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

Posted By Gidon Rothstein On February 23, 2010 @ 2:38 pm In New Posts | 34 Comments

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.

34 Comments (Open | Close)

34 Comments To "Women and the Splitting of Modern Orthodoxy: Confronting the Underlying Issues by Gidon Rothstein"

#1 Comment By Micha Berger On February 23, 2010 @ 4:15 pm

RGR writes: 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.

I agree with the thesis, but not with the language used. I would instead have phrased it thus:
As I understand it, the Torah teaches us not just the specific rules of behavior of halakhah, 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.

By framing the problem as being within halakhah, one already agrees with the basic idea that the Torah’s behavioral demands are a set of well-definable rules. The point here, though, is that the Torah also demands having a particular world-view. Beyond the specific laws of halakhah, there are the obligations to “do the yashar [straight] and the tov [good]“, “qedoshim tihyu, qi Qadosh Ani — be holy, for I Am Holy”. This is the paradox of the story of Rabba bar bar Chanan’s broken barrels (Bava Metzia 83a):

רבה בר בר חנן תברו ליה הנהו שקולאי חביתא דחמרא. שקל לגלימייהו. אתו, אמרו לרב. אמר ליה, “הב להו גלימייהו.” אמר ליה, “דינא הכי?” אמר ליה, “אין — “למען תלך בדרך טובים.’ (משלי ב)” יהיב להו גלימייהו, אמרו ליה, “עניי אנן, וטרחינן כולה יומא, וכפינן, ולית לן מידי!” אמר ליה, “זיל הב אגרייהו.” א”ל, “דינא הכי?” אמר ליה, “אין — ‘וארחות צדיקים תשמור’ (משלי ב)”:

Rabbah bar bar Chanan had some porters who broke his barrel of wine. He grabbed their cloaks. They went and told Rav. Rav said to [Rabbah] “Give them their cloaks.” He said to [Rav], “Is this the law?” [Rav] said to Rabbah], “Yes — ’so that you will walk in the ways of the good’ (Mishlei 2:20)”. He gave them their cloaks. They said to him, “We are poor, and we labored all day, and now we are exhausted, and we don’t have anything!” [Rav] said to Raba, “Go give them their wages.” He said to [Rav], “Is that the law?” [Rav] said to Rabbah], “Yes — ‘and the way of the righteous you shall observe’ (ibid)”.

An obligation to go beyond the limit of obligation — a paradox. Yes, there is a halakhah that says that you don’t stick to the limits of halakhah’s behavioral rules, you also have to be a particular kind of person — tov, yashar and qadosh.

That piece is missing from the discussion. I’m not accusing the envelope-pushers of not trying to be the right kind of person. However, I see that entire question of “does this give me the kind of holiness the Torah asks of me?” rather than “I wish this kind of observance, can I halachically pull it off?” to be missing from their dialog.


#2 Comment By Steve Brizel On February 23, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

R Rothstein deserves a huge round of kudos for an intellectually honest and searing tour de force of the issues at stake with respect to the current discussions with regards to women and communal roles. From what I have seen and read so far, both in print and in the blogosphere,it is the first essay written that raises the issue of what RYBS called the Neshama of the Halacha or what HaShem Yisborach wants from each of us, regardless of our gender simply because as R Rothstein states 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.”

#3 Comment By Nathaniel Helfgot On February 23, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

As I made clear in my posted essay, I did not intend to discuss the meta-halakhic issues or in R. Rothstein’s formulation the sense of the halakhic process surrounding the issue of women’s communal leadership roles. I focused on two halakhic issues that are often raised in these discussions and chose to engage in a more dispassionate analysis of those topics.

R. Rothstein chooses to focus his discussion on a different dimension and eloquently expresses his strong point of view of the moves by some rabbis in the Modern-Orthodox community. As I indicated in the essay, I personally am not one of those who advocates pushing the frontiers aggressively at this moment for all kinds of non-halakhic reasons and sensitivities. At the same time I respect those, on my left (and on my right) who have differing positions on these issues.

At the same time, though I am not the target of his barbs, I do feel that some of R. Rothstein’s formulations in characterizing those with whom he takes issue with are unfair.
R. Rothstein writes:
“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.”

