Saturday, July 25, 2009

Much Ado About Maharat

[I have held off on commenting on Rabbi Avi Weiss' creation of a clerical title for women. My reason for doing so was the desire to present it within a broader discussion of the halakhic and policy issues involved. Now that Rabbi Michael Broyde has published a thorough and thoughtful discussion of both, I feel free to simply state my personal feelings on the subject.]

A number of years ago, I had a long conversation with a very prominent Rosh Yeshiva, concerning certain initiatives whose aim was the establishment of Modern Orthodoxy in Israel. The Rosh Yeshiva, for whom I have tremendous respect, was less than enthusiastic about the long term impact of the initiative. His reason was, essentially, concern that it would be highjacked by radical elements such as those who advocate far-reaching changes in the liturgy and the structure of communal prayer.

I was somewhat taken aback by the intensity of his response. I replied that, personally, I am opposed to almost all of the liturgical innovations introduced by religious feminists (for example; the details will wait for another post). On the other hand, in my opinion, the most revolutionary change in Modern Orthodoxy was instituted, endorsed and advanced by מורי ורבי Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל namely providing women with a full Talmudic Education. It was here, I maintained, that the real sea-change was to be found. Compared to it, women's tefilla groups pale in significance.

My interlocutor responded with silence.

I have not changed my mind since then. We have, happily, trained our daughters and wives to learn Torah in the widest sense. This has not only deepened their devotion to God and Observance. We have all benefitted from their insights and interpretations. In addition, where frameworks have been created to alow them to use their hard earned knowledge, they have been a blessing to the entire community. In Israel, Rabbinic Pleaders (טוענות רבניות) have rescued innumerable women from the chains of abusive marriages. In Israel and abroad, Halakhic advisors (יועצות הלכה) have deepened observance of Taharat ha-Mishpaha, especially in those areas where women were uncomfortable asking men (with definitely negative results for their marriages). Where they have served as teachers for young brides, they have achieved a level of acceptance of Miqveh that is quite remarkable.

So, in light of these successes, I see no reason not to create a formal framework wherein learned women can spread Torah. Indeed, I believe that we owe them that.

On the other hand, I fully subscribe to Rabbi Broyde's caveat:

This does not at all mean that women need to be given the title “rabbi;” it could be, either for reasons of formal authority (serarah) being limited to men, or because the title “rabbi” is limited to people who can serve as witnesses or function as a chazan, or simply as a matter of tradition, a different title should be given. So too, this does not mean that training for women in the Orthodox clergy has to be identical to the training for men in the rabbinate -- women sometimes bring different pastoral approaches that require different training.

I would even sharpen his remarks. First, I think that the title Rabbi NOT be bestowed, not only for the cogent reasons that Rabbi Broyde notes. The pall-mall rush after the title 'Rabbi' smacks to me of an agenda-ridden feminism, and not (as must be the case) of a deep desire to serve God and Israel. An alternative title announces that women (as men) are ready to maximize their roles within the framework of the Law, but surrender to God's dictates when they reach that limit. To do otherwise would verge on idolatry. At best, it would be putting Tefillin on the statue of Apollo.

Shabbat Hazon marks the departure of God's Presence from amongst us. Creating a formal place for learned, Gof-fearing women as כלי קודש would be a step to inviting Him back.


Risa said...

OK, so you don't call them 'Rabbi' or 'maharat' or whatever. How do you suggest creating this formal place for God-fearing women?

Ben Bayit said...

I don't see how you can view the toanot rabbaniot in that context. Many years ago in Israel there was a big push for women who wanted to learn torah shebaal peh to be toanot rabbani who are licensed to advocate in the rabbinical courts. halevai there would have been more rabbis like Rabbi Broyde who would have told such women to go to law school instead. Encouraging women to become toanot IMHO bordered on onaat mamon on the part of the Rabbanim that encouraged this course of study for women. Everyone in Israel knows that a toen rabbani is limited in what s/he can do - and many issues related to divorce (especially child support) are under the SOLE jurisdiction of the civil courts, thus rendering a rabbinical court pleader ineffective in representing their client. It was a feminist agenda that pushed these women into toanot programs. Today many have them have gone on to get law degrees - as well as get a more "balanced" perspective on divorce in Israel. A survey was once done on some of the original toanot and found that nearly half their clients were the man, not the woman in a divorce.

Today, many younger religious women just go straight into law school and only then do some toanot study if they want to specialize in family law (and frankly many of them going into this profession prefer getting licensed as mediators rather than as toanot - also a more practical and useful professional accreditation). A program like the new midrasha at shaarei mishpat law school which combines Jewish learning and legal studies, or the midrasha program at Bar-Ilan which is alongside all of Bar-Ilan's programs including the Law School, is much more effective in many ways than the toenet rabbani program.

frankly, even american women who want to study torah shebaal peh and have good professional credentials should be encouraged to go to these program. It is a bachelor's degree that can be used to go onto advanced studies as well as professional licensing (even in the USA as most states - certainly NYS - will admit graduates of Israel Ll.B programs into the bar without the need for additional academic studies as Israel is a common law state)