Since the Rabbinical Council of America voted to pass a resolution opposing any sort of ordination for women in the Orthodox world, Jews of all denominations have been talking past each other. For some, the granting of ordination to women and their hiring as clergy are developments not only long overdue, but also sensible, fair and just. For others, these shifts threaten traditional Judaism and portend the collapse of the world.
You might wonder: for Orthodox Jews, should this not simply prove a question of whether or not the practice is permitted or forbidden by Jewish law? Sure, we anticipate passionate disagreement, but we might have expected more in the way of reasoned arguments in good faith. And yet, too often we see people unable to communicate with each other in any sort of meaningful way.
To understand these dynamics, I recommend turning to an expert expositor of social and moral psychology, NYU professor Jonathan Haidt, author of the groundbreaking 2012 book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” A self-professed secular, liberal Jew, Haidt might find it odd to be placed in a room amongst quarreling Orthodox Jews, feuding over the boundaries of Orthodoxy. Or, given the insights he and his colleagues have garnered from years of fieldwork and investigation across cultures and continents, he might not feel so out of place after all.
In his book, Haidt describes six dimensions of morality: fairness/cheating, care/harm, liberty/oppression, authority/subversion, loyalty/betrayal, and sanctity/degradation. He argues that political liberals tend to acknowledge only the first three of these as moral realms, while viewing the others as outside the moral universe. Only conservatives view the maintenance of authority, loyalty, and sanctity as moral goods and obligations, as well as subverting authority, betraying people and traditions, and degrading purity and sanctity in the world as moral crimes.
Conservatives, in a sense, inhabit a much richer moral world, encompassing all six dimensions. Liberals find it difficult to fathom such a world.
Armed with Haidt’s contextualizing insights, we can reconsider the current controversy over women’s ordination in terms of different and contrary takes on the proper boundaries of the moral universe.
For those in favor of women’s ordination, the moral question is fundamentally one of fairness: If, over a period of years, a woman masters the same rigorous course of study undertaken by a man, and passes the same set of qualifying exams, what reason could there be to refuse her recognition similar to that bestowed upon the man? If she is also educated in pastoral counseling and perhaps fundraising and other skills, why should she not become eligible to serve a community as a member of the clergy? And in terms of the care/harm dimension of morality, who would suffer harm from that?
For those opposed to women’s ordination, there are certainly efforts to mount reasoned halachic arguments — largely based on three issues: requirements of modesty, women not holding certain public positions of authority, and the historical roots of the institution of semicha (rabbinic ordination) — but others have countered these arguments, and some say there has been no decisive halachic refutation of the position in favor of ordination.
So, the opponents often turn to arguments outside of Jewish law, arguments about tradition and authority. They characterize women’s ordination as a violation of millennia of tradition. And they see women’s ordination as arising out of modern, feminist values, values they characterize as external to the tradition and as being smuggled in to betray it. Even if Jewish law on its own would permit the ordination of women, the mesorah — the tradition passed on from generation to generation — trumps this. A 2013 RCA statement responding to the ordination of women at Yeshivat Maharat asserts, “The RCA views this event as a violation of our mesorah and regrets that the leadership of the school has chosen a path that contradicts the norms of our community.”
The opponents of women’s ordination often elide the conceptual distinction between halacha and hashkafa, between law and ideology, granting authority for both to a small group of top rabbis. To disagree with these rabbis and their understanding of tradition and ideology is often branded as heresy.
Now, let me be clear: This outlook is shared as self-evident by many, likely a majority of Centrist and Haredi Orthodox Jews, so it cannot be dismissed as absurd. And maybe this is exactly the point — many see the ordination of women as an assault on tradition and authority, as a moral trespass, as something threatening their ordered universe. In the words of Rabbi Eliyahu Safran, “We do not grant women semicha because Zeide didn’t. It has not been in our mesorah.” In other words, if Grandpa did not do this, and if the rabbis I see as authoritative dismiss it, then we ought not to do it. And if your rabbis disagree, well they should listen to my rabbis, who possess greater learning and authority.
Meanwhile, as per Haidt’s framework, the more “liberal” forces within Orthodoxy continue to see women’s ordination as a matter of justice and fairness, and therefore fail to understand how their opponents can view this all as a major threat and moral disaster. The more “conservative” forces within Orthodoxy remain dumbfounded at how their opponents cannot see the glaringly obvious moral peril.
A lesson we can learn from Haidt is that we can and need to do much more to understand the moral and theological universe of those with whom we disagree. We might even hold a forum on the topic of the moral dimensions of authority and tradition — and invite the secular Jonathan Haidt to serve as moderator for the event.
Alan Krinsky is a writer and healthcare analyst whose essays have appeared in Jewish Action, South Africa’s Jewish Life, Conversations, The Jewish Press, The Providence Journal, The Huffington Post and The Forward.