Monday, December 17, 2007

women rabbis, tefila groups and the conflict betweem moral sensibility and halacha

Reading much of the blogging done last week about women rabbis brought to my mind a fascinating din in hilchos tumas tzara’as. Tzara’as must be declared impure by a kohein. A strange situation can occur where a talmid chacham sees a nega and knows exactly what the halacha is, but must go to a kohein, who might be an am ha’aretz, in order to have the proper declaration made (see Rashi VaYikra 14:35). While various achronim find this din perplexing (see the Parashas Derachim’s discussion), it would seem that some modern minds don’t quite grasp that there is a kashe to ask. Thus, it troubles them not that a women who might have spent years studying hilchos niddah (just as an example) and be fully proficient in its intricacies is expected to ask her shaylos to her local Rabbi who may be less knowledgeable than herself. It troubles them not that a highly trained professional is not entitled to dispense advice of a binding final-word nature, but must defer to someone else simply because she is of the wrong gender.

What is especially fascinating is the attitude of the MO camp (for lack of a better label) on this issue. Imagine a student who spends years in medical school studying, who passes his exams with flying colors, who shows all the capability of being a promising doctor and doing great good. What would we expect the reaction of such a person to be if when it came time for the residency program to begin and for all that study to be put into practice they were told that they cannot continue further and are barred from the practice of medicine; they were told to continue studying and doing research, but to expect no papers to be published, expect to not be taken seriously by peers in the field, expect to be accused of pursuing medicine for false motives and under questionable pretenses rather than for the goal of doing good? This is exactly the situation that has been created by those who will not question the heter of R' Soloveitchik to teach women gemara, as kvar horah zakein, but fail to provide any opportunity for women to use that learning for practical good or appreciate why they should want to do so.

The questions of women’s tefilah groups, rabbis, and what-not are matters of halacha and need poskim with insight and sensitivity to guide us to answers, answers which must be more than an exercise in seeking a "Rabbinic way"to arrive at some predetermined conclusion. I am not in this post tackling the halachic parameters of these issues. I am, though, questioning the attitude of those who dismiss these questions as trivial, question the motives of those who raise them, or who offer pat answers that read value statements into what may be the realm of gezeiras hakasuv. I doubt anyone would say that halacha takes a lesser view of talmud Torah or talmidei chachamim simply because the psak of nega must be made by a kohein and not a talmid chacham. Why then have some come to the conclusion that because women cannot be Rabbis it means the Torah rejects equality as a value?

What amazes me is hearing the argument by those who otherwise identity with MO that since certain feminist concerns originate in secular society and not Torah, they are automatically to be rejected. Doesn’t the whole concept of Torah u’Mada according to any of its definitions direct us to incorporate the positive values of the external world into our framework of Torah life? And what values are we speaking of? Feminism as a sociological and philosophical movement is multi-faceted, and to dismiss all its appects in one broad stroke is simply wrong. We certainly accept the value of kavod ha’adam and kavod habriyos as validating the worth of all people- these are not external values, but at the core of Torah itself. Is a woman’s quest for spirituality any less significant because of her gender?

Halachic answers must be followed whether or not they are in concert with our modern sensibilities of equality. But that being said, where answers do not conform to what we see as fair and just, it does not mean we must dismiss our questions, our groping for better answers, our discomfort at what we perceive to be a conflict. Halacha is perhaps unique in that religious rapture must be channeled through a precisely defined system, which may dampen those very feelings of religious exuberance which sustain commitment. Accepting the halachic answer does not make that challenge any less real or meaningful.

There is a pervasive sense that moral discomfort in the face of G-d’s command is itself a pgam in one’s religiosity. There is a smug, dismissive attitude toward those who raise these issues, a sense that their questions are indicative of a lesser commitment to avodas Hashem, their yiras shamayim is deficient, as sense that their motives must be tainted and impure. (Undoubtedly this post will be read by some in the same way). I cannot see how such an attitude can be reconciled with statements like these made by R’ Ahron Lichtenstein:
When there is a conflict between the tzav and the moral order, what do we do about it?...The message of the akeida is clear: God’s command takes precedence, in every respect, over our moral sensibility and our conscientious objections… On the other hand, as those who do seek to ingrain moral sensitivity in ourselves and in our children, we need not dismiss the ambivalences, the difficulties and contradictions (at the initial level, surely)....We need not dismiss the wrestling and grappling as being a reflection of poor yirat Shamayim, of spiritual shallowness, or of a lack of frumkeit. Inasmuch as goodness itself is an inherent component of frumkeit, the goodness which is at the root of the problems, struggles and tensions is itself part of yirat Shamayim—and a legitimate part. If the sense of moral goodness is legitimate, then the questing and the grappling are also legitimate.
Some have used the fact that women’s tefila groups lack the distinctive kedusha of a minyan as a reason to call for them to be disbanded. Strange that if a group calls itself an "Amein group" it can meet every morning for Shachris and is touted as a great thing, but call it a tefila group and it suddenly is wrong. But to address the point more directly, is not satisfying the needs of women not itself a worthy value? A gemara comes to mind: lo mipnei she'smicha b'nashim elah la'asos nachas ruach l'nashim. The act of smicha on a korban as no spiritual value whatsoever if done by women, but Chazal permitted it because it gave 'nachas ruach' (Chagiga 16b). Again, I am not suggesting a halachic conclusion, but simply noting that the issue needs study and we should not be quick to make value judgments.

The only agenda that religion should serve is avodas Hashem - not -isms of any sort. To a certain degree the Orthodox feminist movement has shot itself in the foot by allowing itself to be identified with a broad constituency that we would only be kidding ourselves to think has lishma and avodah at heart. But, there are those who do. Last week we read a lot about the response to those that don’t. Where is the response to the others? What opportunities can we extend to these women to inspire our communities? What role do we expect them to take, what role do we allow them to take? How can we show that we value and esteem their religious efforts? Telling people what can’t be done should be accompanied by some thoughtful answers to questions like these. But first you need to respect these concerns as real and legitimate, and I don't know if we have come that far yet.

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