The case for the evolution of gender roles in Jewish life.
This past week, Rav Hershel Schachter, eminent Torah scholar and leading figure at Yeshiva University, issued fighting words. The ordination of women as rabbis is such a serious infraction of Jewish Law, he insisted, that it technically falls under the rubric of “Yehareg Ve-al Ya’avor”—one should sooner be killed than violate the Law. Now, of course, I presume, Rav Schachter did not mean this literally, but only sought to express with the fullest rhetorical force available to him the absolute impermissibility according to halacha [Jewish law] of women functioning as-- let alone actually being called—rabbis.
One can recoil at Rav Schachter’s words and still be grateful to him for drawing an absolute line in the sand. The world of Jews committed to serving God through a life of Torah and mitzvot is divided between those who believe that gender roles are eternally fixed and immutable, and those who believe that new faces of Torah and halacha are revealed in every generation—as they must, if Torah is to remain a Torat Chaim, a Torah of life, dynamic and alive in every generation.
One can respect the integrity—not to mention the robust clarity-- of Rav Schachter’s position. But I wish to make one very fundamental point: the time is long past for Jews to assume that the forces of reaction are somehow “more authentic” or “more religious” than the forces of dynamism, responsiveness, and creativity.
For generations now, those arguing against Chiddush (innovation) in halacha have prided themselves on their insistence that conservatism is just about always the (only) authentic position. There is nothing particularly surprising about that.
But what is surprising—and not just surprising, but profoundly damaging for the prospects of Torah in the modern world—is that those who have argued for Chiddush out of passion and conviction that this is what God wants have largely conceded the point. And thus, countless Torah-observant Jews spend much of their time anxiously looking over their right shoulder, hoping against hope that those on the other side of Rav Schachter’s line will somehow confer legitimacy upon them.
It was Rabbi Chaim David Halevi, the late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, who insisted again and again in his Teshuvot (responsa) that Chiddush in every generation is not just permitted, but actually required. And it was Rav Chaim Hirschensohn, legendary scholar and prolific posek (legal decisor) who two generations earlier emphasized that there could in principle be no contradiction between Torah and the progress of civilization. Needless to say, not everyone will agree with eminent figures such as these. But they were not somehow “less religious” or “less authentic” than those who argued against any evolution or development in gender roles.
Was Rav Uziel, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel who believed passionately in women’s suffrage, somehow less committed to Torah and mitzvot than was Rav Kook, his Ashkenazic counterpart, who vociferously opposed it? In retrospect, which position seems wiser and more Torah-true? I need hardly add that when Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the eminent Orthodox scholar, embraced secular studies, women’s learning, and Zionism, there were many traditionalists who regarded these steps as unconscionable deviations from the straight path. And yet we would never countenance the notion that standing his ground rendered the Rav less authentic or religious than his critics. On the contrary, he is widely heralded today for having had the courage to act as he believed God required.
I am reminded of a striking passage in Midrash Sifre to Bamidbar (Numbers). Commenting on the story of the daughters of Zelophead (Numbers 27), the Midrash describes them as follows:
When the daughters of Zelophead heard that that the land was to be divided among the men and not the women, they gathered to confer together. “God’s compassion is not like the compassion of flesh and blood,” they reasoned. “Human beings show more compassion to men than to women, but the One who spoke and the world came into being is different—God’s compassion extends to men and women; God’s compassion extends to all, as it is stated, ‘the Lord is good to all, and His compassion extends to all His works.’”
In other words, Zelophead’s daughters stated clearly and confidently that one should not necessarily conflate prevailing social arrangements with the eternal, immutable will of God, for to do so is to underestimate God’s love and mercy, which extends to women as well to men. How does God respond? “Yes, Zelophead’s daughters are right” (Numbers 27:7). Sometimes those who seek to redress injustice are more in line with God’s will than those who seek to maintain the status quo. It is thus not despite of Torah but because of it that one of the crucial mandates of the hour is to create more opportunities and contexts for women’s voices to be heard in Jewish life.
In his translation-commentary to Bereishit (Genesis), Onkelos translates the phrase “living being” (nefesh chayah) as “speaking being” (ruah memalela) (Gen. 2:7). And in a justly famous essay, Rabbi Soloveitchik speaks of the inherent redemptiveness of a human being acquiring the power of speech. In light of all this, the time has come for those who want to hear women’s voices and who believe that greater roles for women in Jewish religious life are a sanctification of God’s name rather than a desecration thereof, to stop apologizing, kowtowing, and living in fear.
If you are committed to the view that women, who (thank God) now hold positions of leadership in law, medicine, academia, and every conceivable field of human endeavor, should also have greater roles in leading communities of Torah—whatever the pace of change you believe in—Rav Schachter has spoken clearly: there is an unbridgeable divide between your vision of Torah and mitzvot and his. A Torah at once vibrant and worldly, a Torah that can speak God’s word in every time and place, a Torah that believes that women’s emergence into positions of leadership and equality is a redemptive process of God’s image becoming more manifest in the world—let’s call is what it is: Torah-true Judaism.
To be clear: we shouldn’t be slaves to the present. There is much to criticize and even condemn in contemporary society, and Torah offers crucial correctives to much that ails us. But neither should we be slaves to the past, as if ancient social arrangements were the heart of God’s message to our broken world. The Torah has thrived in countless social and political settings, and it can continue to do so today. So let’s not apologize, but understand who we are and where we fall on the crucial question of Torat Chaim, a living Torah, a Torah of life.
Rabbi Shai Held is Rosh HaYeshiva and Chair in Jewish Thought at Yeshivat Hadar.
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