Not Fear But Fealty

Dear Readers,

My posting this week is an essay from Agudath Israel of America’s executive vice president, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel.

It was written in response to a lengthy and prominent editorial that appeared in The Jerusalem Post.

To its credit, that paper published Rabbi Zwiebel’s rejoinder, and has graciously offered permission for its republication, with due credit to where it originally appeared.

NOT FEAR BUT FEALTY

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel

An editorialist in the Jerusalem Post was greatly exercised by the fact that Orthodox rabbinic leaders, including most notably Agudath Israel of America’s Council of Torah Sages (Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah), have gone on record stating what is and is not acceptable for Orthodox congregations (“Women’s rabbinical rights”, 1/03/10).

So exercised, in fact, that the editorialist saw fit to distort the words of the rabbinic sages in an effort to score debating points.

The distortion begins with the editorial’s very first word: “‘Assertive’ Orthodox women are making some men very nervous.” The placement of quotation marks around the word “assertive” is designed to imply that the pejorative is taken from the mouths (or pens) of the “nervous” rabbis themselves – when in fact it is the invention of the editorialist.

In the scientific world, one invention often leads to another. So too, apparently, in the editorial world. The second sentence of the editorial informs readers that the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah “has excommunicated the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale…for recognizing Sara Hurwitz…as a rabbi.” In fact, the rabbinic sages excommunicated no one and no thing. Stories of excommunication may make for interesting reading, but at least in this case it is absolute fiction.

What the Council of Torah Sages did say is that placing a woman in a rabbinic position is outside the bounds of Jewish Orthodoxy. The Council’s members, deeply respected senior rabbis and heads of American yeshivot, felt it important to make clear that Rabbi Avi Weiss’ conferral of rabbinical status on a woman, and her assumption of certain traditional rabbinic functions at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, represent a “radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition,” and that “any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.” A strong position, to be sure – as befitting the gravity of the issue – but a far cry from excommunication.

The editorial then proceeds from distortion to armchair analysis with its assertion that fear of “challenge to their hegemony” motivated the rabbinic sages.

“The male-dominated rabbinic establishment seems to have a visceral (Freudian?) fear,” the editorial explains, “that female clergy will outperform them on the pulpit.” The rabbis’ rejection of the ordaining of women is further motivated, says the editorial, by their chauvinistic conviction that women should be relegated to their traditional roles of “cooking, cleaning and rearing children.” One can only marvel at the editorialist’s psychoanalytic prowess.

It is worth recalling, though, that the Torah itself establishes Judaism as a deeply role-based faith. There is a role for a Cohein, a role for a Levi, roles for men and roles for women. Contemporary feminism insists that women fill every conceivable role traditionally filled by men. And many are the Jews who have stumbled over one another in a rush to jump on that bandwagon. But from an Orthodox perspective, the Torah’s truths, including the role-assignments so deeply embedded in our tradition, transcend contemporary notions, today as in the past.

That Jews faithful to their religious tradition reserve the role of rabbi for men is no insult to women. What truly insult women are insinuations, like the editorialist’s, that the traditional roles of wives and mothers – including “raising children” – are somehow demeaning.

Anyone interested not in reacting to the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah’s statement from a preconceived stance but in actually understanding it would do well to focus on what it said. To wit: that creating a rabbinic role for women is a radical departure from the Jewish mesorah, or religious tradition.

Now, to be sure, many in our anchorless world would react with a shrug and a “so what?”. But a refusal to jettison any part of the Jewish religious tradition is precisely what defines Orthodoxy. Yes, changes can occur, and have occurred, in normative Orthodox practice. But such changes are rare, and they are instituted only after the deepest deliberations of the greatest Torah leaders of a generation, not as fiats motivated by the Zeitgeist.

And so there should be nothing shocking about recognized rabbinic leaders rejecting a proposed radical change in Jewish tradition. The rejection is born not of fear but of fealty – to the tradition that is the heritage of all Jews.

AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Zwiebel is executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America.]

The above essay was published in the Jerusalem Post, which has granted permission for its republication with the appropriate credit.

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26 comments to Not Fear But Fealty

  • mb

    Perhaps the good spokespeople from Agudah, for clarity, could tell us which roles they do approve women to be in?
    R.Shafran has already stated his objection for quasi Rabbinic positions( seems like that could be a wide spectrum) because of Tzniut.Tzniut does seem to be a moving target. For example photographs of women were rather normal in publications until quite recently. So it’s not surprising Agudists would object to any public role.So what would be permitted?

