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The Truth About Modern Orthodox Jews and Gender

Elana Sztokman is a fabulous writer whose pieces are always an asset to The Sisterhood and the rest of The Forward (and I get a gold star for having made the shidduch). But in her new blog post, Jewish Feminists Launch RCA Protest, Elana gets a few important things wrong.

The first is that she calls the petition launched to convince the Rabbinical Council of America’s leadership that they should endorse women’s religious leadership a Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance campaign when it is not. In fact, the organization decided not to issue the petition itself and instead sent carefully-worded open letters to the RCA, stating:

Rather than engage in semantic discussions about whether or not it’s halakhic for a woman to become a rabbi, or make divisive statements about a woman’s role in Judaism, we urge the RCA to focus instead on finding new ways for this motivated group of learned women to thrive.

Why is it worded this way? Because JOFA’s leaders know that the RCA leadership is not going to endorse women as para-quasi-rabba-maharat-rabbis in any form, so JOFA is not wasting its credibility capital and calling for it. Instead, JOFA is asking for something that it can’t name and I’m sure the RCA can’t either: non-rabbinic ways to make use of the growing cadre of women who are highly educated in Torah, highly skilled as leaders, and highly motivated to use their abilities for the benefit of the Jewish people.

As of this posting, 894 men and women from Los Angeles to Englewood to Jerusalem have signed the grass-roots petition, which asks the RCA to ask its members to create positions of leadership for these women. It could easily reach 1,000 signatures by the time of the RCA’s convention, in Scarsdale April 25–27.

But I doubt it will make any difference except, perhaps, merit a mention at the RCA convention. It’s naïve to think that it can prompt significant change on this issue, because the RCA has long seemed tone deaf on a number of issues critically important to many Orthodox American Jews; conversion and its recent capitulation to the Israeli rabbinate on what constitute legitimate conversion standards, on the long-standing iggun crisis, and most recently, this issue of women’s leadership.

If moderate American Orthodox leaders applied their seichel to this issue, they would have long ago proactively addressed the issue of women’s advances in formal Torah learning – which is the basis for religious leadership – and the growing desire of women to occupy positions of influence and power within the synagogue context in both lay and professional roles. After all, it’s not new – Drisha’s Rabbi David Silber has been seriously educating women in advanced Torah for more than 30 years.

Are these gifted, skilled women supposed to remain content teaching high school girls? Except for the handful of quasi-rabbinic positions in modern Orthodox synagogues, they face a depressing professional dead end. But the RCA has been silent, at least publicly, on this issue and its leadership remains closed mouthed about its internal discussions.

As RCA vice president Rabbi Shmuel Goldin told me after the JOFA conference, they are taking it up at their upcoming conference, but it is not a part of the official program. I’ll be really surprised if anything but a resolution offering empty blandishments about Jewish women and leadership emerges from it.

Elana, in her blog post, also wrote that “through JOFA, women do have power and influence, and a very strong voice. JOFA is one of the few places in Orthodoxy where a woman’s voice can be heard and respected.” Unfortunately, I think she overstates the strength of JOFA’s voice. Yes, women’s voices are heard and respected at JOFA events, most importantly at their conferences. But these are voices preaching to the choir. After all, who comes to the conferences? Women and a few (though increasing number of) men who already think that women should be able to serve as leaders, in one formal role or another, in Orthodox institutions.

This is not to belittle JOFA in any way. It has been and continues to be a singularly important organization for two reasons: it brings steady pressure for the slow, incremental change which is the only kind possible in the American halachic world absent the presence of a great Torah scholar who is empowered to make change on important issues. The second reason for JOFA’s importance is that it galvanizes women and men who see that, whether the RCA recognizes it or not, change has come to modern Orthodox women in America, who expect to be able to apply their Torah learning.

Elana writes of the problem of Orthodox leaders being called no-longer-Orthodox when they publicly back women as Orthodox rabbis. Everyone, it seems — even Rabbi Avi Weiss, who I’d never before seen back down from an ideological fight — is afraid of being called non-Orthodox. The threat of ostracism and delegitimization are the cudgel successfully wielded by the right wing.

The truth is, of course, there is no one Orthodoxy anymore. As expansive as its boundaries may seem, haredi Orthodox Jews live in an almost different world than the Modern Orthodox.

If they are Haredi, for the most part, women demonstrate fealty to their rabbis and follow the narrow path permitted our gender both personally and professionally. Rich though that life may be inside the home and their community, roles for women outside the home are rigidly proscribed. For Modern Orthodox women there is a far wider range of styles of dress, professional accomplishment, family size and political perspective. In fact, the only commonality between the fervently Orthodox Jews of Boro Park and the modern Orthodox Jews of Park Slope that I can see is their observance of Shabbat and holidays. Even their kashrut differs: haredim require dairy products to be chalav Israel, while for the modern Orthodox an OU or the like is adequate.

Fact is, most of the people I met at the JOFA conference have more in common with my religious Conservative friends than they do my Haredi friends, in dress, worldview and most importantly, in the belief that Jews should be critical thinkers.

We’ll see what results come from the petition, JOFA open letter and the RCA conference. But with the growing number of women equipped for religious leadership in Orthodox environments, and what seems to be growing grassroots communal support for them, what the RCA does or doesn’t do may become increasingly irrelevant.

True, these women need jobs to apply their learning. To make that happen will take a handful of Orthodox rabbis with the courage of their convictions to give them those jobs. It will require courage on the part of even larger numbers of observant laypeople who believe that women have a contribution to make to the religious leadership of the Jewish community to not care what denominational label their rabbis and synagogues do or don’t have.


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