Reprinted with permission from Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union.
We are constantly challenged, both individually and collectively. Some challenges are perennial, endemic to the human condition. Others are time-conditioned, generated by prevailing socio-political, economic, scientific or philosophical circumstances. Our generation is uniquely challenged to exposit the Torah's teachings on women's issues. Against the backdrop of the successful women's suffrage movement, affirmative action and resurgent feminism, attention has been focused on the Torah's attitude towards women. Vital questions, far too numerous to catalogue and address within a single article, abound. A partial listing includes: Should the curriculum for girls' and women's education encompass the Oral Torah? If so, to what extent? Should Torah education be gender blind? In a more general vein, what is the ideal feminine role in Jewish life? And the most fundamental query, does the Torah accord men and women metaphysical equality?
In a climate of tempestuous debate, distortions flourish. What follows is a non-apologetic attempt to schematically address some of the burning issues. Aside from logistical constraints, I readily confess that in any forum I would be unable to explain all relevant rabbinic dicta. Nevertheless, individual instances of difficulty do not preclude the presentation of a panoramic holistic view. We must, however, extricate ourselves from the constricting bonds of transient cultural mores and biases which often arrest our thought and imagination. We must resist the powerful, blinding urge to seek confirmation of our previous views and satisfaction of our personal desires. Thus unfettered, our hearts and minds will be open and ready to implement the eternal wisdom of Torah.
Women and Torah Study
"One who teaches his daughter [Oral] Torah -- it is as though he teaches her frivolity."1 Rabbi Eliezer's stunning, seminal ruling, apparently banning women from studying the Oral Torah, seemingly pre-empts any consideration of the issue. Upon closer inspection and reflection, however, two crucial distinctions emerge.
First of all, it is pure folly to imagine that the Mishna's ban is all-encompassing or indiscriminate. The Shulchan Aruch confirms that women are clearly obligated to study halachot pertaining to mitzvot incumbent upon them.2 Accordingly, teachers of Torah are not merely allowed to initiate and provide instruction in these areas; they are obligated to do so. The prohibition of teaching Oral Torah to women governs optional study; practical study is mandated.
This caveat has become especially repercussive for post-Enlightenment Jewry. Increasingly, instruction in Torah has become necessary not only to teach proper halachic observance, but also to inculcate enduring religious commitment and conviction. The saintly Chafetz Chayim, bestirred by this profound educational truth, wrote passionately and compellingly on the subject: "...presently...ancestral tradition has become exceptionally weak...surely it is a great mitzvah to teach [women] Chumash, Nevi'im and Ketuvim, and the ethical teachings of our sages such as Pirkei Avot, Menorat haMaor, and the like so that they will internalize our sacred faith because [if we do not adopt this educational course] they are prone to abandon the path of God."3 The Chafetz Chayim's innovation was educational, not halachic. He did not overturn the Mishna's ban. Rather, as explained above, he recognized that it refers exclusively to optional instruction, whereas the instruction which he advocated was necessary. The subtlety and sophistication of the Chafetz Chayim's analysis graphically illustrate that halachic decisions can only be rendered by outstanding halachic authorities. We clearly recognize that medical advice and treatment can only be responsibly offered by trained professionals. In complex cases we seek the foremost medical minds and experts. Their medical expertise is not subordinated to our uninformed, emotional reactions. Should our standards for halachic decision making be any less rigorous?
The Chafetz Chayim's approach has universally prevailed. However, no such consensus exists concerning specifics of implementation. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt"l, for example, assessing and responding to the challenges of girls' education in his generation in Boston, advocated teaching Talmud to girls.4 The wide diversity of opinion regarding the specifics of curricular implementation should not obscure the fundamental agreement regarding the underlying halachic-educational principle. Each of the different ideological strands of our polychromatic Orthodoxy poses unique educational challenges and demands individualized responses.5 Indeed, educational policies and strategies which are uniform and impersonal are doomed to failure. A curriculum may be educationally sound and halachically valid in one venue, yet unsound and invalid in another. And thus the diversity of opinion regarding girls' education is not only inevitable but vital; it mirrors the ideological diversity within Orthodoxy.
