Sunday, July 25, 2010

What Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism have in common

A couple weeks ago, news broke that the Catholic church had ruled ordaining a woman an offense punishable by immediate excommunication, putting it in the same category as sexual abuse.  I think it's clear to most that the Catholic church has a woman problem.

But, I think it's equally evident that Orthodox Judaism has a woman problem, and one that doesn't get nearly as much ink, perhaps because Orthodox Judaism is so much smaller of a movement than radical Islam and Catholicism.  Moreover, despite those rumors of a "Jewish establishment," unlike Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism has no single governing body that dictates its tenants.  That doesn't mean some factions of Judaism are any less virulently anti-woman than the worst of the Catholic church.  In fact, echoes of the very same "ordaining a woman is the gravest crime anyone could possibly commit" attitude were evident in a recent NYMag piece on an Orthodox rabbi doing just that, ordaining a woman, Sara Hurwitz (right),  who had completed all of the requirements for becoming an official spiritual leader and religious teacher.
Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a revered scholar at YU widely known as the foremost authority on Halacha in the United States, raised eyebrows at the RCA [Rabbinical Council of America] convention when he reportedly put the ordination of women in the category of yehareg ve’al ya’avor, a tenet that literally suggests one should opt for death before violating the law, used by rabbis when referring to acts that are absolutely impermissible. “He believes that it is a slippery slope that will lead to the breakdown of traditional Judaism,” explains Marc B. Shapiro, an expert on Orthodoxy.
This is only one individual, but this sentiment seems so clearly ludicrous, it deserves highlighting.  As with the Catholic church's declaration, I have to ask, how can a victimless crime be worthy of such grave punishment?  How can treating a woman as an equal be so blasphemous that one should die before doing it?  The Jewish Star has more on the specifics of the RCA's objections to Hurwitz's ordination:
“These developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah, and must be condemned in the strongest terms. Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox,” said the statement, whose signatories included Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky and Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe.
Their principal objection is based on tznius, modesty, in the understanding of Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudah’s director of public policy.
“Tznius isn’t a mode of dress. It includes the idea that women are demeaned and not honored when they’re put in the public eye and put on a pedestal. The position he [Weiss] has created violated the concept,” Shafran said. Whether the ordination violates a specific halacha (Torah law), is unimportant, he explained. “Putting a woman in front of a group of men and women on a regular or ad-hoc basis is violative of tznius"
That's right, the prohibition of women being spiritual leaders in the Orthodox community comes from a fundamental belief in female "modesty"--essentially that women should be at home, not out in society, and not interacting with (tempting) men.  Many Orthodox congregations offer few outlets for spiritual study for women, almost all segregate them during services, and few allow them to perform spiritual duties.  At a Jewish wedding I recently attended, an Orthodox friend of the bride quipped that although dancing was traditionally segregated at Orthodox weddings, the women "have much more fun" because they actually know how to dance, since the men are too busy studying all day to learn.  This is what the practices of segregation and limitation of learning do to women within the Orthodox community--it reduces them to inconsequential creatures who have "fun" while the men read.  One friend told me that Orthodox men often remark how un-serious women are, since they gossip on their side of the partition during services.  Cut off from their opportunity to learn and participate, what else are they to do? 

Rabbi Weiss wanted a way for women to become true members of a spiritual community, and achieve religious knowledge and enlightenment.  He started women's prayer groups, worked to educate women in the Torah, and, yes, eventually decided one of those women had achieved a high enough level of study to be called Rabba. I think his purpose in doing so was two-fold.  First, he wanted to recognize the achievement of one Jewish scholar (who happened to be female), and, if we're being honest, to try to push the Orthodox community toward liberalization.  But secondly, I think he realized that by giving his community a female spiritual leader, and by showing that a woman could achieve such a high level of religious scholarship, he would open the curtain of his congregation to include women as true members with valid religious as well as home lives.  He would make the women of his congregation visible.

