Tuesday, January 26th, 2021

Focusing on Function: Women’s Leadership Roles by Nathaniel Helfgot

April 29, 2010 by  
Filed under Halakha, New Posts, Philosophy

The following is an edited version of my initial remarks at a panel on Women’s Leadership Roles that was held on the first day of the RCA convention on Sunday, April 25, 2010. The panel consisted of Rabbi Michael Broyde, Rabbi Gidon Rothstein, Dr. Deena Zimmerman and myself. It was conceived and moderated by Rabbi Shmuel Hain. As I indicated in response to a question later in the panel discussion, my focus was not on titles, but on functions and its justification. The original directives of the moderator about the purpose of the panel, and the questions addressed to it, did not ask us to discuss any of the halakhic issues. My thoughts on some of those issues have been posted in my previous posts on the Text and Texture Blog.  

I have basically presented the remarks as they were delivered in the context of a short oral presentation.

Nati Helfgot 

Sunday, April 25, 2010 

I approach this topic from the following perspective. Women’s expanded role in Jewish learning, communal life and leadership is a blessed event in Judaism and in our life-time. From my theological perspective it is very much part of the process of God acting in history,  in the spirit of Rav Kook zt”l’s perspective of how various movements in history unfold and often contribute to the world and ultimate goals. Many movements and developments bring forth positive ideas and elements, even as they present us with tremendous challenges and negative elements as well. 

In addition I adhere fully to the Rav zt”l’s famous 14th ani-maamin about Torah Judaism being able to exist in every society and context, without having to retreat and be a ”sect,” or existing only in the social realities of the ghetto or closed off from the world. 

The discussions we are having here are about the proper role of qualified and talented women to fulfill various clergy-like functions (a reality that a handful of RCA shuls are already doing in various capacities, whatever the title that is being given to the women undertaking those roles and responsibilities). These women are or will be assuming these roles in areas of  pastoral counseling, teaching of Torah, responding to halakhic queries, giving of divrei Torah and derashot in various capacities and in some instances engaging in coordinating and directing life-cycle events - while remaining faithful to those limits that halakha sets, e.g. speaking under the huppah, reading the ketubah, arranging all the technical matters of the siddur kiddushin while at the same time  not reciting birkot eirusin or birkot ha-nissuim.) 

In our ranks there are minimalists and maximalists on the propriety of these roles and actions. Most of the people who have discussed this issue in print or in e-mails have as a general rule tended not to raise questions about technical halakhic categories but other more amorphous issues of meta-halakha, tradition, sociology, tactics, etc.  

My general inclination in these matters is on the side of the maximalists –  i.e. in favor of expanding the opportunities for and encouraging talented and qualified women to be able to fulfill their desire to serve the Jewish community and Torah - for the following five reasons: 

    1. We often speak at conferences and write in monographs about the significant personnel crisis in recruiting good people, especially outside of New York, to enter the field of Jewish education, the rabbinate, Jewish communal work and the like. To close off possibilities, which are not in violation of halakhic parameters, for more amorphous reasons, is to shoot ourselves in the foot. There are so many talented young women coming up the ranks that we cannot simply ignore this talented pool some of whom can contribute so mightily to ahavat Hashem and harbatzat Torah and serve as role models for our young women and girls and boys.
    2. The entry of more women into the various fields of avodat ha-kodesh can bring about positive expansion and help in dealing with various parts of our community who we are not always as sensitive to. Having women more involved in may help bring issues to the fore in our congregational and halakhic discussions that we might not have been sensitive to before. A useful analogy here maybe to compare our situation to the field of medicine and the impact that the entry of women into the field has had. Before women were involved in the practice of medicine in large numbers, many medical studies simply ignored areas of disease research that women were particularly affected by, or did not include women in the sample when testing new medications, etc. They were simply not part of the conversation and issues and important data were simply not brought to the fore. In a similar vein, but closer to home, many of us are active supporters of programs like Kollel Eretz Hemdah in Israel that attempt to train dayanim (rabbinical court judges) who come from a more dati-leumi (religious-Zionist) background, who have served in the army, etc… We feel that such personalities, who have different upbringing and training and world-view, will more likely have positive interactions with and appreciate the perspectives of the general Israeli public whom they will encounter than the average dayan trained in haredi institutions who comes from a totally different world. Having women involved in some capacity in the makeup of a full congregational panoply of staff can have similar meritorious effects.
    3. If indeed we believe that the issues surrounding greater involvement of women in clergy-like roles and functions is not really about formal halakhic limitations then we run some serious risks in limiting access. In the spirit of Rav Aharon Soloveitchik zt”l’s psak (halakhic ruling) on women saying kaddish, we run the risk of losing many talented women and potential contributors to the community to other fields and God forbid to Orthodoxy as a whole, if these opportunities are stifled or not encouraged.
    4. If one maintains that fundamentally inclusion of talented women in various roles in the synagogue is not really prohibited by formal halakha, but stems from our either our discomfort or more amorphous categories of minhag or hashakafic (ideological) concerns, we have to seriously confront the competing values that we may be treading on.