  • a reader

    while the referenced editorial certainly took many liberties in interpreting the moetzes’ statement, perhaps we need to ask ourselves why the words of the gedolim were so easily twisted and manipulated in this fashion in order to prove the journalist’s point.
    i think that a large part of this is that the moetzes’ statement(s), as well as rabbi zweibel’s clarification/response, essentially boil down to “women rabbis are wrong because they are against the mesorah.” end of story. no explanation/clarification was provided as to what exactly this mesorah is, where it came from (did moshe pass it to yehoshua, and so on?), where it is reflected in the body of shas/poskim, etc., etc.. i think that many, many readers of the moetzes’ statement came away with a feeling that “ikkar chaser min hasefer” – its fine to say that something is wrong/assur, but at least explain why. that’s why seforim of long, thorough shai’los and teshuvos are written – not just to give a yes/no answer to a question, but to explain HOW the answer was arrived at, how each relevant source should be understood and weighed against another, etc.
    now, i didn’t/don’t expect a lengthy t’shuva by the moetzes on this issue, but i did/do expect a bit more in the way of clarification as to what the moetzes based their decision on. i find it hard to beleive that the beginning and end of this issue is simply the fact that this hasn’t been done in the past. “lo rainu aino raya.”
    “torah hi, v’lilmod ani tzarich.”

    [YA - I share your assumption that articulating the whys and wherefores will be complex and nuanced - and therefore not appropriate for a newspaper op-ed. We could and should expect our own local manhigim to deal with the issue in longer presentations. Why assume that this will not happen? Groups all along the continuum of traditional Orthodoxy are wrestling with the question of how and when to respond, including the OU and the RCA! Yesterday, Rav Avraham Ausband dedicated a shiur at a large gathering in the Riverdale Yeshiva to the topic of mesorah, clearly in response to the issue at hand. I have not listened to it yet (my youngest son did and thought it terrific, but he is a talmid!), but I heard that it was well received by all, including baalei batim of the Centrist community who attended.

    I assume that other capable voices will also weigh in.]

  • L. Oberstein

    The spokespersons of the American Agudah are articulate and sound reasonable. It is so different from the Israeli culture of deep partisanship and kulturkampf. In the US we feel that we have to justify our position and sound like intelligent, civilized modern people. There seems to be no such need in Israeli culture. There are anti religious newspapers and TV shows who go out of their way to find ways to ridicule anything religious. Such behaviour in the US would be considered poor manners. If only the American Jews frum and non frum could have some impact on the value of hasbara to their Israeli co-horts who are so clueless that they insult the Vice President by their provocative announcement on the day he comes to visit. It isn’t the issue, but the stupidity that is astounding. They are clueless and probably still don’t realize how their announcement sounds. All of this leads me to compliment Rabbi Zweibel for explaining his position in a proper way. Yasher Koach.

  • DovInBeitShemesh

    I believe that a fence needs to be built around all weakening of traditional roles between men and women, starting with the role that is most clearly defined by the Torah and Chazal, that a man is supposed to work to support his family.

    If we tell bochurim and frum girls that they should stand under the chupa and hear the kesuba promise that the man will provide food and dwelling for the wife, with full knowledge that he will not do so, we’re telling the world that traditional roles as expressed by Chazal are there to be avoided, to be subverted. Once we accept that roles that the Torah and Chazal gave men can be moved to women, we’re starting down a slippery slope that leads to women Rabbis.

    If we return to honoring the Torah’s and Chazal’s roles in their entirety, we can set the example that will iy’H repair the breach.

  • Dr. E

    <<>>

    Rabbi Zwiebel’s point is well taken. Therefore, I would welcome his consistency and intellectual honesty as it relates to tradition and modern innovations. I find it ironic that “Contemporary Kollelism”, which is central to the Agudah educational and societal model, has transcended the notions of the male being the sole or primary supporter of the family. While Kollel wives juggling parnassa and family responsibilities might not qualify as Contemporary Feminism, I would welcome his Biblical interpretation of precisely how that fits into our Mesorah.

  • Baruch Pelta

    The Council’s members, deeply respected senior rabbis and heads of American yeshivot, felt it important to make clear that Rabbi Avi Weiss’ conferral of rabbinical status on a woman, and her assumption of certain traditional rabbinic functions at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, represent a “radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition,” and that “any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.” A strong position, to be sure – as befitting the gravity of the issue – but a far cry from excommunication.
    I’m perplexed; perhaps somebody could explain to me how that is a far cry from excommunication?