This caricature your ideological opponent as someone who views halakha as a “series of obstacles to be avoided” is an artful debate trick but does not advance the argument. Isn’t it possible to grant that the “frontier-pushers” also share with R. Rothstein a conception of halakha that is holisitic, telos oriented, and not just a series of do’s and don’ts. Isn’t it possible that they just disagree with R. Rothstein’s assessment about the ruah ha-halakha and the direction the system and its meta-halakhic messages are directing us to examine in this area of women’s role? This indeed may be a wonderful and deep debate and divide, but isn’t it possible that everyone in the list is playing within that framework?

Moreover,their is a level of subjectivity in R. Rothstein’s assessment that needs to be acknowledged. In his critique of the frontier pushers he speaks of people “who work around halakha in getting to whatever they intuitively feel God wants them to achieve” implying that those people are purely projecting their own values, agendas etc rather than an objective interaction with the dvar hashem and the process of struglling with it in the tradition of the past. Yet in a later paragraph R. Rothstein writes that there are many advances in women’s standing that he himself applauds because they are ones that “he experiences (as)… fully consonant, congruent, and convergent with the goals the Torah sets out for those women.” So is it simply a question of who is doing the “experiencing”? Can’t other sincere people have a different “experience” and yet not be out of the pale?

#4 Comment By lawrence kaplan On February 23, 2010 @ 8:30 pm

Micha Berger: The correct girsa of the gemara in Bava Metzia does NOT have the “in,” “yes,” either time. Th point then is that the demands are NOT din, but lifnim meshurat ha-din. Note the verse quoted is not from the Torah, but from Mishlei. QED!

#5 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On February 23, 2010 @ 8:34 pm

To R. Nati,

My point, partially, was that I haven’t seen from the people we are loosely calling “frontier-pushers” any well-reasoned, source-based assessment of what the bounds of Jewish womanhood are. What we tend to see, and I thought your summary captured well, are specific halachot that are seen as themselves the boundaries of propriety. Were someone to articulate a view of Jewish womanhood, and explain how, within that broad perspective, this or that change fit in well, I think we would be closer to having a shared conversation, even if I disagreed with their assessment. So, too, when I say I experience it, I mean that, having developed a source-based understanding of Jewish womanhood more generally, those changes seem to me well-based within such a traditionally-oriented perspective.

#6 Comment By Anonymous On February 23, 2010 @ 8:35 pm

This analysis leaves out just what the “Torah’s perspectives of womanhood” are. I suspect that is in part because it is very difficult to formulate said perspectives consistently with both (1) the idea that one thing “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” and (2) “applause” for other changes in women’s roles that might have seemed equally inappropriate to Hazal of old. Furthermore, most people with the “applause” sensibility are also keenly aware that attempts to justify “different roles,” especially when “difference” often functions as a uni-directional lever for exclusion of women, are susceptible to numerous trentchant moral critiques.
Rabbi Rothstein is corect that this is a discussion about values, but is he willing to articulate precisely what Torah values re: women are, and what underlying principle makes “rabbi” so off limits?

#7 Comment By Anonymous On February 23, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

As a “frontier-pusher” I want to commment on the discussion here. I am not a rav so obviously my comments are not based onthe same years of learning as Rav Helfgot and Rav Rothstein, but I feel the need to say my piece and offer defense of frontier-pushing. Rav Rothstein explains that the “Torah’s perspectives of womanhood” has been left out of the frontier pushers analysis, but can we really as modern orthodox Jews have one static, unchanging answer to this question? IF we believe that the modern world has some value outside of parnassah, and the modern world has shown us that there are women who are well qualified for public roles, as torah teachers and halakhic advisors hasn’t our perspective changed on what our understanding of women’s roles are based on “torah values”?

This is why from this one “frontier-pusher”‘s perspective we have come to a point where the ordination of women is possible, precisely because modern orthodoxy responds in some positive ways to the modern world while still thinking through halakhic legal norms and legal values. Frontier pushers see halakah not as laws to be surpassed but as laws to be UNDERSTOOD through a philosophy of torah u maddah. How much are we sacrificing of the halakah as a legally binding system if we ordain women, especially when it can be defended on specific halakhic rules and certain a priori assumptions we have about the nature of our Jewish values.

#8 Comment By Isaac Balbin On February 24, 2010 @ 4:46 am

Condensing: R’ Rothstein’s boundaries of the science of halachic discovery are constrained by a mimetic tradition otherwise known as Mesorah. R’ Helfgot’s mimetic evolution fuels the science of halachic discovery except where axiomatic boundaries enforce a buffer.

