"Having women scholars on the same footing as men within Orthodox Judaism will add a huge amount of vitality and diversity in the community. This type of equality will make Orthodox Judaism more attractive to many, including many on the inside looking out, who would otherwise not consider it an option. But more importantly than that, it is the right thing to do."
Having Women Scholars On The Same Footing As Men Will Make Orthodox Judaism More Attractive To Many
Rabbi Levi Brackman
Rabbi Avi Weiss is no stranger to controversy and activism within the Jewish community. He has now ordained a group of women who will serve as clergy members in Modern Orthodox synagogues in North America.
Although this group of women has not been formally given the title of rabbi, they have studied the exact same curriculum as any man would have in order to receive that same title.
The ordination of women has been a matter of great controversy within Orthodoxy, and as of now Rabbi Weiss is the only person doing it.
So what’s so controversial about ordaining women? The chief argument has to do with the fact that it’s not within the tradition of Judaism, otherwise known as “the Mesorah.” There are no clear halachic grounds for not ordaining women, but they argue that the Mesorah, as it has been accepted for thousands of years, has its own internal logic and must not be broken.
Yet, if one looks at Jewish history, one finds that whilst Jewish law is virtually immutable, the Mesorah changes. One has to only read the books of the Prophets to recognize this fact. The way Judaism was practiced two and half thousand years ago has little resemblance, from a standpoint of Mesorah or tradition, to the way it is practiced today.
In fact, we don’t need to go back as far as that. What about changes within Orthodox Judaism that have taken place within the last 60 years alone? In many parts of the Orthodox world, youngsters are never given the opportunity to study for a serious profession. This is not only against the Mesorah, but against clearly-stated Talmudic norms as well.
In addition, there are entire streams within Orthodox Judaism that continue to follow a leader who has passed away. They see him as the leader of the generation, ask him questions at his grave, and see no need to replace him with a live leader — a clear departure from Mesorah.
The entire enterprise of studying Kabbalah and metaphysics is also a departure from the Mesorah, which states one shouldn’t study these subjects until one is at least 40. And yet, none of these actions are vilified as being outside Orthodoxy. In fact many of these new norms are being embraced but the wider Orthodox Jewish community. Witness the fact that many young outreach rabbis, from all streams of Orthodoxy, are giving classes on Kabbalah.
Norms within the wide parameters of Orthodox Judaism change over time. Many will argue that not all those changes are for the good. Yet, faulting Rabbi Weiss for breaking the Mesorah is clearly an unsustainable argument, especially coming from those who flaunt the Mesorah themselves when it suits them.
Having had the opportunity to teach Talmud to girls, it is clear to me that there is a real thirst amongst some Orthodox Jewish girls and women to have the same ability to access Judaism’s primary texts as is afforded to their male counterparts. Denying them this opportunity is an untenable position to take in 21st century America.
There was a time when leaders of the community argued that with a fire of assimilation raging all around, people on the inside need to protect their turf from that fire. Today, with the advent of the internet and access to knowledge, there is a fire raging inside the walls of the enclaves themselves. There needs to be a new approach to sustaining Orthodox Judaism. Building the walls higher and stronger, as many within the haredi community are attempting to do, will fail in the long run.
Whilst I do not agree with all the approaches Rabbi Avi Weiss has taken on these matters, he is certainly one of the very few people who has had the courage to do something bold about the immense threats that are facing Orthodox Judaism.
Having women scholars on the same footing as men within Orthodox Judaism will add a huge amount of vitality and diversity in the community. This type of equality will make Orthodox Judaism more attractive to many, including many on the inside looking out, who would otherwise not consider it an option.
But more importantly than that, it is the right thing to do. Fairness is a fundamental Jewish value (Deuteronomy, 16: 20), and whilst it may not trump other fundamental Jewish values, where Jewish law allows it, fairness must be a guiding principle. The moment we are seen as offering up fairness upon the altar of tradition, we lose our credibility.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions , a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life.