A strongly conservative (with a lower case “c”) stance on these issues runs the risk of ignoring primal values of Torah and halakha such as kevod haberiyot, tzelem elokim, derakheha darkei noam, ve-asita ha-yasar ve-hatov and general moral principles of fairness and justice. (This is besides recognizing the need to take into account other less central, but nonetheless important values such as “ la-asot nahat ruah le-nashim” which writers such as Rav Lichtenstein and Rav Sperber have pointed to in various fora.) 

If we truly believe (as many do) that the issues here are not explicitly halakhic, then we have to really look in the mirror and ask ourselves these hard questions about justice and ethics and the right thing to do. As Rav Lichtenstein has so eloquently written (in an essay in Hebrew) on the sources of ethics: 

“the parameters of ethics and morality and its truths have an important role to play in understanding halakha and defining its boundaries. Of course, a Jew must be ready to answer the call “I am here” if the command “tro offer him up” is thrust upon him. However, prior to unsheathing the sword, he is permitted, and even obligated to clarify, to the best of his ability, if indeed , this is what actually has been commanded. Is the command so clear-cut and is the collision of values indeed so frontal and unavoidable. To the extent that there is a need and room for halakhic exegesis and this must be clarified-a sensitive and and insightful conscience (my bold, NH) is one of the factors that shape the decision making process. Just as Maimoidnes in his day, consciously, was assisted by a particular metaphysical approach to the world (Aristotilean thought, NH) in order to plumb the depths of the meaning of Biblical verses, so too one can make use of an ethical perspective in order to understand the content of halakha and to outline its parameters. Clearly this process requires extreme care and responsibility. It must be assured that-and this rooted in deep connection to authentic Torah and religious piety-one is attempting to understand the halakha and not God forbid to distort it.”1   

If the ethical and moral dimension must be part of the shikul ha-daat is true when addressing questions of pure halakha, how much more so in areas that are much more related to hashkafah, meta-halakhic and tactical categories of discussion.                                     

        5. There is a grave danger if we are excessively conservative here on the perception of our own baalei battim and the broader community and the general kevod ha-Torah. In many of the discussions over the years on “women’s issues” some rabbanim and writers who viewed expanding women’s roles with a jaundiced eye have often raised questions about motivations and whether the people were le-sheim Shamayim etc. In recent years I believe that has died down. As Rav Lichtenstein noted a few years ago in a derasha, he never felt comfortable with those attacks on people and women who pushed for those innovations because what is good for the goose is also good for the gander. It very easily opens one up to charges about one’s own motivations. Continued rejection of expanded roles for women in the synagogue context without real halakhic grounds can unfortunately lead people to conclusions (which one hears already in the Modern-Orthodox “street”) about rabbis who have discomfort with opening their “guild” to new members, that we are concerned with power, misogyny etc. Let me be clear here, I am emphatically not saying that this is the motivation for those who are more conservative, but one opens oneself and institutional Orthodoxy to that kind of attack. This potential, is, I think is very detrimental to the future of Torah and yiddishkeit and is a real and present danger.

As Rav Ovadyah Yosef wrote in his teshuvah on Bat Mitzvah ceremonies (Yabiah Omer 6:29) in discussing those who were opposed to them because it would give support to the reform and anti-Torah forces by confirming them in their practices, he states just the opposite:

             “But in  truth, preventing girls from celebrating bat mitzvah ceremonies, strengthens the hand of the sinners to complain against the scholars of Israel (hakhmei yisrael), (to say) that they oppress the daughters of Israel, and discriminate between boys and girls.”

Print This Post Print This Post