Beyond the Cusp

February 17, 2019

Has the Time Come for Women as Rabbis?

 

We understand that the obvious answer is, ‘No,’ and that there really is nothing to debate, but when has that stopped us. There are the numerous arguments put forth by the Open Orthodoxy or New Orthodoxy, Modern Orthodoxy, Neo-Orthodoxy or the more realistic, Reform Judaism with a few additional Commandments. The crux of the problem is, as almost anybody who has read anything about this tempest in a teapot, the ordination of women as Rabbi. The easy answer is to stand with the nearly unanimous decision by virtually every Poskim, the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and declare from the rooftops while standing next to a scarecrow of a man playing his violin and scream, “Tradition!” But that is taking the short road to an answer which leaves out all the intricacies and ignores the pressures and times of modernity. Women’s rights will need to be addressed at some point, but that point has not yet arrived. Far too many of those in positions to accept this challenge are mired in the rules and morals of early in the past century. Then women took care of the home and the men took care of the world just as the Bible and Torah instruct are the responsibilities of each gender. The world had gone through a period of rocketing change with gender roles being blurred and the responsibilities often being turned on their heads. But Judaism has not survived by being reckless and rushing to accept every change which has come down the halls of time. Tradition has been the watchful eye which kept the boat upright and it is not about to allow for the boat tipping too far left just as it kept it from tipping too far right as the political pendulum has swung back and forth.

 

 

The best approach might be to take small steps and see how they work and if they place too much of a burden or cause things to become difficult or produce side-effects which are arduous, then the small steps can be retraced and a return to normalcy. It is not as if Judaism has not gone through some tumultuous traumas. When we left Egypt we found that the generation which had been in Egypt were not fully capable of change and this resulted in forty-years of wandering almost aimlessly in the dessert until a new generation could be born and reach age. Then, with a fresh population unencumbered with the ravages of slavery and dependence filled with self-confidence was capable of the task of winning a homeland. Then Joshua, one of the two spies who came back with a report of a land ready to be taken, the other was Caleb. The fight was probably far more difficult than it would have been for the Israelites when they first perched on the borders of what is today Israel. But in time the lands were conquered and became the initial state of Israel (see map below). That was how nations were built and how many an empire would start out, taking a small regions for their own and then embarking on greater conquests often incorporating the conquered people initially into their empire as full citizens. This was the name of the game and the Jews started with no king or queen but lived only with the guidance of Judges and Prophets. Prophets continued into their period with Kings which turned sour all too quickly. Then there came the years of conquest by foreign empires with short stints of self-rule. Eventually the Jews, as they had come to be known as most were Judeans by birth, as they were from the Tribe of Judah, were dispersed throughout the Roman Empire, with some even thrown into slavery in further lands, and there appeared to be no way for this small group surviving such treatment. The Jews remained dispersed throughout the world and only in the past century and a half have really begun to return to the ancient homelands reestablishing the nation of Israel. So, yes, we have seen dire times and persecutions and even the Holocaust, a persecution unparalleled in, at the least, modernity. We survived and remained a people through one factor; we remained steadfastly true to our holy books and based it all on Torah. The Torah became our homeland, portable and able to be applied in any region, setting, situation and so forth. This is partly why the leaders of the Jewish Faith, not necessarily the Jewish Nations but the faith, remain resistant to change, without foresight to see what is over the horizon, one remains reluctant to change, especially change that appears to be drastic, that which has guided and kept your people as one through the harrowing threats of history.

 

Twelve Tribes of Israel and the Original Borders for Israel

Twelve Tribes of Israel and the Original Borders for Israel

 

So, perhaps, in the not too distant future, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel might venture into permitting equal seating for men and women in a section of the main hall, not necessarily the entirety. They could permit those synagogues which were inclined to set aside an area where husband and wife, of course with children, to be seated together but leave sufficient space for those opposed to such a liberal concept to sit where this area is not bothersome. Yes, we know some people will find it bothersome that a synagogue in the next town allows such seating and they will claim it unnerves them. Change is not easy, ask the Vatican, as we Jews have been about traditions and the literal applications of the rules for far longer than the Christians have. Perhaps there might be some other half-step we have not considered, but change will need to come in small doses as we Jews are a stiff-necked and stubborn people, or so our Torah tells us. Still, we have changed and kept pace with the world as when we reestablished our homelands, we did not return to a monarchy as it last was nor did we try to rely on prophets and judges as even earlier times, nope, we went with a parliamentary democracy and one far more convoluted than even the European versions. Even the Jews who returned home making Aliyah often comment on how Israel has made a parliamentary system of government even more contentious than their home countries could have imagined. For further proof, simply start to read and follow the machinations and other finagling which are sure to play out along the way to the April 9, 2019 Israeli elections and see for yourself.

