Debate On Women’s Roles In Orthodoxy Yields Dramatic Moments
11/23/2010 - 10:33
Gary Rosenblatt

The dramatic highlight of a debate held Saturday night in Toronto on “The Changing Role of Women in Judaism” – really, Modern Orthodox Judaism -- came when Rahel Berkovits, a Talmud scholar in Israel, tearfully recounted the utter failure of her efforts to engage several leading Israeli rabbinic authorities in discussing with her halachic issues of female participation in wedding ceremonies and other rituals.

She said the manner in which she was rebuffed by Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, a prominent rosh yeshiva, “made me feel like I was not part of Am Yisrael [the Jewish people],” said Berkovits, who made aliyah from the U.S. and lectures on Talmud, halacha and the status of women in Judaism at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

She related similar experiences with other rosh yeshivas.

Berkovits wondered aloud whether a man posing the same questions would have been treated as rudely, to which fellow panelist Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Frimer, who opposes women being called to the Torah, said he has no problem discussing these issues with leading rabbinic sages.

That seemed to prove Berkovits’s point.

In an emotional and deeply personal response to a question about how she defines the parameters of Orthodoxy, she said she has found it “very painful” to be unable to talk to rabbinic decisors on a serious level, having thought, naively, that “if women showed how serious we are” about the observance of halacha, rabbis would be more open to wider female participation.

“If Orthodoxy is just looking over your shoulder and worrying [about being marginalized by those on the religious right], then I’m not Orthodox,” Berkovits said. “I believe in halacha, and the eternity and truth of the Torah. But I make my own choices” about what she believes to be moral and principled.

The debate, which focused on an Orthodox community in conflict over women’s changing roles in areas like partnership minyanim and the rabbinate itself, was sponsored by Torah In Motion, a Toronto-based group that holds frequent, live web casts on topics of particular interest to Modern Orthodox Jewry.

In addition to Berkovits, the panelists were Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber, an Israeli scholar who elaborated on his extensive work that finds women should be allowed to be called to the Torah on halachic grounds; Rabbi Frimer, a professor of chemistry, who countered Rabbi Sperber’s claims and insisted that the great majority of halachic opinion is opposed to aliyahs for women; and Dr. Rivkah Blau, a longtime principal of yeshiva high schools for girls in the New York area, who cautioned against change in advancing women’s ritual roles until rabbinic authorities approve.

At one point in the more than two-hour discussion, Blau said that very few women – probably no more than 1,000 in the world -- are interested in pushing the halachic boundaries of participation in synagogue life and rituals, and Rabbi Frimer said she was “1,000 percent correct,” adding that feminists should not “try to mold Judaism” in their image.

He said halachic authorities must be consulted, “and sometimes the answer is `no.’”

Berkowitz maintained that no one is insisting on change across the board, and that halacha is not black or white but has room for conflicting opinions.

She asserted that “many women feel very disconnected” from synagogue rituals that exclude them, and change is needed to keep them active in observant life.

Rabbi Sperber agreed, saying that “if we didn’t accommodate these women, they would be leaving the Orthodox community.”

The issue is “not about numbers, but about sensitivity to a segment of our community,” he said, adding: “I don’t see myself as a feminist, but as a halachaist” who believes it is important “to permit that which is permitted.”

He and Rabbi Frimer, who clashed most directly in their remarks, insisted that they remain good friends and will go on debating the issue.

For those seeking change in their lifetime, that no doubt provides little comfort.

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Rabbi Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg is one of the most considerate people I have ever met. Here is but one example: While giving a lecture on Jewish medical ethics, that was running a bit behind schedule, he kept checking his watch, and his cell phone, and in the midst of his talk excused himself and placed a call. After the lecture, he rushed down the narrow street to a major intersection. Curious as to what was going on, I caught up with the sage and politely asked him to explain. It turns out that Rabbi Goldberg was worried that the taxi driver sent to pick him up was being inconvenienced, so he called the driver to ask the driver's permission to speak a bit longer than scheduled. He was rushing to the major intersection to meet the driver there, so the driver would not be inconvenienced by having to fit his taxi through the narrow streets of this area of Jerusalem to pick up the sage in front of the building where he had given the lecture.

There are a myriad of such stories.

I do not believe that Rabbi Goldberg's actions were at all inappropriate and i suspect the way this person acted prompted his response.

