A non-egalitarian case for ‘rabbot’

Where I grew up, opposition to any division between men and women was a standard of political correctness.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews dance with Torah scrolls during the celebrations of Simchat Torah in a synagogue in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews dance with Torah scrolls during the celebrations of Simchat Torah in a synagogue in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I was in tenth grade when I stopped identifying with the Conservative Movement.
Rather than being a religious experience, the teen minyan at my synagogue seemed too social, even flirtatious.
“If we put a mechitza evenly down the center isle maintaining equal access to the bima,” I asked, “why would that be more adverse to one side than the other?” Friends called me chauvinist, but I never got an explanation that made sense.
Where I grew up, opposition to any division between men and women was a standard of political correctness. After spending time in Orthodox settings, women’s exemption from time-bound positive mitzvot came to seem as natural as the division between men’s and women’s sports.
Rather than being chauvinist, I came to understand it as having a feminism of its own.
This is not to say that I accepted everything I heard in the Orthodox world. Contrary to some peoples’ conceptions, traditional halacha is not the single guiding force shaping every Orthodox community. I was once in a class, for example, where we covered a segment of the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 271:2) explicitly permitting women to say Kiddush.
The haredi teacher was quick to specify that for “other reasons,” it is not to be done.
In many Orthodox communities, when it comes to things like standing for Kiddush, the question that often becomes more decisive than pure halacha or minhag (established custom) is, “what looks like the frum thing to do?” In many communities, the more frum you are regarded to be, the more social status you have, thus giving rise to “Taliban Jews,” “modesty committees,” and other ever increasingly extreme practices that go beyond anything that can be said to have been halachically proscribed by God.
The irony of the recently re-explicated rejection of female religious authority proffered by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) is that rejecting female halachic authority perpetuates mixed-gendered interactions.
Gender segregation is not the only thing inspiring support for rabbot, though.
What became my immersion in Orthodoxy was driven by a combination of curiosity and rejection of the gender uniformity of the Conservative world, but was anchored by an understanding that any movement left unchecked will veer to extremes that go beyond the movement’s justifications.
As I explored Orthodoxy, rabbis became comparable to other professionals.
In Orthodoxy rabbis have authority beyond that of doctors or lawyers, but as disobeying your lawyer or doctor could lead to liability for breaking the law, or sickness, disobeying your rabbi could also lead to future liability.
I have been in front of female doctors in circumstances where being treated superseded other considerations.
I have had female landlords and real estate agents when what mattered was finding a place to live. I have sat next to female students in lectures, both secular and religious, given by female teachers and speakers. None of these situations involved time-bound positive mitzvot or necessitated the measures needed to maintain decorum in a teen minyan.
When I ask halachic questions, I do not care if the answer comes from a man or a woman, only that it is correct. Certifying authority is as important in religious contexts as in any other.
Though some question the need for women to study the same Judaic sources as men, a March 2010 statement declared that, “The RCA reaffirms its commitment to women’s Torah education and scholarship at the highest levels, and to the assumption of appropriate leadership roles within the Jewish community.”
Their latest resolution re-rejecting female religious certification reaffirmed an April 2010 resolution stating that, “the Rabbinical Council of America encourages a diversity of halachically and communally appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women....”
These “communally appropriate professional opportunities,” such as teaching, may be far from the role of synagogue rabbis, but the women who have completed the same curricula by which Orthodox men become rabbis are not setting out to lead shacharit or perform other positive time-bound mitzvot.
They, like most Orthodox rabbis, serve as educators and consultants on religious practice. In fact, one of the implications of their Orthodox ordination is their commitment to upholding their halachic exemption from positive time-bound mitzvot.
The ordination of female Orthodox halachic authorities is new, but the existence of female religious leaders in “communally appropriate” positions, including Dvora the Judge, Bruriah, Nechama Leibowitz and countless others is not, and the resolution from April 2010 acknowledges that, “Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women,” has on the whole, “flower[ed]... in recent decades.” It lauds this innovation as“a significant achievement.”
Rather than rejecting modernity with reactionary extra-halachic dictums, the rabbis’ job is to confront modernity by applying halacha to it. Before electricity there was no prohibition against manipulating it on Shabbat, and neither were there “Shabbat timers” or hot-plates, there were only broad halachic principals that were later reapplied in light of new realities.
So too, until there was a broad base of halachically educated women there was no need to discuss their certification.
Maintaining the halacha is of religious value, but prohibiting the use of electricity would not be a maintenance of halacha. By failing to confront modernity through the halachic prism outlawing electricity would be a lazy release of the prism.
There are certainly specifications that necessitate channeling female religious leadership through the framework of exempting women from positive timebound mitzvot, much like how male Orthodox leadership is limited to not be confused with priesthood, but other than a lazy, total rejection of the inherently fluctuating circumstances of human society there is no tangible explanation for why the halachic explanations of women who have demonstrated their knowledge should be less certifiable than those of men.
The author holds a degree in political science from Penn State University. After leaving the Conservative Movement where he grew up he affiliated with ultra-Orthodox-led institutions but has since gravitated to the liberal wing of Modern Orthodoxy.