#9 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On February 24, 2010 @ 5:52 am

To my anonymous frontier-pusher commentator,

First, let me say that if you have something to say, you should have the courage to put your name to it. Second, even though I believe the modern world has what to tell me, I also believe the Torah has eternal messages, regardless of what moderns think they have discovered, and I always have to make sure the two are in consonance. My point was that the rabbinic frontier pushers I am seeing now do not, to my understanding, offer an expression of how the modern values they are importing fit with Torah values. They don’t even offer an expression of which Torah values they recognize as immutable, as impervious to “modern” ideas, and which are more dependent on sociological factors. Depending on what we mean by “ordination,” they have not told me how they know that the exclusion of women from that– like from bearing witness at a wedding– is not an immutable, necessary Torah value.

I don’t think I was speaking only of a mimetic tradtion, Isaac Balbin; I was speaking of a source-based tradition, one that derives its values from repeat and continuing consultation with the sources that inform us as to how to serve God.

#10 Comment By joel rich On February 24, 2010 @ 6:50 am

Isaac Balbin says:
Condensing: R’ Rothstein’s boundaries of the science of halachic discovery are constrained by a mimetic tradition otherwise known as Mesorah. R’ Helfgot’s mimetic evolution fuels the science of halachic discovery except where axiomatic boundaries enforce a buffer.

Gidon Rothstein says:
I don’t think I was speaking only of a mimetic tradtion, Isaac Balbin; I was speaking of a source-based tradition, one that derives its values from repeat and continuing consultation with the sources that inform us as to how to serve God.

Joel Rich says:
R’ Rothstein and R’ Helfgot essentially agree on the nature of the halachic process but not on who gets to interpret it (e.g Beit Yaakov Morah and approach-good; Internet – bad or good?; evolution – bad or good?; artificial insemination-was bad now good….)

BTW there’s a great quote from a NY Times article (which relates in my mind with who gets to interpret) -Jonathan D. Moreno, a professor of medical ethics and the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks reactions have to do with a long tradition that goes back to Plato. The idea, he said, is that someone who is very intelligent is assumed to be “morally wise.” And that makes it hard to reconcile the actions of Amy Bishop, with her Harvard Ph.D., her mantle of scientific brilliance.

#11 Comment By Anonymous On February 24, 2010 @ 8:07 am

Rabbi Rothstein,

You criticize others for not providing a “well-reasoned, source-based assessment of what the bounds of Jewish womanhood are.” Yet to this point you have not done so either, although you claim to have developed such an assessment. I realize it may be require more than a few sentences, but your position rests on your definition of the proper role of Jewish women, and as such ha-ikar haser min ha-sefer as long as you do not explain, affirmatively, what that role is. Can you provide a principled explanation for which innovations you do and do not “experience” as appropriate, based on an overall view of women’s roles?

Thank you for your consideration.

– Anonymous from 8:35
[As for anonymity, are there no reasons other than lack of "courage" not to want one's opinions to be googlable by, say, one's employer?]

#12 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On February 24, 2010 @ 8:44 am

Providing an assessment of Jewish womanhood can only be productive in an environment where all agree that the Torah has some such meta-halachic idea in mind. Until and unless we agree on that– and that that fundamental picture is independent of whatever the modern world determines about women– there’s no point. And it would be at least another full post here. For some such ideas, you might browse my discussion of the Mission of Orthodoxy, at blog.webyeshiva.org, where these issues occasionally arise (particularly in the post that will go up tomorrow, be”H).

#13 Comment By Micha Berger On February 24, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

R’ Dr Kaplan: QED what? That there is no obligation to be tov, yashar or qadosh, beyond the 613 mitzvos? Or that we don’t regularly invoke the Ramban’s “qadeish es atzmekha bema shemutar lakh”?

Rav replies invoking Mishlei, as Mishlei is a book defining what a good person is. That doesn’t mean the chiyuv is from mishlei. Nor can Rav answer “in”, that yes it’s the din that he pay the workers. Because it’s not the din, it’s lifnim mishuras hadin. The essence of the barrel paradox is that the chiyuv to pursue an aggadic vision of “veheyei tamim” is an obligation to go beyond the limits of obligation. It’s not a law, because it’s not about action. It’s being a certain kind of person, one who has the Torah’s ideals and actually acts upon them.