Wow that convinces me. What a great guy! That's proof for me. Let's all just take your word for it and dismiss the rantings of just one of those crazy feminists because wow that story proves that he is such a Gadol. Boy oh boy in the face of absolute proof how could we not be swayed. Are you kidding. That's how you evaluate serious issues based upon an apocryphal story that you heard third hand. Sadly this is not the first time I've encountered solid proof of this nature. It rises to the level of a "neu schoen" or "we don't do that" with no rational explanation.

Well, this just goes to show: Never trust anyone who claims to speak on behalf of the entire Jewish people.

Frimer and Blau both talk as if they have some kind of psychic knowledge about what's in the hearts and minds of all Jewish women everywhere. They so easily dismiss the expressions of women -- and men -- who are upset and dissatisfied, as if those people are some kind of strange aberration, not a real part of the Jewish people. The arrogance, obnoxiousness and myopia of their views belie their ingrained sexism.

Which is why, when someone like frimer gets up to speak and pretends to know something about women, all i can do is turn away. He does not know what women are thinking or feeling. All he knows is his own ego.

My experience is that most Modern Orthodox women, when asked whether they feel oppressed by prohibitions on their participation in leading davening, laining, etc, say, "oh no, I have no interest in doing those things, I'm glad not to have to go to shul on time, who wants to do all that?" These are women who are often high-powered professionals in their work lives - doctors, lawyers, bankers, executives. This is the price that Modern Orthodoxy pays -- that half its membership (the women) are taught to have "no interest" in avodas Hashem. They do not feel oppressed by the sexism of shul because they don't care enough about shul to care one way or the other about participating in it. In their work lives, of course, not one of these women would tolerate for a second the notion that they cannot fully participate the full responsibilities and powers of their professions. So that's Modern Orthodoxy: conformity in exchange for disengagement, apathy, and cynicism. Terrific. Inspiring. Zo Torah, ve-zo sechara.

Berkovitz studued atthe Shalom Hartman Institute where hartman himself allegedly held that no group, orthodox or not has a monopoly on interpreting torah. So it seems her agenda is to change halacha fundamentally. Some 'halachist".

Msk, in Orthodox Judaism, women are decisors on religion all the time. Running a proper kosher kitchen involves much more Halachic decision-making than most mens' activities. The people who are actually "interpreting Torah" -- adapting the system to new realities -- are the outstanding scholars who are recognized by the broad Orthodox community for their superior scholarship, creativity, and personal piety. In this, Orthodox Judaism is a strict meritocracy. R' Israel Meir Kagan was recognized for the outstanding work he produced without formal ordination (until he needed it for government forms). R' Shlomo Zalman Auerbach never had formal ordination, either. His erudite responsa spoke for themselves. (The title "rabbi" granted to every twenty-year-old who passes a test in Shulchan Aruch is an American concession to fill a pastoral need; Orthodox women can fill pastoral roles without such a title, and are probably better off without unnecessary rigid didactic requirements.) Thanks to figures like the Chafetz Chaim, R. Soloveitchik and many others, Orthodoxy now has the institutions of womens' learning in which a woman can possibly achieve the scholarship to prove herself in the realm of Halachic decision-making. Even if you disagree with their quality, the texts of Judaism are freely available to all. Let's see some real works of responsa from women that demonstrate a broad knowledge and comprehensive understanding of Shas and Poskim. Then, we can have a serious discussion.
The fact that the gedolim don't "engage' certain women on these issues does not prove Berkovitz's point. The gedolim know that these women have an agenda, which is to ultimately use our sages to change halacha to their desires and to reject rulings they disagree with. These women and many in modern orthodoxy also think that they or the rulings of their local rabbi (e.g. Avi Weiss or Haskel Lookstein) have the same authority as the gedolim.

I agree.

@Justin, Please. It is so petty and parochial to focus on semantics and compare a comment to fundamental Islam. "Above reproach" is a phrase used to prove a point. No human is perfect, clearly, but the idea is that she is bad-mouthing someone who is far more learned than she. Clearly, she doesn't know enough Halacha to see that she is showing herself to be a hypocrite.
Moshe Rabeinu wasn't "beyond reproach," and I doubt R' Zalman Nechima is either. Brilliant and renowned he may be, but the idea that any human being is beyond reproach echoes more of fundamentalist islam than anything related to judaism.