Wednesday, November 25th, 2020

Women and the Splitting of Modern Orthodoxy: Confronting the Underlying Issues by Gidon Rothstein

February 23, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts

My friend and colleague R. Nati Helfgot’s recent discussion of women’s leadership in communal settings is marked by his usual and admirable judiciousness, his concern to be respectful to all sides in a debate, and his hope to move our community forward as productively and peacefully as possible.  With all the respect and admiration I have for him and his manner of handling tense topics, several points of his discussion signal to me that the Modern Orthodox community is facing a time when differences might degenerate (or already have degenerated) into fissures, when disagreement might necessarily become schism. 

Before I demonstrate, let me mention here, as I will at the end, that much of the debate, from my perspective, is not about any specific task or function that women are filling or wish to fill.  As R. Helfgot noted, women have already taken on some “para-clergy” roles, and that trend could conceivably continue into the future.  Indeed, in a comment I will discuss below, R. Helfgot declares his own preference for having left matters to develop on their own.

Other comments, though, highlight why the other option, pushing more proactively for change, causes problems that run deeper than just a difference of opinion among people of goodwill.  In noting that “the latest round…of debates about the approach of modern Orthodoxy to the role of women…has focused on the issues of learned Orthodox women receiving some form of rabbinic ordination…” he adds “[t]hose in favor of pushing the frontiers forward on substance and titles have made it clear that they accept the limitations of the restrictions of normative halakhah….”

R. Helfgot’s confidence about the fidelity to halakhah of “those in favor of pushing the frontiers forward,” does not match my experience.  It is considered bad form to say what I am about to but is both germane and vital to a real conversation:  what passes for halachic reasoning among some of “those in favor of pushing the frontiers forward” does not fit traditional Orthodox halachic process. 

This is an important and too often overlooked point: the citation of traditional sources in a chain of reasoning to reach a conclusion does not an halakhic argument make.  Reform Jews, particularly their rabbis, have some sense of an halachic process, and would cite sources to justify their view of how to practice Judaism.  Conservative rabbis certainly do so, and yet Orthodoxy does not accept the legitimacy of either of those versions of the halakhic process.

In an interesting Hebrew article, Prof. Avinoam Rosenak has noted how difficult it is today to differentiate some Conservative writers’ sense of halakhah from those of some Orthodox ones. While he sees the matter as a conundrum, it is clear to me that increasing numbers of writers who self-identify as Orthodox and who are learned enough to use halakhic language and sources are nonetheless no longer following what can be considered a traditional halakhic process.  If so, their conclusions are not only ones with which I disagree, they are ones that are not halakhic.  R. Helfgot is free to disagree with my assessment, but we should be clear on the stakes: I, and I believe there are others like me, no longer feel sure that debates on some of these issues are about what halakhah says; I, and I believe there are others like me, have an increasing sense that the language and style of halakhah is being used in ways that do not qualify as halakhic.


One fairly clear example of that comes from the second part of R. Helfgot’s characterization that the frontier-pushers accept the restrictions of halakhah, such as not having women lead services or serve as witnesses. True as far as it goes, the characterization ignores the vital point that those halakhot are not freestanding details, they are indicative of a perspective of the kinds of roles women ideally fulfill in a halakhic society.  Part of what makes me uncomfortable with the frontier-pushers is that I have the sense that they will respect specific halakhot, as long as they cannot find halakhic sounding reasons to reject or modify them, but will not grapple with what parameters God and the Torah set on what appropriate Jewish womanhood looks like. (I hasten to add that God and the Torah set parameters on what appropriate Jewish manhood looks like as well). 

If I am correct, this creates two problems.   First, it means that we no longer share an understanding of the purpose of halakhah in an observant Jew’s life. As I understand it, halakhah teaches us not just specific rules of behavior, but communicates how God (and Hazal, furthering the messages God sent in the Torah itself) wants us to conceive of ourselves, wants us to act even where we are not specifically legislated.  Having a discussion with someone who instead treats halakhah as a set of obstacles to work around in getting to whatever that person intuitively assumes God wants from and for them is, as I noted at the beginning, a discussion across an unbridgeable chasm, an example of where two worldviews differ so greatly as to preclude anything other than respectful separation.

