The Hardest Questions:
Why can’t women be rabbis?
An Approach designed to guide Kiruv Professionals in their
discussions of this issue with those not sharing our point of view
I am writing this to clarify my brief comments on this subject delivered recently at the WIK conference. From some of the comments that I’ve heard, it is evident that I was misunderstood by some of the listeners. I apologize for not conveying my thoughts more thoroughly and for the concern that it may have caused.
I would like to begin by underscoring that my session was entitled “How to answer the Hardest Questions.” My remarks were not directed at the women in the room, but rather at those they teach.
It is imperative to know that the vast majority of the educated secular Jews that we are trying to reach fear that a commitment to Torah will condemn them to a life that will limit them in ways that are very basic to their identities. When differences in the roles of men and women are being discussed it must be made clear, that Torah absolutely believes in the equal value of both. It is a prerequisite to convey this idea and dispel any notion of misogyny. A clear statement of this is found in the Tanna Debei Eliyahu Rabba: מעיד אני עלי שמים וארץ, בין ישראל בין גוי, בין איש בין אשה, בין עבד בין שפחה, הכל לפי המעשה שעושה, כך רוח הקדש שורה עליו
In an age where women face no limitations to their intellectual advancement in the secular world, the question of why women are not Rabbis looms very large. We are obligated to formulate an approach that is true to Torah life and values, without alienating our brothers and sisters before we even get a chance to teach them the beauty of Yahadus.
Therefore, in responding to the concerns of secular people about the different values and lifestyles demanded by Torah Judaism, it is important to identify those that are absolutes and axiomatic, and those that are not. We should also be very cognizant that there are different, appropriate and legitimate hanahgos that have always existed and continue to exist currently in our Torah community.
Our objective as mekarvim is to convey the beauty of Torah living, and to make our brethren aware of the wonderful enhancement that Torah would bring to their lives as well as to the rest of Hashem’s briah. Our goal is first and foremost that they should live as Jews, which means keeping Shabbos, Kashrus, Taharas Hamishpacha and so forth. To this end, wherever there is room within Halacha and our Hashkafa to make things less alienating and more palatable for them, we have an obligation to do so. These concepts form the foundation upon which my answers were formulated.
The following is a review and expanded version of what I said at the conference.
1. With respect to the issue of why women are not appointed as Rabbanim, I would explain that when a woman is patur/not obligated to perform a certain mitzvah, she couldn’t officiate and effectively represent her constituents in their obligation to fulfill that mitzvah. This will never change. I believe that this approach will not ruffle as many feathers. (Explaining correctly why women are patur is also important and needs research, but is not a topic for now.)
2. I would also explain the very great value placed on Modesty and avoidance of situations that can cause otherwise upstanding people to lose their moorings. Women do lead men in many areas of secular life, and unfortunately there needs to be anti-sexual harassment legislation to ensure that the work environment remains safe. We have a strong commitment to keep our spiritual and religious areas free of these tensions.
The segment of my presentation that seems to have generated the most confusion was my all too brief comments regarding women and Psak Halacha. Let me expand on what I have said.
a) On the one hand, there are straightforward everyday questions whose answers are recorded in reliable Halacha sefarim, or taught by one’s Rabbanim, teachers and parents. Women answering these kinds of questions are an everyday reality. One can become well versed in these areas and the more knowledgeable one is about all things Jewish, the more they function as a guide and mentor.
b) On the other hand, there are questions that are complicated, entirely unique, relate to individual situations or have any number of variables involved and must be dealt with on a one- to- one basis. To answer these questions requires a Posek with an extensive knowledge of the whole gamut of Jewish legal writings. To develop an expertise on this level requires many long years of rigorous training, tests, apprenticeship, long-term dedication and constant immersion in the law. Therefore, most people are not qualified to answer such questions and will refer questioners to Poskim who are.
c) I briefly said that Orthodoxy has not developed and trained women to be these sort of poskim and that women traditionally have not been systematically trained for this task It is important to stress that the intelligence of women is not the issue here. To say that it is to a secular person is a sure way to alienate them at the gate.
We see women advancing and even out-pacing men in, for example, universities, professional careers and academic research, and there is no doubt that they are capable of great intellectual achievement
We may not be aware that there were unique women who did function in this type of capacity although admittedly, it was the exception rather than the rule*. It would be fair to consider this in the light of the fact that in the past, women were barely educated in general and that today that has changed enormously.
It is correct to explain that the issue here is one of priorities as a woman’s responsibility for her family and children are of the utmost importance. Raising a family is very demanding biologically, physically, emotionally and intellectually. In addition, a woman’s contribution to her family both in the quality and quantity of time is crucial. It would be helpful to explain how our Yeshivos work, how Gemara is the main subject taking up almost all of the students’ time from 7th grade onward. This is not the course of study for girls due to our preferring to give them a well-rounded education, which is very helpful for being a good mother. An all-consuming career for women is antithetical to the centrality of family life.
At the same time, we should explain that women have always played crucial roles in managing the varied and demanding social, spiritual, and educational needs of the Jewish communities, and that women are expected to obtain and are admired for their Jewish Knowledge.
As I stated above, Halachic mandates that differentiate between males and females in mitzvot will never change, and the requirements of Tznius will never change. At the same time the possibility for women to receive training in a specific area of law, particularly the area of women’s issues may be good news for a secular woman and it is not a wholly new development. Kallah teachers and Rebbetzins have been doing this always. It also may be of substantial benefit to a woman who may opt to avoid the discomfort of discussing intimate issues with her Rabbi. A female intermediary who provides anonymity and guidance in these sensitive areas is often very helpful. If the title “yoetzet” implies someone trained at a particular institution, then I didn’t mean it that way. I am in no position to endorse or condemn those students, as I do not know the program personally. I was using that term generically.
Torah True Judaism is not rigid and calcified. One hundred years ago, before Sara Shneirer came along, women were never formally taught Torah at all. She faced great opposition but she understood that the times had changed and new strategies were needed to ensure that the masses of alienated women of her time could find strength, not weakness, in Torah.
Please feel free to call me to discuss any further aspects of what we discussed at the session, I would also love to hear other approaches to this topic and would be pleased if you would share them with me.
516 526 2096
* These would include amongst others:
The grandmother of the Maharshal who taught Torah to Yeshiva students - as he writes in his teshuvos.
The granddaughter of the Maharal, The mother of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, The mother of Rabbi Yisroel Salant, the daughter of R' Shmuel ben Eli (12th century Gaon in Baghdad)
Esther Wein has over 20 years of experience as an educator. She offers ongoing classes to adult women on both the weekly Torah portion and Prophets, in Lawrence, where she lives with her husband and children. Her class on the Torah portion can be heard via podcast weekly on ou.org radio and TorahAnytime.com.