Let there be no misunderstanding. This latitude does not imply unbounded educational relativism or subjectivism. Nor does it automatically confer upon educators and rabbis the status of halachic authorities or decisors. On the contrary, it underscores the need for constant consultation with such authorities to ensure that all educational initiatives and enterprises are halachically sound. The second distinction reflected in the Mishna's phraseology is highlighted by Rabbi Yehoshua Falk (author of the Perisha)6 who explains that the example of a father teaching his daughter Torah is designed to illustrate that instruction in optional portions of Torah may not be imposed upon women. Study which is not self-initiated is especially vulnerable to inadvertent distortion and frivolous trivialization. However, when women desire to voluntarily fulfill mitzvat Talmud Torah, their initiatives are welcomed and greatly rewarded. Accordingly, we must provide opportunities and forums for sincerely inspired women to study Torah.
Elucidating the Traditional Roles
"How do women merit a greater reward than men in the world to come? They catalyze their sons and husband to study Torah, shepherd the former to school, and patiently await the latter whom they have permitted to travel to study Torah in another city." 7
"One may not appoint a woman to the post of kingship, and similarly all appointments [of religious authority] amongst the Jewish people may be held only by men."8
This minimal sampling of sources, readily confirmed by a more comprehensive survey, elucidates a vitally important dimension of a woman's ideal religious role and sphere of activity: she is called upon to eschew formal religious authority and function in a private, catalytic capacity. To be sure, the feminine role is not monolithic and a woman does not act exclusively in a supporting capacity. The matriarchs, displaying indomitable will and keen wisdom, exercised leadership at historically defining moments, thereby molding the destiny of the burgeoning Jewish people.9 Chazal portray the widowed Naomi and Ruth as paradigmatic, righteous individuals, thereby clearly revealing the spiritual heights accessible to a woman, beyond her supporting role as wife and mother.10 Nevertheless, the private dimension occupies, both temporally and hierarchically, a very prominent place in a woman's service of God. And, accordingly, a proper understanding of this role is indispensable to our inquiry.
Consciously or otherwise, we are products and, at times, victims of the modern mindset. Consequently, consistent with current societal attitudes we classify supporting roles as secondary in importance. The truth, however, is otherwise.
The Torah values men and women equally. "And the Almighty created Man in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them."11 The Torah is emphatic: man and woman alike are created in God's image, which is the source of their majesty and places them at the pinnacle of creation.12 Therefore, taught Rav Soloveitchik zt"l, men and women are endowed with equal ontological-spiritual worth.13
The supportive dimension within the feminine role is not at odds with the axiom of ontological equality or, when necessary, unofficial initiative and leadership. Our Sages in Bereishit Raba14, explicate the decision of Abraham to share the spoils of war with those who did not actually accompany him to battle: "'Although my servants waged war while Aner and his compatriots safeguarded the camp, nevertheless they merit an equal share.' It was from Avraham Avinu that [King] David learned when he declared, 'Those who engaged in combat and those who safeguarded the camp shall divide the spoils equally.'"
Unfortunately, societal attention is disproportionately focused and its accolades showered upon public, high-profile personalities. In truth, only a cooperative venture between public and private individuals is significant and enduring. Accordingly, the Torah cherishes and rewards the private, supporting role equally.
We are plagued by a fundamental misconception. Contrary to the popularly held belief, the role of mother and wife does not subordinate a woman's personal religious fulfillment to that of her husband and sons. Ultimate religious fulfillment and perfection is paradoxically simply defined: refining one's character and channeling all of one's thoughts and actions, energies and abilities to implementing God's will.15 Service of God by men and women entails subordinating one's will to God's will and conforming to divine guidelines; otherwise, one's service deteriorates into self-worship and self-gratification.
An obvious corollary of this devotional principle is that the avenues to religious fulfillment for the two genders will diverge, as their divinely individualized tasks differ. Any attempt to blur these differences inevitably diverts men and women from the path of God. Thus, a woman who complies with God's will by inspiring and facilitating the learning of her husband and sons may experience an equal measure of religious fulfillment. Another might choose to compliment this mission with her own study.