 

We have somehow gone from Exodus Chapter fifteen verse twenty and twenty-one where it says, “Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel (tambourine) in her hand, and all the women came out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam called out to them, Sing to the Lord, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea.” This was then and today there are numerous groups within Judaism where men are forbidden to see women dance or perform or even hear them sing as it became considered immodest. There is proof that we can change, and not always in a more progressive direction despite the uncomforting fact that many times the Jews were at the forefront of revolutionary change. Too often these very same revolutions turned against the Jews and persecuted them claiming they were the enemies of the state they assisted in forming. Such was the case in the Soviet Union and in other cases before that and since. These such outcomes went quite some distance in imprinting caution in the Jews who survived, escaped or were fortunate enough to read of these events from a distance into a dread for change. We have held to our traditions which for centuries slowly drifted to being more and more conservative as this is the result of persecution. The Jewish People are barely a full generation beyond what was a cataclysmic conflagration to our people who lived on the European continent as the Germans and the Russians took their turns persecuting and executing Jews. This did not endear that generation or the following ones to favor radical change, well, except in the United States where much of the radical changes politically and culturally have manifested. They may have found their start in America or in Europe, but if it did not play in America, it likely did not play for very long.

 

Change in Judaism has mostly run at a slow pace making sure that the ground was solid before taking that next step. Wild and reckless are not exactly words which have described the religious Jewish communities. Insular, reactionary, conservative, traditional, stoic, intractable and other similar adjectives have all been used, even by Jews themselves, in defining the Jewish communities, as there are in the United States and Europe as well. Still today in Israel, there are religious communities which all live in a closed community which one need apply and be interviewed, fact-checked, virtually investigated and their religious credentials checked and rechecked before they are permitted to reside within the community. These are some of the communities where the most influential leaders of the Jewish community reside. Asking these individuals to change something so central to Judaism is something which is simply not going to play well. The fact that there are congregations, mostly, if not solely, in the United States and Canada trying to introduce such changes to the Orthodox community, as it has been initially only in Reform and Reconstructionist and later spread to Conservative, is potentially the initial steps. For Jews, though, simply playing well in America is not sufficient for it to become accepted, it must play in Israel. Were the RCA to accept such a change, an alteration in what has been tens of century’s worth of tradition, then perhaps it might be considered by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, though the RCA does not tend to make such moves without working with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. The two operate very much in tandem with much and often deep communication and coordination. This is due to their being the two organizations which preside over the two largest Orthodox communities in the world, one all of Europe does not match. The first sign that there might be a crack in the bricks through which changes will eventually pour through would probably be the permitting, even only on special occasions, for married couples to sit together. Currently, the men sit in one area and the women in a separate area simply because having the women sitting with the men is considered a potential distraction. What some Rabbis might notice is having the wives sit separate from their husbands also provides distraction as they may wish to see how the other is doing or even suddenly realize something which urgently need be communicated, but that is what cell phones are for, right? Kidding aside, the experimentation with women being ordained as Rabbis will very likely have to wait until it starts to make cracks into Israeli society, and that might be closer than we think. No matter the number of Open Orthodox (by whatever name they decide to use this week) Synagogues who have women as assistant Rabbis or Rabbinical interns or outright Rabbis, they will remain shunned, rejected and refused continued sanction by the RCA as they remain lockstep and in sync with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. No matter how many influential American Rabbis join a bandwagon calling for the liberation of Orthodox Judaism, that change will not be leaving the station any time soon. Wait for coed seating to be accepted universally, and then, just maybe there will start to be the inkling of a discussion on going further. First coed seating will need a full period of testing, say about a century or two, then we can talk. Should things go faster than this, it will be a surprise and a sign that the Jews have begun to feel safe and beyond threat in Israel. Currently, we have bigger fish to fry then even coed seating, let alone women as Rabbis.

 

Beyond the Cusp

 

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