There are halakhos to try to be that person, whether we call them Hilkhos Dei’os or Chovos haLvavos. But there is no halakhah requiring this particular act or that in that pursuit. It’s obligatory, but not din. Thus my use of the word “paradox”.


#14 Comment By am haaretz On February 24, 2010 @ 9:23 pm

R’ Rothstein: Can you give some specificity to the idea that what appears as halachic reasoning of the frontier pushers does not fit traditional orthodox halachic process. An example or two of what fits traditional orthodox practice and what doesn’t (and why) would be helpful in understanding your point.

#15 Comment By Isaac Balbin On February 25, 2010 @ 12:45 am

I still maintain that the undertone in R’ Rothstein’s article is that there is indeed a mimetic tradition. In context, it is the mimetic tradition of the science of psak. My reading of R’ Helfgot is that the science of reaching psak is freer as long as there isn’t some axiomatic boundary that can’t be passed.

#16 Comment By lawrence kaplan On February 25, 2010 @ 8:30 am

Micha: I do not think we disagreeing aobut anything substantive. All I was poinig out is that according to the correct girsa, Rabbah is asking “Is this the din?” and Rav is not answering “Yes. it is the din,” but rather “NO. It is not the din; it is lifnim me-shurat hs-din.” I am not sure if this is paradoxical or not.

#17 Comment By moshe simon shoshan On March 2, 2010 @ 11:55 am

I think this post and conversation underscores the Modern Orthodox community’s failure to attempt to construct or even discuss the fundamental issues of Halachic jurisprudence and hermeneutics. We no language or parameters to even begin considering which arguments, posititions or individuals may lie beyond the pale of legitimate halachic discourse. As result R. Rothsteins arguments come across as essentially arbitrary and impressionistic.

R. Professor Michael Berger in his book, “Rabbinic Authority” laid some important ground work for such a discussion, but it has unfortunately had little impact on Modern Orthodox intellectual life. in my dissertation and (hopefully) forthcoming book, I try to deal with aspects of these questions as they relate to the Mishnah. I truly beleive that had we had such a conversation years ago, this issue of woman rabbis would not be as divisive.

#18 Comment By Michael Shatz On March 3, 2010 @ 4:34 am

The Torah’s definition of the role of men includes supporting one’s wife. This is a D’oraita, even though we pasken like Rabbi Yehuda that the wife can waive the obligation, and Chazal had many negative things to say about someone supported by his wife. It is reflected in the text of the ketubah. Yet I hope and presume that R. Rothstein would not dare characterize those leaders of our people who established the current system in Israeli Chareidi society of life-long full-time learning for men as frontier-pushing schismatics, despite the fact that that means most are supported by their wives and/or fathers-in-law. If that is the case, the question then becomes whether those pushing for substantial change in the role of women are correct in their assessment that current social conditions demand this change and that it does not fundamentally alter the Torah’s view of the proper behavior of Jews. No doubt this will be vigorously and sometimes harshly debated, but I suspect that in the end history will be the judge, at least until we all face the Ultimate Judge after 120.

#19 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On March 3, 2010 @ 6:52 am

Am haaretz: I’ll try to do more in an upcoming post here on Text and Texture.
Jaded: The difference is that I am trying to “divine the Divine” based on God’s own messages directly to us, in the Torah She-Bichtav and She-BeAl Peh. I agree with Moshe Shoshan’s point that we have failed to have these kinds of conversations, although I take exception to the words “essentially arbitrary and impressionistic.” In fact, I am in the process of having exactly that kind of conversation (mostly with myself) in my Mission of Orthodoxy posts at blog.webyeshiva.org (which I mention often, but cannot find people willing to read). I will say that discussions of what was, in Rabbinic times, are interesting but often not fully germane to what is now, which is what we need to discus.

As to Michael Shatz’ point, you confuse those areas of halachah/hashkafah open to social change and those that are not. We have a general principle that a “tnai” in a monetary matter is effective, which means that halachah itself says that on many monetary issues the Torah did not insist that we follow its guidance. As you note, a woman has the right to waive her rights to support. I have many thoughts about hareidi society and the claim that its men are learning full time, but they are not relevant to this discussion, because there is no evidence that the Torah insists a man support his wife if she does not care. My point was that there are many aspects of a woman’s role that the Torah declares for all time, and that we have to grapple with those to understand the parameters of where we can or cannot change. It is clearly not all about social conditions, since everyone agrees, so far at least, that women can’t be witnesses at a wedding. Where does that, and similar unequivocal halachot, lead us?

