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Social Barriers, Not Halacha, Keep Orthodox Women From Rabbinate

There are no halachic problems with women becoming rabbis, and virtually no rabbinic functions that women cannot perform. So argued Dr. Hana Kehat last week at the inaugural Limmud Modi’in conference — a Jewish learning festival modeled on the famous Limmud conferences of England. Kehat, the renowned scholar and founder of the Orthodox feminist organization Kolech, spoke on a panel (along with yours truly) about the subject of Orthodox women rabbis.

“Women are already performing many of the ‘rabbinic’ functions,” she said. “There are poskot [arbiters of Jewish law] and religious pleaders, and of course teachers and counselors.” When asked about the issue of women serving as witnesses, which is prohibited by halacha, she replied, “The rabbinic courts have already found ways to accept women’s testimony. Even though that has nothing to do with the issue of leadership, it shows that the problem with women’s religious roles has nothing to do with halacha and everything to do with social barriers.”

Kehat reported that after she was invited to participate in Limmud Modi’in on the topic of women rabbis, she was asked by the editors of the religious-Zionism magazine Deot to write an article on the same subject for their current issue, entitled, “Collapse or renewal? On the authority, status, and quality of the rabbi.”

“They were about to go to print and realized they didn’t have anyone writing about gender,” Kehat recalled, “and they gave me about five days to write the article. But I did it.”

Typical, I thought. Women as an afterthought and women as tokens. Still, it’s better than the recent Rabbinical Council of America conference that dealt with the issue of women’s roles, and where not a single woman was invited to participate. Imagine a room full of men deciding the fate of an entire population of women. (Orthodoxy… ) And significantly, the De’ot issue has several non-Orthodox rabbis writing — as if to say, for Orthodox rabbis, dialogue with the non-Orthodox is easier and more acceptable than dialogue with women.

So our panel focused on political obstacles for religious women, social changes, and of course education. Kehat cited research on the radicalization of religious Zionist educational institutions, and on problematic messages that girls receive in school.

For me, the main obstacle to women’s advancement has to do with moral education. Religious Jews are discouraged from thinking independently and from making critical moral choices, I said. Where rabbinic authority is rendered as absolute, and personal sentiment is deemed irrelevant at best and taboo at worst, how can we expect kids to grow up able to distinguish right from wrong?

The issue of women’s equality, I said, has such a clear morality. It reminds me of when my children study the history of slavery in America, and they ask me, “How did people have slaves?” Today, 150 years on, the morality of slavery is absolutely clear — it’s wrong, period. I believe that in 150 years’ time (or perhaps sooner), the question of women’s equality will be similarly understood, and our great-great grandchildren will ask, “How did people keep women as second-class citizens?” I want my descendents to be proud of my choices.

In Orthodoxy, this issue is particularly troubling, because when posed with the question of, “How can we make such a poor moral choice and keep women as unequals?” the formal rabbinic answer is, “Well, it’s halacha.” That is really bad. If halacha is framed as a system that comes down on the morally wrong side, and demands blind submission, then we must wonder of what worth is halacha.

So it’s ironic, I said, but we have to work at weakening the power of rabbis in order to set the stage for women to take on these roles. We have to give people the skills, and the “permission” to think and feel for themselves and maybe even question the rabbinic party line.

The panel was an opportunity to connect recent events around women rabbis in North America with Israeli culture. The event was the brainchild of Ofira Krakover, coordinator of the Modi’in branch of Kolech, who told me, “Israelis for the most part have no idea what’s been happening with this issue in America.” That may or may not be true overall, but the leaders of Kolech are watching closely and quietly taking note. The issue of women rabbis was front and center at the 2009 Kolech conference, and the Israeli rabbinate did not utter a peep. “Maybe because it has no practical implication yet,” said Kehat.

Be that as it may, who knows, there may yet be a rabbinical school for Orthodox women in Israel even before there is one in America. There’s a race I look forward to witnessing.

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