In viewing and assessing the gender-specific divinely ordained roles, we must not confuse formal authority with de facto influence. Rachel, wife and inspiration of the great Rabbi Akiva, toiled and suffered in virtual anonymity. And, yet, her influence will continue to reverberate eternally. The transmission of the Oral Torah is unimaginable without Rabbi Akiva, and he, speaking of his wife to his students, proclaimed, "All that I and you have achieved is due to her."16 Similarly, our sages teach that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of righteous women.17 Though the sphere of activity is often private, the sphere of influence is potentially unlimited and publicly repercussive.
The technical disqualification of women from serving in formal positions of authority does not stunt religious growth or stifle religious aspirations. Male or female, one should only accept such positions out of a sense of obligation and l'shem Shamayim, for the sake of heaven. By definition, one who is disqualified from this type of service by the Torah itself cannot be motivated by devotion to Torah. Any other impetus is spiritually anomalous and incongruent. "Such was the way of the Sages of the earlier generations: they would flee from being appointed"18 Our greatest leader(s) assumed the mantle of leadership involuntarily. Moshe Rabeinu obstinately demurred, amazingly arguing with the Almighty for a week before, finally, acquiescing to the divine imperative and mission.19 Occupying positions of authority and power does not stimulate or enhance, but rather potentially impedes and even threatens spiritual attainment. Genuine spirituality denotes a selfless concern for the service of God. And, accordingly, it flourishes in a private, modest milieu of unostentatious, unpretentious service of God wherein one's sense of absolute dependence upon God is not confused by one's position of authority over fellow man.
Feminist Goals and Halachah: The Teachings of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt"l
In sum, the axiomatic equality of men and women must be properly understood. Unlike its mathematical counterpart, ontological equality is not expressed in sameness or identity. While the Torah, assuredly, does not discriminate against men or women, undoubtedly it does discriminate between them. The two genders profoundly differ physically, emotionally and psychologically. Though contemporary Western society and thought decry this politically incorrect notion, it remains an unalterable fact of God's creation.20 Little wonder, then, if the Torah has delineated somewhat different tasks to the profoundly differing genders.
Feminism, by contrast, axiomatically asserts that men and women must be offered identical roles and opportunities. While understanding and empathizing with the struggles of modern women, we must unabashedly and unequivocally teach that this feminist demand within the religious sphere is irreconcilable with Torah norms and values. The vast unbridgeable chasm that divides divine Torah norms and values from, l'havdil, their secular, feminist counterparts has generated and continues to fuel the present crisis. Rampant, misleading rhetoric has confused the contemporary debate on Orthodoxy and feminism and camouflaged the core issue. All disclaimers and declarations of halachic fealty not withstanding, the premise and many positions of feminism are essentially incompatible with our mesorah (tradition).
A fundamental, fateful decision confronts us. Do we seek to manipulate and inevitably, ultimately violate halachah to accommodate our secular orientation or do we strive to acclimate and reorient ourselves to halachah? Case in point: do we presumptuously challenge the provision which disqualifies women from positions of formal religious authority and demand the ordination of women, or do we unqualifiedly submit to halachah and intensify our efforts to appreciate, internalize, and implement its norms and values? Do we allow external contemporary fashions to make spurious demands on the Torah, or do we permit the Torah's teachings concerning women to mold our thinking and energize our initiatives? In truth, there is no choice. We must forego the popular appeal and instantaneous gratification of the path of religious accomodationism, and opt for the more arduous, yet divinely authentic path of Torah.
Recent feminist pronouncements vividly demonstrate the inherent dangers and ultimate direction of the movement. For example, some feminists have adopted the slogan, "Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way." Students of halachah immediately recognize the patent falsehood of this claim; students of history easily discern a classical manifestation of reformist ideology and tactics. The intermingling of bona fide causes, both general and feminine, such as communal Talmud Torah and women's Torah education with such insidious slogans creates a dangerously deceptive sense of legitimacy for such illegitimate pronouncements. The involvement of Orthodox personages with the feminist movement and its anti-Orthodox slogans has a similarly confusing and deleterious effect. It is incumbent upon all of us to expose and disassociate ourselves from such destructive slogans, as false as they are flashy, which are devoid of halachic validity, historical accuracy, and theological substance.