#20 Comment By Ben Greenberg On March 3, 2010 @ 7:37 am

It seems to me that it is tremendously difficult to articulate an unchanging, static conception of “Jewish womanhood” transmitted via Divine theophany while still congratulating and applauding innovations and changes over the past 40 years. Each one of the advances in both womens’ learning and leadership was met with significant opposition because it broke with the Jewish mimetic and halakhic tradition of millenia.

I congratulate Rabbi Rothstein in supporting the move towards greater womens’ learning and leadership. To do so admits to an interpretive, dynamic hermeneutical process and not a theophanical moment of revealed woman-hood (or man-hood for that matter). It is similar to argument and process to that of Religious Zionism. (For a short treatise I wrote on the subject see my piece in First Things from October ’09 [http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2009/10/women-orthodox-rabbis-heresy-or-possibility].)

I think one is hard pressed to make an intellectually sound case that a title change, which by very nature is formalistic and not content driven, can be the cause to “rip a community asunder.” This is especially true when one already concedes that advancement in womens’ learning and leadership is a positive development.

#21 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On March 3, 2010 @ 10:06 am

Rabbi Greenberg, I don’t agree with your assessment that it is difficult to articulate a core conception of Jewish womanhood that is unchanging and transmitted via Divine theophany. It will have a lot of room in it for change in accord with social circumstances, but a core that remains unchanging no matter what. The problem is that it is impossible to do it in a 100 words; I am trying to do it in the 2000 words that would fit in a Text and Texture post, but even that is not clear. For some preliminary ideas, I again refer you and others to my posts on blog.webyeshiva.org; in the most recent one, I noted my own understanding of why the Torah would exempt women from mitsvot aseh she-hazman grama. It takes for granted unchanging differences between men and women and shows how God chose to deal with them, by assigning different sorts of obligations to the members of the two genders. I look forward to your comments there.

#22 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On March 3, 2010 @ 10:07 am

Oh, and sorry to do this in two comments when I could have done it in one, but it is not the title change per se, as I tried to make clear, it is the underlying assumptions of that title change, many of which have become even clearer in the comments on my piece, the widespread disbelief that there is a core Divine view of the world embedded in the Torah, to which we must adhere in all times and places. That is the kind of dispute that can rend a community asunder, not the question of title itself.

#23 Comment By Steve Brizel On March 3, 2010 @ 4:15 pm

Ben Greenberg-WADR, your comments here as well as your observations on the First Things blog suffer from much of the same malady as R Helfgot’s piece-a refusal to see Divinely Ordained technically different and spiritually equal roles for both genders-a fact of Jewish life that can be seen from the earliest dawn of the Jewish People.

#24 Comment By Michael Shatz On March 3, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

Rabbi Rothstein: I am not sure the distinction is as clear as you make it sound. Even if one has permission to waive his rights in monetary matters, surely the din as recorded in the Torah is part of the Divine scheme of the world, the “U’temunat Hashem Yabit” revealed to Moshe Rabbeinu. In that way, changing expectations of financial behavior on a broad scale, even where the halacha permits, does change our understanding of how God wants us to perceive ourselves and our place in His creation. Thus there might be a distinction between an individual waiving his rights and a community changing the rules. Although, to be fair, the fact that minhag hasochrim is generally enforceable may argue against this.

Also, as long as are all in agreement that women cannot be eidim or dayanim, are not obligated in mitzvot assei she-hazman g’rama, that a widower with children can marry his deceased wife’s sister, while a widow with children cannot marry her deceased husband’s brother and so forth, it would seem that all agree that men and women have different spiritual roles. The disagreement you have with R. Weiss would then be over the nature of these roles rather than there existence, and the locations of the boundaries that must permanently divide them.

#25 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On March 3, 2010 @ 6:18 pm

On money matters, my point was that there the Torah doesn’t seem so invested in whatever picture of the world it presented, since it allows freely changing it. On the second point, my claim was that Avi Weiss and those with him haven’t agreed to share what their construct of womanhood is, based on those agreed-upon halachot, so we can’t even know how far apart we are. He gives the impression that he sees those as obstacles to be overcome or sidestepped, rather than guideposts to show the way forward in a productive yet Torah and God-faithful way.