  • dg

    Baruch,
    It is a far cry from excommunication because that would mean no one could talk to them, marry them, do business with them, etc. This announcement changes nothing in any relationship to them, it merely identifies their path as divergent from what has unified all of orthodox jewry which is a basic framework of halacha. Hope that helps.

  • joel rich

    , Rav Avraham Ausband dedicated a shiur at a large gathering in the Riverdale Yeshiva to the topic of mesorah, clearly in response to the issue at hand. I have not listened to it yet (my youngest son did and thought it terrific, but he is a talmid!), but I heard that it was well received by all, including baalei batim of the Centrist community who attended.

    —————————–

    Is a copy available on line?
    I find it interesting that there is little,if any,real time dialog on these issues (i.e. how about 2 Rabbis who view the issue differently discussing it respectfully in a public forum rather than everyone talking past each other) IMHO A Reader’s boiling down is correct with the addition of “our understanding” before rhe words “the mesora”
    KT

  • Baruch Pelta

    dg,

    I appreciate your attempt, but I am afraid I am still perplexed. I would assume your description is the definition of “cherem,” but it is not the definition of excommunication. To excommunicate literally means to exclude from the community. According to the Moetzes’s statement, the synagogue is now to be treated as if it were a heterodox synagogue. That sounds like excommunication to me.

  • Jewish Observer

    “I find it ironic that “Contemporary Kollelism”, which is central to the Agudah educational and societal model, has transcended the notions of the male being the sole or primary supporter of the family”

    – This is unfair as it takes an issue out of context. What has always been central (before Agudah existed) is the primacy of Torah. The cheshbon behind kollel surely factors in the inestimable hit that Torah took in the holocaust. Seems closed-minded to be dogmatic about the one principle (men working) important as it may be, without factoring in all elements. To make a meaninful statement one would have to weigh all the factors, costs / benefits, etc, and only then make the ronouncement that kollel is not worth it. I don’t want to have to resort to the fundamentalistic-sounding argument of “because the gedolim said so” but lema’aseh whatever framework you use has to have a sound way of accounting for, and properly weighting, all the factors.

  • Yehoshua Friedman

    Regarding the excommunication, Baruch Pelta wrote that the statement treated Rabbi Weiss’s synagogue as heterodox. Did they say anywhere that it was forbidden to daven there? There is a middle ground in which people do something and the Sages don’t approve of it but don’t read them out of the community. It’s not over yet.

  • DG

    Baruch,
    I understand the confusion some had but excommunicate seems to refer to the people rather to the shul and I would assume that is how R’ Zwiebel took it. The shul was never “part of a community” in the first place in any manner Agudah might have any interest in, to my knowledge. If it’s referring to the people, it would mean they may not be members of the community which was never intended – even of Avi Weiss himself. You’re probably right that the editorial in question understood it your way while R’ Zwiebel didn’t even consider that meaning.

  • Maharat parent

    Re: Jewish observer

    Substitute Maharat for Kollel in your retort. It is precisely the primacy of torah that has led to the expansion of women in Torah. It is not really about feminism, but perhaps a little hakarat hatov to it as because of it and other factors there are more educated torah jews.

  • Phil

    Someone tried to challenge the notion that Orthodox has never had female rabbis. She pointed to the Wikipedia entry on Asenath Barzani
    It states, “Some modern scholars[citation needed] regard her title of Tanna’it, and her role as head of a yeshiva with a rabbinical school, as being equivalent to being a “rabbi,” and hence regard her as a rare example of a female rabbi in pre-20th century traditional Judaism.” Any thoughts about this case?

  • Dr. E

    Jewish Observer:

    I find it hard to buy into your argument about the need to rebound from the Holocaust. Even using “Chazon Ish shiurim”, his deal was only for 2 generations and we are now into the third.

    I too believe in the primacy of Torah, exhibited over one’s lifetime, in the proper time and place. I would welcome more young people to make the very cheshbon you recommend, factoring in considerations such as acumen, parental affordability, and and overall life plan–as opposed to just going with the flow and doing what is popular, only to wake up after reality hits and it is too late. (Then, the the marriage, the mortgage, and the tuitions have the primacy and Torah becomes secondary or less.) Kollel is certainly something to have as an option for SOME of the best and the brightest in our yeshivos, but that percentage should probably be closer to 10% than 90%. Bottom line is that I don’t see the primacy of Torah and living a functional and financially responsible life as a zero-sum-game. After all, previous generations in America managed to pull that off, especially in the Agudah community.

