateful to you guys for teaching us!!!! Just trying to understand
things that aren't making sense :)
I don't know you, and you don't know me. But it sounds like you are right up my alley: curious, passionate, respectful, and honest. I would like to respond to your questions, partially from a place of philosophy, but also from a place of personal experience. I'm not asking you to like or agree with my ideas. In fact, if you grew up secular in America in the past 40 years, it would be shocking for you to even be able to stretch yourself to hear me out. All I ask is intellectual honesty to see that this position has validity.
You ask, "What is wrong with a woman having a title?" The answer is, nothing, as long as it fits. So should a woman be called, "Rabbi"? Let us discover what a Rabbi is. I am a mom; are you? The title "Mom" is quite specific. It refers to a woman who has either biologically given birth to or fostered or adopted a child and is usually raising him or her. If a man biologically birthed a child (problematic verb right there) or fostered or adopted, is he a mom? No, he is not a mom. He can never be a mom. He can be a dad, an uncle, a friend, but he can never be a mom. A Rabbi, by definition, is a man. How do we know this?
The Torah, yes, that very Torah that women want to hold, march with, read from publicly, study, and teach, has some very deep lessons about men and women. These lessons are both timeless and timely which means that sometimes they may not sync with the trends of the day, but by the same token they will never, ever become obsolete. In thousands of years of Jewish history, the Torah is still practiced and observed faithfully.
The Torah states that men and women have different spheres of spiritual influence. A man's sphere of influence is in the external, public world, and a woman's sphere of influence is in the internal, private world. This concept is alluded to in the kabbalistic, mystical sources; in the Talmud, in the midrash and the like. This is the oral law, not the written law (the Talmud and its attendant commentaries). But everything in the Talmud, et al, has a hook and a source in the written law.
The notion that men and women are hardwired differently is no secret to us married folk. But in the world of spirituality, people somehow fail to understand that there are laws of physics. Judaism is not just a warm and fuzzy blanket, full of feel-good moments. It's not just haroset and matza balls. Just as science, physics, and the USA have laws, Jewish spirituality has laws. If you follow the laws you can reach a most exalted spiritual place.
The notion of external/internal spheres of influence affects both how men or women are influenced, and how they influence. We see this difference in our very biological anatomy. A man's anatomy, his life force, is external and visible. A woman's anatomy is internal and private. She accepts within her body the life giving force, nurtures it within, and creates life thereby. This is not an accident. All spiritual realities have their parallel in the physical world.
My friend, the Torah, yes, once again I reiterate, that very same Torah that everyone wants to hold, march with, read from, study, and teach, tells us that a man will find his main spirituality through public and external service, and that a woman will find her main spirituality through private and internal service. What this means in practical terms in 2011 is that the public place of Judaism, the synagogue, is the place that men will shine, and the private place of Judaism, the home, is the place that women will shine.
Is one better than the other? What's better, funner, cooler, more prestigious: to shine at the synagogue or to shine at home?
Do you see that the very question is flawed, my friend? Our goal is not fun, coolness, or prestige. It's spirituality. What better place to discover our set of instructions for spirituality than the very Torah we seek to disseminate? Do you see the problem here? The problem is not that women are lesser for shining in the private domain, the problem rather is that no one values the private domain simply because PRIVATE THINGS ARE NOT VALUED.
In our society, what glitters matters; secrets are freely shared; the moms, teachers, and other unsung heroes are simply under-appreciated and underpaid; and no one wants to be behind-the-scenes. This is a serious indictment, not of Judaism or Orthodoxy, but merely of where our society's values have run amok.
Say you have a loving relationship with a friend. The two of you are at a dinner party and you start recounting the funny story of your flat tire, and your friend rudely interrupts you. This is completely out of character; you're stymied. But you trust her, and she trusts you, so you are certain there is a good reason and that all will be revealed.
See, God and the Torah are my good friends. In their company, I have always felt respected, valued, and appreciated as a Jewish woman. Valued for my intellect and valued for my ideas. Valued for having seven kids and valued for being a teacher of Torah. If God is denying me the title "Rabbi," well, I trust Him. He's never steered me wrong. I know it can't be disrespect or denigration, because that would be entirely out of character and wouldn't jive with anything else that I know about Judaism.
My friend, I study as much Torah as I can. I teach Torah and counsel couples in crisis. I love God and try to bring others to love Him as well. For all intents and purposes my job quite closely parallels that of a Rabbi. But if you're not the mom, you're not the mom. You can call yourself a mom and you can cook and clean and change diapers and volunteer at the preschool and do all the things that moms do, but if you're the dad, you're not the mom.
So what is my title? Some call me Rebbetzin. I think that's a funny title, because there are so many women more learned than I. I don't want a title. I don't need a title. Guess what? Any Rabbi becoming one for the title and prestige ought find a new job. Glory-seeking and the rabbinate ought to be allergic to one another.
And too, I want to always remember that the God that I am supposedly serving in this whole endeavor has arranged things such that the internal, private sphere is my primary spiritual path. I pray that I never forget.