#26 Comment By Ben Greenberg On March 4, 2010 @ 6:15 am

Dear Rabbi Rothstein -

Your goal is girded by several assumptions, which I am not going to delve into but rather just point out:

A) One can derive normative societal and gender values out of halakha or specific halakhot.
B) There lies at the core of this value strata an unchanging, unyielding “-hood.”
C) You, or perhaps others, have the wherewithal to tease out of specific halakhot this grandiose, eternal core of “-hood” that will lie in direct conflict with recent advancements for women. (Is this only limited to the rabbinic sphere? What about Knesset members? Israeli judges? etc, etc.)

I wish I had the personal time to go into depth on each of those points but I do look forward to reading your exploration on the WebYeshiva blog.

Kol Tuv,

Ben Greenberg

#27 Comment By Steve Brizel On March 4, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

Ben Greenberg-I have seen the analogy to the Knesset and Israeli courts in other forums and IMO it is a weak analogy-The Knesset is a political institution -it almost rivals the NY State Legislature for pure inefficency and horse trading to protect the varied special interests. The Israeli secular courts are IMO a peculiarly poor analogy, especially given their hostility to all shades of Orthodoxy in Israel.

#28 Comment By David Sher On March 5, 2010 @ 8:28 am

Dear Rabbi Rothstein,

The major problem with your analysis is that it is by necessity built upon impugning the motives of others. The “frontier pushers” as you describe them, may be doing things based upon impure motives, ergo we cannot take the chance to entertain the specific facts and logic of their positions. This approach is a very very slippery slope. Besides the simple fact that an individual can be totally wrong on one issue but totally right on others it seems to me that basing a view on your own perception of what “God would have wanted” is inherently subjective and weakens your argument beyond measure. Judging properly means judging the black letter facts at hand without automatically questioning the motivation of one of the parties.

Sins of motive certainly do exist, but it seems to me to be beyond human capacity for one to truly know the motive of another (its pretty hard to even know ones own motive). For me, this area is rightly the exclusive purview of God. We are behaving improperly if we preemptive believe evil about others. It is the beating heart of Hilchot Deot to love and preemptively believe good about our fellow Jew.

In my view the proper view is to avoid sociology as grounds for strengthening or weakening Halacha. If there is not black letter Halacha on the subject (which it seems to me there is not), we should neither erect new boundary’s nor limit experimentation within our communities.

#29 Comment By Zachary Saltzman On March 15, 2010 @ 6:17 pm

Dear Rabbi Rothstein,

Thank you for your enlightening comments. I know this is a limited space but in reading your comments some interesting points seem to emerge.

First, you admit that the title change does not bother you as much as the concern that it evinces a view of halacha that you do not consider legitimate. However, at the same time you critique the “frontier pushers” for failing to define their halachic conception. Why are we threatening to tear the modern orthodox community apart because of a decision that isn’t of much concern, per se, on the suspicion it evinces a view of halacha that non-frontier pushers hypothetically wouldn’t agree with?

Second, given that the title change isn’t much of a concern, per se do you see how some woman might feel put off and even marginalized that it is the issue of a title change that is admittedly not a concern per se, that is causing such tensions?

Thirdly, even if the frontier pushers did not adhere to a halachicly acceptable view of womanhood on the basis of modern conception of gender roles and society is that a basis for rejecting them outright. What if halachikly authentic changes in the gender structure of the orthodox community can be made that alleviate their concerns? Why create a divide where one need not exist?

Lastly, and I have no training in halacha so please correct me if I am wrong, but I cannot see why there isn’t a role for social norms and understanding in this arena. Certainly you could claim that the halacha gives us an eternal criteria or conception of what womanhood is but that the conception is not static. I think it is useful to think of the eternal torah concept as a sphere on a spectrum of social norms. The sphere tells us the limits and dimensions of womanhood – it is a locus of general principles. However where that sphere lies on the spectrum of social norms is a choice we have to make taking both halachik and societal norms into consideration. In this model the eternal rules that allow us to construct a halachik view of womanhood remains unchanged even if woman’s role in the community does not.

