This coming Sunday Rabbi Avi Weiss will ordain a group of women who will serve as clergy members in Modern Orthodox synagogues in North America. Although this group of women will not be formally given the title of rabbi, they will 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.
Biblical criticism has always been shunned as heretical by the traditional Jewish community. Recently, however, a new website (thetorah.com) has been created that states, “if traditional Judaism is to thrive then it must address biblical criticism.” This is the result of many believing Jews who ignore the fact the biblical criticism even exists. As one friend of mine put it to me, “As religious Jews we are all in denial on one level or another about biblical scholarship.”
Clearly any type of system that requires its adherents to deny their own thoughts or what they know to be true cannot be sustainable in the long term. But, it seems to me that one need not be in denial with regard biblical criticism. Here is why.
The saga about the Women of the Wall, where a group of women are fighting for the right to to pray at the Western Wall (The Kotel) in the same way men do--including reading from the Torah--is a recent and painful example where modern societal expectations and conservative norms have clashed. From a political perspective I defend the rights of people to be able to express themselves religiously without having government interfering with the way they worship. Yet even as I support a woman’s right to express themselves religiously there is a larger issue at play
Which worldviews are we trying to conform to?
It is clear to me that Judaism sees the genders, male and female, differently. This is seen from the very first story in the Torah about Adam and Eve, where the Torah tells us that God created Eve as a “helpmate opposite” Adam (Genesis, 2:18). In addition when God tells Moses to explain His desire to give the Torah to the Children of Israel, He says “So you should say to the House of Jacob and Tell the Children of Israel,” (Exodus 19:3) The commentators explain that the “House of Jacob” refers to the women and the “Children of Israel” refers to the men (Rashi).
How do we deal with a God that is so transcendent that human beings have no ability to access Him? This is a question humans have been asking since the dawn of time. We have an innate desire to connect with the Divine and many of us strive towards spirituality. We want to feel that we are connecting with something higher, something beyond the mundane physical world we inhabit.
Over history there have been many approaches to answering this question. Idolatry tries to bring God into the universe by taking a physical object and giving it the properties of a deity. Philosophy argues that a transcendent God is completely inaccessible and the best we can do is cognize the actions of the Divine through studying His creations. Christianity suggests that God impregnated a woman to create a physical son of God. By connecting with God the son, Christianity claims, one connects with God.
Rabbi Dov Lipman and I have similar ideas when it comes to education. He and his party, Yesh Atid, are in my opinion, fighting God’s war to ensure that all children in Israel have the ability to get a proper education. As it stands many children from the Haredi sector in Israel only ever get an education in Judaic studies. They learn Bible and Talmud to the exclusion of all else. Yesh Atid together with its rabbinic Knesset Members Rabbis Lipman and Piron are trying to ensure that Haredi children learn core curriculum such as English and math.
The backlash towards this from the Haredi world has been harsh. They see this is an interference with their “holy and pure” education system. Rabbi Lipman himself has been attacked by his own former Rosh Yeshiva the head of Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore, Rabbi Aharon Feldman. Originally Rabbi Feldman called Rabbi Lipman a Rasha (an evil person). But after receiving a letter from Lipman explaining his position he toned that down and said that whilst Lipman was not an evil person, he has made a big mistake and should resign as a Knesset Member of the Yesh Atid Party. I assume Rabbi Lipman will not be following that advice.