If Fiddler on the Roof taught us anything, it’s that being rich is good and that ancient traditions have uncertain value. The modern orthodox community has fully embraced the former, while outright rejecting the latter. It’s circular reasoning at its chicken-egg best. Those who consider rabbinical tradition to be sacrosanct will perpetuate it at all cost. Those who are not so certain are, well, not so certain. Some traditions are more equal than others. Not eating legumes on Passover, for example, does not cause any pain or suffering and honest people can debate its value. Wearing a kippah in public can be dangerous but few realize it’s more custom than tradition. Try telling that to the head-covering European Jews getting attacked in the streets of Paris. They seem to think the kippah custom carries some sort of implicit obligation to risk bodily harm.
This week, the RCA and Agudah reminded us that women cannot be rabbis or anything that sounds like rabbi. They cannot even be rabbits lest the public be confused by the title.
I have listened to good people (and not so good people) on both sides of the divide stake their ground in blogs and on social media. Each has scored points.
Here is an important one: every single time, throughout history, that a movement of Jews attempted to relax or disregard the tradition, they have lost the battle for religious propagation. Say what you want, Orthodoxy has the highest retention rate of affiliated Jews than any other group. Reform Judaism has lost more than half its population to intermarriage and assimilation. This is nothing new. We lost 10 of 12 tribes to Assyrian influence. The value inherent in tradition and the uncompromising adherence to law is precisely that it disallows wiggle room for those looking for ways to introduce practices that are inconsistent with core, defining Jewish identifiers.
I hate to admit it, but this makes sense to me.
The debate, however, lacks a certain intellectual honesty. The role of women in Judaism is not divinely ordained. Neither God nor the Torah ever pronounced, implicitly or impliedly, that Women are restricted in any way. Indeed, the only clear message to be extrapolated from the Torah is that women can own and inherit land, secure the future of the Jewish People, have day jobs, decide who to marry without outside interference, cry out if raped by a man, and dance and sing in public in celebration of God.
God truly was thousands of years ahead of his time with respect to women’s rights. These concepts were considered radical just 25 years ago!
So, who decided that women cannot be rabbis? Is it the same people who eloquently penned the morning prayer for men in which we thank God that he did not create us as women? Is it the same people who prohibited public singing by women, looking at their naked hair, being alone with them, letting them put on tefillin, act as witnesses? The ones who excused them from performing most mitzvoth because, gosh, they are so busy washing dishes and raising the children, how can they be expected to pray like a man?
Ask yourself this simple question: do these rules sound like a GOD – – who specifically let us know that he created woman to be man’s equal? Or do they sound like the words of male rabbis living 2000 years ago when women had no rights, no vote, no say, no jobs, and were very busy washing dishes and raising children? (did I say 2000 years ago? I meant 25 years ago).
I am not blaming the ancient Torah scholars for this. They lived during an era where they were confronted with the realities of the time. They made decisions that were practical and time-sensitive.
Nor, do I blame modern orthodox rabbis, who see the continuity of ancient traditions as critical to the future of the Jewish people.
But, let’s make the debate more honest. It’s not about God or the Torah. It’s not divine and it’s not real. You want proof? Ask the RCA or Agudah to come out with a proclamation that says that women are not as smart as men. Or capable. Or that they cannot understand intricate torah laws as well as man-rabbis. Ask them to confirm that women are inferior in any way to men. Find out if they are willing to go on the record with the belief that women cannot have a baby and counsel congregants about matters of great religious faith. Ask them about Nechama Leibowitz. Or Devorah. Or Bruriah (the woman, not the school). Or Queen Esther. Or Erica Brown.
We know how that inquiry ends. Either on the front page of every Jewish Newspaper or with the quiet admission that the restrictions on women are neither functional, practical, nor true. Now, that sounds like something with which God could agree.
Another celestial being, Captain Kirk, once said that “people can be very frightened of change.” He’s right. But it’s not for me to say which change is good and which is not. The heavy responsibility for ensuring the future of the Jewish People falls on the rabbis and I am happy to delegate that duty to them.
As long as they have the courage to admit that sometimes their decisions are not born from the word of God or strict adherence to the Torah but simply to avoid loosening standards that, however misguided, have worked for a long time. Without that, our lives would be as shaky as, well, as a fiddler on the roof.
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