  • Mike S.

    Yes, changes can occur, and have occurred, in normative Orthodox practice. But such changes are rare, and they are instituted only after the deepest deliberations of the greatest Torah leaders of a generation, not as fiats motivated by the Zeitgeist.

    As a statement of policy this is hard to argue with, but as a statement of historical fact, it is false, laughably so. The largest innovation in Orthodox practice over the last several hundred years, Chassidus, was resolutely opposed by the leading rabbonim of the era. Not only the Gaon, but also the Noda B’Yehudah and others. So was the mussar movement. Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch’s Austritt and Torah Im Derech Eretz also met strong rabbinic objection. In fact, with the possible exception of the original formation of the Aggudah in the early part of the 20th century, it is hard to think of any of the many changes in Orthodox life that was introduced only after the deepest deliberations of the greatest Torah leaders of a generation. And that even that was opposed by Rav Chaim Brisker and others.

    Indeed, one can go back further and find any number of changes whose introduction to Torah life does not seem to have been introduced that way and has puzzled subsequent Gedolei Torah; for example, abandoning daily duchanen. The Rema’s justification is plainly an after the fact rationalization, and has been questioned by the Gaon, Rav Chaim of Volozhin and others.

  • S.

    >What truly insult women are insinuations, like the editorialist’s, that the traditional roles of wives and mothers – including “raising children” – are somehow demeaning.

    That truly insults the tradition, not women.

  • Bob Miller

    Mike S. wrote,

    “The largest innovation in Orthodox practice over the last several hundred years, Chassidus, was resolutely opposed by the leading rabbonim of the era.”

    Other leading rabbonim were noteworthy chassidic Rebbeim themselves whose learning and midos were of a very high order, a fact that opponents of chassidus have often glossed over or denied. There is a tendency to recognize true leaders only within one’s own circle.

  • Jewish Observer

    “Kollel is certainly something to have as an option for SOME of the best and the brightest in our yeshivos, but that percentage should probably be closer to 10% than 90%”

    – Again, I think it is narrow and dogmatic to set arbitrary percentages, out of the larger context. Based on what “should” it be 10%? Past history? What were the drivers of that percentage? Maybe there is a minimum torah level that should be maintained in a society and that level was achievable, in those days, with the baalei batim talmidei chachomim.

    To be openminded is to not get mired in the realities of the past or stuck on preconceived notions from our minds, but to assess based on the overall objectives and strategies for achieving them.

  • Meir Shinnar

    While there are legitimate issues underlying the current contretemps, Rabbi Zwiebel’s piece is of little value to those who do not accept the apodictic value of pronouncements of the Moetzet, and indeed, is actually quite problematic -and properly understood, it concedes that it has no serious grounds for its opposition.
    At the core of the debate is the proper religious role for women. However, there are several different components of this debate – and the editorial (and current debate) obscure the real issues.

    The different components of this debate are

    1) Role of advanced Jewish education for women. Different opinions of RYBS and Rav Moshe are well known, and the charedi community has mostly adopted Rav Moshe’s position – but there are many learned charedi women – even within the best charedi families (think, eg rabbanit davis of BJJ) – andI don’t think that the charedi community is in general willing to describe all learned women as out of the tradition and revolutionaries (and as RYBS was the posek for the RCA, they definitely shouldn’t agree)

    2) Enhanced communal roles for women. Here, too, the debate is on the extent of the enhanced role – not its presence (eg, my understanding is that women teach elementary school for boys even in haredi institutions – this was clearly true of the haredi dayschool in Philadelphia (under Rabbis Svei and Kaminetsky), with women teachers who were themselves members of the yeshiva community – an unheard of position in Eastern Europe. While women teaching gmara may still be an unheard of innovation in the haredi community, most girls high schools and seminaries have many female teachers – again, in a sense, revolutionary. The role of being a chaplain and advisor to other women is one that is actually less revolutionary (think rebbitzen).

    There may be a debate over how far to extend the roles of women – but I think few would think it problematic if, say, a hospital hired a women to coordinate counseling/bikur cholim for women. The debate therefore has to be about the bounds and limits – no one is suggesting a woman dayanit, and few truly object to women teachers and counselors.