The second problem is more practical, in that it means each suggestion such a person makes is one I have to approach with suspicion. As R. Helfgot noted in his opening, many of the changes in women’s standing within the Orthodox Jewish community in the last forty years are ones I personally applaud, ones I experience as being an advancement of opportunities for women that are also fully consonant, congruent, and convergent with the goals the Torah sets out for those women. 

But I am only comfortable with suggestions about new such avenues if I can be confident that the person making the suggestion is operating from similar assumptions and parameters to mine. If a non-Jew has a great idea about how we can change women’s roles (or men’s), I, as a Jew hoping to be faithful to what God wants from me, would have to measure that idea by whether the system as I understand it allows for that.  The more I become convinced that “frontier-pushers” fail to take into account the Torah’s perspectives of womanhood, the more I have to subject those ideas to the same critical process, another way of saying that we have lost the sense of commonality that would allow us to skip or mute that kind of critical consideration.

R. Helfgot notes that he believes the major issue is not “ultimately halachic,” but “touches more on very emotional, sociological, and political self-definitions relating to what have been perceived for 30-40 years as “boundary” issues between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodox movements within Judaism.” “In addition,” he notes, the issue “touches on sensitive policy questions of how best to achieve legitimate evolutions within the halakhic body politic that will be sustained and widely accepted without causing undue divisiveness.”

The care of his phrasing deserves note again for its sensitivity, and yet still, to me, fails to capture the full significance of the split.  The choices, as I understand them, are not divided between whether an issue is halakhic or “emotional, sociological,” etc.  There are issues that are not directly halakhic and yet still fall outside of proper Jewish behavior for reasons that are more objective and systemically grounded than implied by terms like emotional, sociological, or political.

His dichotomy seems to me to lead him to suggest “that taking into account the practical sociological-communal realities, a move perceived at ordaining women…probably should wait for more learned women to take up para-clergy roles in shuls, schools and the community. This will eventually create a communal context for a richer, calmer discussion in future years. As time passes there will be more receptivity to opening up more to areas of spiritual leadership for women.”  I read that, and maybe it is just me, as saying that if we just let things evolve, they will go in a direction that he hopes for.

That’s fine if there is no principle at stake. But if, as many think, this is an issue where there is a right and wrong, where the values communicated by God, the Torah, Hazal, and halakhah indicate that we are in danger of importing a foreign idea and weaving it into the fabric of our service of God, we cannot watch sanguinely and let matters develop.  And here, again, it is not just that I disagree with him, but that the attitude he is adopting bespeaks a difference of approach so deep as to be a matter of kind, not of degree.

For him, what the community becomes comfortable with, as long as it does not violate a specific halakhah, is fine, whereas I know of situations where the system demands something of us regardless of what the communal context comes to allow.  And when I know that the other participants to a conversation ignore or deny that possibility, I do not even feel comfortable having it, since we speak across such a great divide as to preclude the necessary sense of commonality.

I am well aware that I have not raised any of the substantive issues at hand, and that very deliberately. The only value in a civil and vigorous discussion of differences of opinion is if the two sides share enough of a set of assumptions to make that conversation feasibly productive, and I have tried to show places where those divides are, to my mind, making it almost impossible.

I began by noting that many women are already filling many para-clergy roles without significant opposition.  That means, on both sides, much of the issue here is about a specific title. From my side, it is because that title was always accepted as a clear delineator of a role that the guidance of God, the Torah, and Hazal had indicated was inappropriate for women.  Recognizing an uncrossable boundary was, for me, a shorthand for saying that we partook of the same axioms in building our service of God, that the differences were in details not in framework.  Recent events lead me to doubt the validity of that assumption.  From my perspective, the tragedy is that over an issue of titles, a community is being rent asunder.

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