The issue of agunot is far too complex to be treated within the present article, and thus only the following observation is possible. Undoubtedly there is a halachic imperative which great rabbis have implemented throughout the generations that all legitimate halachic measures be adopted and resources marshaled to rescue agunot by securing a get. Nevertheless, the establishment of an unqualified beit-din (as recently announced) to annul marriages can only yield catastrophic consequences. Spurious dispensations, based on halachically invalid annulments, will not alleviate, but only compound, the tragedy of agunot by allowing wrongful marriages. The result would be (unintentional) adultery and mamzerut.
Upholding traditional Torah norms and values does not bespeak insensitivity to or disrespect for women. Accordingly, the Torah's perspective of dissimilar equality must forever guide and permeate our educational efforts. We must elucidate the vitally important, heightened spiritual dimensions of the feminine role, as delineated by the Torah and our Sages. Understanding the true dimensions of the feminine role will, God willing, help foster genuine satisfaction and contentment in women who assume this role. Moreover, as discussed earlier, educators also must nourish the minds, hearts and souls of Jewish women, young and old, by providing advanced opportunities to study Torah. However, we must do so in an attempt to foster the growth of wise, sensitive, modest, kind, traditional b'not Torah, not to create a unisex, egalitarian, inauthentic Orthodoxy.
Similarly, we ought not orchestrate Bat Mitzvah celebrations to simulate Bar Mitzvah observances. Sincere intentions notwithstanding, we are guilty of a grave disservice to our daughters if, by way of example, we manipulate halachah and create the impression that the bat mitzvah is reading from the Torah, as bnei mitzvah do. A Bat Mitzvah convocation celebrates Jewish womanhood. How sadly ironic if the occasion is abused to blur the differences between a bar and bat mitzvah. Our daughters are heiresses to an abundantly rich matriarchal legacy, and can anticipate a singularly rewarding destiny. Should our Bat Mitzvah celebrations deprive them of their treasures, and deflect them from their destiny by a misguided egalitarianism?
In all areas, we must strive to implement halachah, not God forbid, manipulate it to advance our non-halachic agenda. Postponing women's recitation of the daily birkot haTorah and then reciting them prior to reading from a Torah scroll so as to simulate an authentic public Kriat HaTorah, does not conform to, but rather distorts halachah. Accordingly, Rav Soloveitchik zt"l expressly opposed this practice.21
The Rav also provided clear, unambiguous guidance on the issue of women's tefillah groups, but unfortunately misrepresentation and misinterpretation of his pronouncements have generated clouds of confusion. We must dispel that confusion, and restore the clarity of vision he provided.
Many rabbis approached Rav Soloveitchik for guidance on the issue of women's tefillah groups. On every occasion, the Rav unequivocally opposed such groups.22 Nevertheless, in some instances the petitioners and/or their constituencies were dissatisfied and simply refused to accept the Rav's decision. The Rav was then confronted with an entirely different question: if such tefillah groups will be formed over his objections, how should the local rabbi respond? At this stage, unable to prevent the impermissible formation of these groups, the Rav indeed provided guidelines to prevent additional problems.
Unfortunately these guidelines, cited out of their original context, have been trumpeted as proof of the Rav's acquiescence, if not outright support for women's tefillah groups. In fact, the Rav provided these guidelines reluctantly ex post facto to prevent additional infractions, despite his consistent, unequivocal ruling that such groups are halachically wrong.
On other occasions, after the Rav stated his unequivocal opposition to women's tefillah groups, the questioner persisted. "But, Rebbe, is it asur (legally forbidden)?" While resolutely opposed to such groups, the Rav was reluctant, at times refused, to label them as asur. Proponents of these groups have inferred that the Rav deemed them to be permissible and dismiss his adamant objections as non-binding, unauthoritative suggestions for public policy which they "respectfully" decline to follow. This analysis is flawed, as will be explained.