    These two components are serious issues of the appropriate role for women in our community – their education, their avodat hashem, and the appropriate communal and religious response to the drastic changes in the roles of women – both in the modern community, but also, as several have pointed out – within the kollel community – and can (and should be) the subject of serious debate

    The problem that I see is that while the current changes in the roles of women is, by traditional standards, revolutionary, the difference between being a maharat and a woman day school (or high school) teacher is far less than the difference between either and earlier understandings of women’s roles – making the demarcation one that reflects more social issues than issues of mesora…..

    3) The title. This is what has set off the current debate – and is the focus of the current editorial – and I confess that I find this aspect ludicrous, and one that cheapens the debate. I am aware of no traditional literature consecrating the title of rabbi – which has had no halachic signficance for centuries – and while it has graced many of our ba’ale mesora, has also graced many scoundrels and fools (within all communities).
    It is also used commonly and colloquially for teacher – without any outcry (I remember Rav Riskin describing Nechama Leibowitz – and other rabbanim have described, eg,their mothers as their rav in certain areas. It is therefore hard to suggest that the linguistic issue is such a major violation

  • Everyone seems to be missing a point in this whole controversy. Like it or not, there are now (and there probably always have been) a lot of intelligent, educated, capable, and ambitious women in our midst who, while not denigrating their traditional role as women, would very much like to make other contributions to our society. Obviously, they are out there. What are we supposed to do with them? OK, so they can’t be rabbis, or anything even smelling like a rabbi. Can’t we find some other public roles for them?

    I have met, and spoken with a few women in public leadership roles in the Jewish community. They were very educated, committed, sincere, and very spiritual, what one would consider, in most ways, to be religious Jews. Except for one thing. They aren’t members of the Orthodox fold. Talking to them, it occured to me that an awful lot of them would be Orthodox if we had a place for them. It disappointed me to see how we have been wasting these women. They would be such assests in the Orthodox world.

    It seems to me that the rabbis can find any number of creative ways to get around difficulties when they want to. But I’ve noticed that they never work that hard at it when it is our women who are put in difficult positions as they do when it is us men. They are men, after all, human men, and they are subject to all of the biases and frailties and tunnel-vision problems that the rest of us are. They try to get around these problems, and, on average, they do a pretty good job of it, but they still can get tripped-up by their humanity.

    So, I think it is time we get beyond all this, stop wasting half of our talent, and find for these women the kind of role that they would like. I don’t know what it could be, but we should at least start discussing it and see what we can come up with. We would all benefit greatly by it.

  • Baruch Pelta

    DG,

    Am I understanding correctly? Are you saying that just the building that’s heterodox, but the worldview of the community and the rabbi are to be considered Orthodox?

  • Dr. E

    <>

    Jewish Observer:

    I base that percentage on:

    (1) What has pretty much always been the case throughout Jewish history before the last 30+ years
    (2) The reality that the 90% formula is not working, as potentially capable people have been chronically unemployed or underemployed, and cannot support their families or pay their communal obligations. All you need to to to validate this is talk to the Administrators of the schools, the Rabbis of the shuls, with the Gabbai Tzedaka, and count up the number of Meshulachim and Tzedaka fundraising ads.

    While this thread has gotten off-topic of the original post, the fact is that the aforementioned paradigm shift is also a departure from tradition. And the consequences are more far-reaching to Klal Yisrael than what Rabbi Avi Weiss is doing at HIR (which for the record, I am not in favor of either).

  • Jewish Observer

    I base that percentage on:

    (1) What has pretty much always been the case throughout Jewish history before the last 30+ years

    >> If you measure by strict full time learnres you could be right, but, to my point, today you may need a large core of full timers to avergae out to 10% across all of klal yisrael

    (2) The reality that the 90% formula is not working

    >> doesn;t prove 10% is right

  • dg

    Baruch,
    Of course not. The shul means the leadership of the rabbi, not the building (obviously).
    An individual can attend even a non-Orthodox congregation and be Orthodox. A whole community can theoretically for a while until it is inevitably influenced.

  • Baruch Pelta

    DG,

    If the leadership of the rabbi and those who follow his daas in this matter are to be considered non-orthodox, I’m afraid I fail to see how this is not an excommunication. I also fail to understand why they’re referring to him as “rabbi” if their reference to the synagogue is to his heterodox leadership. I must be missing the “obvious.” Thanks anyways for your efforts. :)