As strongly as I feel that women should be allowed to participate in spiritual study and sacred rites, it is difficult to argue with the religious beliefs of others.  I don't believe in reincarnation, and yet I waste little time trying to talk others out of it.  What makes the treatment of women different, I suppose, is that I feel it actively hurts and oppresses people.  To what degree they are party to their own oppression is up for debate, but asking one to choose between her religion and her equality is a hard bargain indeed.  The fact of the matter is that certain segments of Islam, Judaism, and Catholicism (and other parts of Christianity) actively place women in an inferior position, and a primary weapon they use to do this is the restriction of their right to religious learning and practice.  Both the Catholic church and radical Islam get a lot of press for their treatment of women.  When will we turn the same critical eye to Orthodox Judaism?

Editor's note: I recognize that not all Orthodox congregations, and generally not modern Orthodox, fall under this umbrella, and that many actively promote the participation of women in spiritual matters.  I would be very interested to hear from anyone who considers herself a feminist in an Orthodox Jewish community, and how she reconciles the two.


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  2. Strong feminist in a very orthodox and not terribly modern world.

    We live a considerably traditional life here in Israel and yet the movement of powerful women deamed religious authorities has become unmistakable. Slowly, quietly and with the utmost modesty, women have begun to claim roles that within a traditional framework simply never existed. The key to understanding women in traditional roles is that you can't modernize them from outside, imposing or assuming that their lifestyles inhibit them, but rather the change and progression as a social group happens as an act of self determination. Most of outside pressure from progressive Jewish women misses the point that within the religious society, women are capable of creating change for themselves.

    There is actually a lot of wiggle room in traditional Judaism as there are no prohibitions against women studying Torah and so on, but rather they are not commanded to in the same way as men are. The traditional role of a woman has clearly been in the home, with the family. But as of late Rabbis have ruled that a modern religious woman who works in fields such as law or medicine (anything outside the home) is also obligated to know as much religious law as a man working in the same field. It has now become her obligation to be fully versed in a new world of theology and law by virtue of her changed role in interacting with the world.

    Again wiggle room. Religious laws (Commandments) within Judaism don't change, that's the basis for a belief system with a concept of eternal truth. A commandment is eternal, but I think there are many people who are themselves Jewish and fairly well informed about their practices who would be a bit shocked to unravel a few practices which are really just handed down rulings from very specific instances that may or may not be applicable today.Rabbinic rulings are in constant debate and renewal, they can be changed.

    Overall, Judaism has a constant tone of separating one thing from another. Not merely right from wrong but man from woman, parent from child, works from rest and so on. The union of all those separations in balance are where people choose to find their sense of a overriding harmony (or perhaps a supreme).

    While some laws or customs seem from the outside to banish women to the periphery, one really has to investigate a bit deeper to see if the opposite isn't true. IE Do I cover my hair when traveling in the Middle east because a). I am being subjugated by "the man" or b). am I given a new social position with respect and distance as a married woman because of what I choose to outwardly present to the world?

    It's not simple and the debate rages on in the most quiet and even modest ways, but I wouldn't mistake traditional woman as being backwards and victim to their male surroundings. Sometimes the quiet and simple victories of humanity pass unnoticed by the crowd, but the women who have impacted this change have in essence chaged the entire world with their modest actions from within the system.

    -I am a wife, mother, artist and director of an all mens religious college in an ancient fortress city on the sea. I listen to GWAR and Dar Williams in equal amounts and live in that rare space where there is balance between the seperation of those things.

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  4. @Sara
    Thanks so much for your comment. I heard echoes of your perspective in the quotes from other Orthodox women who opposed Hurwitz's ordination, saying they preferred to change things gradually from the inside. I certainly do believe it is possible to be an Orthodox women who feels no need to choose between her feminism and her faith, and rather has found--and lives in a community that allows--a balance between the two. However, from my experience with some Orthodox communities in the US, I also believe it is possible to live among men who dismiss women as frivolous creatures incapable of learning, in need of protection, and inherently dangerous in their femininity.
    If Rabbinic law can be wrong, might the one that prohibits women from becoming spiritual leaders be in need of change?
    You are right, though, that I give the women themselves too little credit. I believe that they can make their own future. But only if they learn enough to know that something else is possible.


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