Halachah is a complex, precisely nuanced divine system of law with its unique indigenous conceptual and juridical categories. Only by virtue of constant, wide-ranging and in-depth study of halachah, both its principles and minutiae, can one become fully attuned to authentic halachic categories, thinking and methodology; such detailed macrocosmic study is indispensable for an accurate understanding of any microcosm within halachah. When halachic statements or pronouncements are interpreted within a non-halachic mindset in non-halachic categories, inevitably distortions result.
Regrettably, such distortions plague the flawed analysis of the Rav's position on women's tefillah groups. The analysis fails to consider the range and variety of halachic categories. When judging the acceptability or legitimacy of a particular action, halachah does not speak only in terms of mutar (permitted) and asur (forbidden). Many actions are not labeled asur, and yet are absolutely halachically wrong and unacceptable. The Talmud and Shulchan Aruch are replete with examples. In the case of one who fails to honor a legally non-binding oral commitment to give a present or finalize a transaction, the Talmud does not classify his conduct as asur. Rather, the Talmud says, "The Sages are not content with him." And yet the Talmud explicitly states that his behavior, while not classified as asur, is impermissible.23 Similarly, "Rav would administer lashes to one who betrothed a woman in the marketplace or without prior engagement..."24 although this practice is not technically asur. Chazal rejected some forms of behavior as asur, others as wrong. Conceptual differences not withstanding, both categories are inviolable. In fact, at times, Chazal censured wrong behavior especially harshly and even imposed severe punitive measures on people who were guilty of such infractions.
The Rav consistently advised all who inquired that women's tefillah groups are, at best, halachically wrong. When such groups are unfaithful to halachah by promoting misconceptions that the participants are actually reciting devarim she'b'kedushah or receiving authentic aliyot and the like, they clearly violate the precept of truth.25 Under such conditions, women's tefillah groups are indeed asur as well. Even under the best of theoretical circumstances, i.e. when everyone is informed that the participants are forfeiting the substantial advantages of public prayer and it is clear that no attempt is made to confer or simulate true aliyot, the Rav opposed such groups. Perhaps not technically asur, but unequivocally wrong and unacceptable. The queries regarding women's tefillah groups and the Rav's response were halachic. And as such the Rav's negative response was, and is, binding.
Looking Behind the Mask
"Your child born of a Jewess is considered yours, however your child born of a Gentile is not considered yours."26
The halachah of matrilineal descent is of paramount significance, substantively and symbolically. In distinguishing women as the determinant of Jewishness, it speaks volumes about women's standing within Judaism. It also symbolically hints at the primacy of the feminine role: the mother exerts the formative influence which ultimately ensures Jewish character and continuity.27,22
The portrait of monolithic, mindless, monotonous feminine domesticity and enslavement in an "androcentric" world, which has been the object of vitriolic, secular, feminist barbs misrepresents the multi-faceted, pivotal, educational, spiritual, divinely ordained and beloved role of Jewish women.
"The reward which the Holy One, blessed be He, has promised to women is greater than to men."28
Our assertion hitherto that the Torah values men and women equally, and accordingly cherishes and rewards their divine service equally, has been understated. In fact, the Torah rewards women more bountifully. The guiding principle for the divine system of remuneration is that "Reward is commensurate with the pain and distress involved in fulfilling the mitzvah."29 The Torah recognizes that the feminine role, oft-times private and supporting, is more difficult and demanding than its masculine counterpart.30,24
Let us be forthright. Modesty often masks the true dimensions of grandeur. Accordingly, a woman's contribution, though immeasurably important, is often underappreciated. She toils selflessly, oft-times in relative solitude. At these private moments, she cannot be energized by the excitement and acclaim of public life. A life characterized by modesty and self-effacement is sublime, but exceedingly challenging. Throughout the generations, Jewish women have responded heroically, at times demonstrating a greater capacity than men for heroism.31 The heroism of Jewish women merited the Exodus at the dawn of our national history; so may it speedily herald the denouement of that history with the advent of Moshiach.
Reprinted with permission from Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union.