Sharp words recently exchanged in the Jewish corners of the internet are extremely revealing about the challenges facing my friends in modern Orthodoxy. And they clarify why I am a heterodox, if generally traditional Jew.
Rabbi Mordecai Willig, a senior figure at Yeshiva University, recently posted a d’var Torah in which he gave a full-throated defense of pre-modern Judaism’s gender hierarchy. Women are exempt from the command to study Torah (or say Shema and wear tallit & tefillin and the like) because they are “naturally more adept at raising children,” which is God’s real work for them. “Even if lifestyles change and women are able to arrange for others to care for their children,” the fundamental order is that “women are to be more private than men,” and should focus on the home.
The opening of Torah study to women a century ago, R. Willig argues, was at best a concession to Jews’ weakened faith. Women should study only as much as will augment their reverence. But too much Torah might encourage egalitarian ideas, like comparing their own intellectual pursuits to men, and desiring comparable social roles.
And now just look at what’s happened since! Left-wing Orthodox teachers are ordaining women “rabbis!” And there are even “egalitarian” “Orthodox” prayer services in “partnership” minyanim! R. Willig goes on to draw a direct line from there to accepting same-sex weddings and all kinds of “post-modern” heresies, all deriving from the mistaken “questioning of one exclusive and absolute truth.”
Given all this, he says, the time has come for the modern-ish Orthodox world where R. Willing lives to re-evaluate Torah learning for women, to reinstate discarded barriers and re-inforce age-old hierarchies, keeping women where they belong.
You might think I am mocking Rabbi Willig, or letting him be hoisted on his own reactionary petard. But actually, I think he is right to identify an
instability that modern Orthodoxy must confront.
At the core of R. Willig’s argument is the faith claim that Halakhah is not a product of human culture, but comes directly and changelessly from God. “We must study Torah with joy and humility,” he writes, “and not dare to change it or question its Divinity, morality or immutability.” Jewish norms are perfect the way they are, and the faithful cannot interrogate them based on ideas external to the Torah system, or hope they change.
That is precisely where we heterodox Jews turn “off the derekh,” and veer from the reactionary path. The whole point is not simply to conform to ancient ways. Received norms and values are deep and holy – and imperfect, because like every cultural product they bear the marks of imperfect human societies.
To Rabbi Willig, women’s exclusion from Torah study and public worship and leadership, their subjection to their husbands and fathers in matters like
marriage and divorce are not regrettable by-products of ancient patriarchy. They are God’s decrees.
From my perspective it is punkt fahrkert, exactly the opposite: those hierarchies are the residue of the ancient society whence they emerged, and should be stripped away as Judaism evolves.
Willig’s real audience in his Dvar Torah is not a Conservative rabbi like me. He is really assailing the “Open Orthodox” – that progressive element at Orthodoxy’s left edge. He wants liberals to answer for their attempts to square the circle, claiming to be Orthodox in belief and practice, yet also espousing genuinely transformative positions, especially about gender roles.
I admire Open Orthodoxy tremendously and count its leaders among my friends. But I think they are vulnerable to Willig’s argument, because some of their ideas really are un-Orthodox, in the best sense of the term. They would probably counter that the Torah contains within it the resources for its own renewal, that Torah is “an ever-flowing spring,” whose meanings are still being revealed. I guess I’m down with all that.
But there is a quantum difference between ancient rabbis saying that the Torah itself never meant for the law of the rebellious child to be practiced, and 21st century people saying that rabbinic leadership should be re-construed in unprecedented ways.
Gender egalitarianism is not merely a new possibility that emerges from Torah’s ceaseless spring. It is a critique and a challenge. It is our necessary heresy. No matter how scrupulously you observe Shabbat or Kashrut, if you think there is something fundamentally wrong with the gender hierarchy the Torah and the Sages prescribe, that’s a pretty un-Orthodox view. Thank God.
Earlier this summer, Haaretz ran a fine article on changes in left-wing Orthodox life in Israel, especially about gender roles. A small number of Israeli Orthodox women have ascended to positions of significant communal leadership and Torah scholarship, including some who live in highly traditional communities and who are not pushing the envelope on rabbinic titles or egalitarian prayer.
In that article, Prof. Benjamin Brown, a scholar of Jewish Thought at Hebrew University, himself religious, predicts a coming split between traditionalist and liberal sectors. Liberals like affirming their Orthodox bona fides, he said, for social reasons and because Orthodoxy is a “brand” that signals “authenticity.” Still, this association is at least partly disingenuous, Brown says: “The liberals should have crossed the lines and switched to the Conservative movement.”
People get to determine their own institutional labels, and I’m not for bullying people into one denominational category or another. But … yeah,
amen. Prof. Brown has a point. We non-Orthodox Jews are not merely faithless and lazy. (Ok, sometimes.) We actively affirm that “creative betrayal” can sometimes be holier that submission, and ultimately better for Judaism.
I admire that my Open Orthodox friends and colleagues do manifest that same heterodox spirit and are really changing the world for a new generation of observant women and men.
But I think Rabbi Willig’s challenge also forces them to answer where they really stand. R. Willig gets in their face in a helpful if aggressive way and asks: “So do you affirm or do you reject the basic rightness of sacred gender hierarchy, in which God demands different things of men and women?” I know that none of my friends would accept such a hierarchy in law firm, bank or hospital, university, lab or newspaper. Do they in Torah? For how long?