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.
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.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?
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"
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.