#30 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On March 16, 2010 @ 7:56 am


I think I overstated my comfort with the title change; I meant that “a” title wouldn’t bother me, but one calculated to give women the exact same role as men bothers me alot. So, e.g., Maharat itself isn’t as much of a problem as the fact that as soon as she got it, Sara Hurwitz was telling anyone who would listen that that meant she was a rabbi. That move, from advancing women’s spiritual opportunities to giving women the same exact rights and roles as men, is identifiable non-Orthodox and must, to my mind, be fought with all possible strength.

I think there are different kinds of women out there– the women who want to advance themselves and their relationship with God would not, I think, get caught up in titles so much as in whether they have the opening to give and grow as would best benefit them and the Jewish community. The women to whom a title is sooooo important raise my suspicions about the purity of their motives. I note here, by the way, that Orthodox Judaism is suspicious of *all* titles, for men as well as women, and the reasons to insist on a title, or on honor, are *all* seen as a means to an end, effectively advancing the cause of God and Torah. I once asked a rabbi for advice on how to react to someone who mistreated me, and was told that if it was in private, I should ignore it, but in public, (I was serving in a communal role at the time) I had to protect the respect given to that office. So that if people get too insistent on titles, I have worries about that.

My point was to show that there are significant limits to the “halachically authentic” changes we can make to gender roles, and that dealing with those who refuse to recognize those limits is not a possibility. It would be– in an exaggerated version– like trying to work out an accommodation with those who deny the Divinity of the Torah. Yeah, we might find a middle ground, but we would have thrown out our basic assumptions in doing so. My piece was aimed at showing that Torah tells us of an irreducible truth about gender differences; those who deny that truth are different than me in more than their specific views, they are so different from me, we almost cannot have a conversation.

Social norms have a role to play in some areas of halacha, but in the unchangeable *de-oraita* laws, much less so. When the Torah says men must be this and women must be this (e.g., not obligated to be part of the public community, with all of those ramifications), that is a universal statement, not a social norms statement, and we have to construct our social norms according to it. And, as a last point on this, not all social norms are good, even as we rush to adopt them. Too many Orthodox Jews are willing to ignore the deep problems in Western culture, particularly around gender issues, and just say that those are the norms we should adopt. I believe the Torah tells us it ain’t so.

#31 Comment By Zachary Saltzman On March 16, 2010 @ 9:09 pm

Dear Rabbi Rothstein,

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my post. I find some of your answers troubling and will try to explain why. Before I reach any comments on your response, I’d like to point out that the very idea of a single unified Torah conception of womanhood is problematic. Many people have posted that the idea behind not obligating woman in time bound mitzvas is that woman need to be home to take care of the children. This of course is not the only reason given. Some, such as Rav Hirsch I believe, articulate a view that woman have a higher level of holiness and thus need fewer commandments to guard against the impure. Certainly these two different reasons would give rise to very different ideas of the Torah vision of womanhood.

1)The underlying assumption to your first point is that granting the title of rabba is equivalent to announcing that men and women are the same for all purposes. I just don’t see how you get there. Certainly Judaism sees the difference between men and women as containing much more than the fact that one can gain the title rabbi and the other cannot. That the granting of the title of rabba is so egregious as to violate the fundamental deorita conception of the difference between men and women has not been demonstrated. I suspect people of good intentions and with loyalty to halacha can come down on either side of the issue and that those that support the title of rabba do not, in doing so, concede that the torah sees no differences between men and women. However, if you take the position that someone who supports the rabba title does necessarily say that there is no difference between men and women please say so and explain why.

2) Your second claim is that the title is not of such importance. Further you claim, people who care about a title cast a cloud of suspicion over their motives. This claim suffers from two flaws. First it starts with the assumption that any woman who argues for the title of rabba immediately should be viewed with suspicion and creates a presumption of ill motives which, I am fairly certain, is not a Torah approach to viewing others. Second, it assumes that the title is not important. This is clearly flawed since we both know men are willing to spend significant resources to get the title of rabbi. Further the title clearly grants some amount of authority and reverence which is why Rav Soloveitchik ztl is known as the Rav and Rabbi Menachem Schneerson ztl is the Rebbe. Why cannot woman of good motive think that their best way to contribute to the spiritual community is if their voice has the additional backing of the title rabbi? Why must we question their motives?

3) This is the most problematic point and one that I find truly frightening. You concede that their might be a practical solution but argue that we cannot include people who don’t agree with your metahalchik views on woman or (to be more generous) don’t think that on the issue of woman in Judaism there is a discernible metahalacha. As far as I know most torah authorities do not propose a list of tenets, and those that do propose different sets (I know there has been much writing on what, if any, ikarim can be asserted.) Certainly no one proposes that a belief in a discernible “womanhood metahalcha” is a tenet of Judaism. So long as the compromise is within halchik bounds or has a halachic justification, even one you don’t agree with, I fail to see the problem. Idea tests are not generally a part of orthodoxy and I certainly don’t see why we would set one up around this issue.

#32 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On March 17, 2010 @ 7:50 am


I am sorry you were troubled by my answers. I did not say there was a single version of Torah womanhood, I said that the people who are granting the title of “Rabbah” refuse to articulate their version of Jewish womanhood; I further said that since the conferring of this title was not going to change Sara Hurwitz’ functions at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and based on comments she has made in very public fora, the goal seems to be to give her the equal title to “rabbi” for a man. It was that to which I was objecting.

On your first concern about title, I disagree– seeking out a title for its own sake is itself an example of losing sight of a clear Jewish value. I would say the same for a man who insists on getting the title of rabbi and using it just to puff up his own image. The reason for any title is that it might open opportunities to contribute in ways that you could not in the absence of that title. The examples of the Rov and the Rebbe, zt”l, are odd, since they did not seek those titles, they had them thrust upon them– had the populace of HIR insisted on calling Sara Hurwitz “Rabba” despite her protests to the contrary, that would be a different conversation.

Most Torah authorities do very much include a list of tenets, and there is more agreement about them than you think (see my Mission of Orthodoxy posts, at blog.webyeshiva.org). One of those tenets is a version of halachic process, and part of halachic process, to my understanding, is building new ideas from the foundations set by the Torah. Not doing so is itself a straying from Orthodoxy, in my understanding. When you say “halachic bounds” my point is that if you try to build halachic arguments while ingnoring the ideals the Torah lays out, there is no way for your arguments to be halachic.

#33 Comment By Zachary Saltzman On March 17, 2010 @ 6:25 pm

Dear Rabbi Rothstein,
I think we are constructively narrowing down our area of disagreement and I thank you for taking that time.

I think my fundamental question at this point is do you think someone could, in good faith, look at the way women are treated in halacha and the torah and think that giving women the title of rabba is not incongruous with those values and, perhaps even suggested by those values?

As to the remaining points, I think your first and second paragraphs contradict. That is in the first you admit that the title change does not effectuate a role change. In the second you say titles, by themselves, don’t matter. If her role doesn’t change and changes in title cannot by themselves change the role of a person – once again I have to ask – what is the big deal? You say it is that now she has the same title as a man. Unless of course you actually believe that the title is of great significance itself, who cares that she now has the same title? Her role is the same as it was before the title change?

I will check your Mission of Orthodoxy post but I think you have to admit that there are many respected Orthodox thinkers, some of whom I believe have published in Tradition, that argue that there isn’t any single binding list of ikarim of faith (see rambam,Rav Yosef Albo, and Hasdai ben Abraham Crescas each articulating different lists.) In any event, no list requires accepting a halachik system in which there is a vision of womanhood that forbids rabbas. Your position, however, requires that all orthodox Jews accept a conception of torah womanhood that does not permit for rabbas. If no rabbas is not an ikar, then there is no split until those frontier pushers announce that they reject the broader idea that there is a halachic value system that needs to be consulted in the halachic process.

#34 Comment By Gidon Rothstein On March 17, 2010 @ 7:25 pm

Well, it’s good to know we’re getting closer. As to your first question, I think it is certainly possible that we could apply many words to a woman– such as yoetset halachah, toenet bet din, morah– and they would be perfectly acceptable, capturing that this is a woman of learning who is deserving of our respect and our attention. The problem with the word “rabba” is that it smacks of trying to mimic the word we use for male leaders (were the term for men “hacham,” as it is in the Sephardi community, “rabba” would be less of a problem), and that’s why I said the title matters even though titles don’t matter– it seems to me this word, this title, in the context in which it is being used, carries more with it than just the attempt to give respect to women of learning.

On the Principles, while there were different lists, their differences are significantly less significant than we tend to think. And I disagree about the halachic system question– every list assumes a sense of what Torah is and how halachah works, and my argument is that this push did and does not follow proper halachic process. And that’s where the split comes.

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