Honorifics and Honor

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This year, the yahrtzeit of Rebbetzin Zahava Braunstein, the 25th day of Adar, fell out in the thick of the recent brouhaha over an Orthodox rabbi’s conferring of a rabbinical title on a woman.

For anyone who knew Rebbetzin Braunstein, or even of her, the coincidence carries a lesson.

Mrs. Braunstein was a “rebbetzin” because she married a respected rabbi. Had she been married to a layman, though, and known simply as a “Mrs.”, she would have been no less a gift to the Jewish people, no less influential, no less a Jewish educator, no less a Jewish leader. It was not her title that garnered her the reverence of thousands of women of all ages around the world. It was, rather, her words, her care, her deeds, her teaching, her guidance – and her example.

She left the world in only her sixty-first year but she touched more lives, taught more Torah, inspired more people than most people granted decades more of life. She served as principal of a Sefardic girls high school in Brooklyn – her reputation spanned many boundaries – lectured extensively to varied groups of girls and women on theological, practical and halachic issues; and counseled and inspired countless others. And when she was taken, some of the most respected rabbinical personages in New York eulogized her.

I only met her twice, both times when she brought groups of students to Agudath Israel’s offices to hear a presentation. I knew at the time that she was the sister of my dear friend and colleague Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, today Agudath Israel’s executive vice president. But had I known just who she herself was I’m not sure I would have felt comfortable speaking in the presence of someone so accomplished.

Rebbetzin Braunstein’s achievements were not the product of some struggle to be perceived as a Jewish leader, or of a struggle to be perceived at all. She was a noble Jewish woman who understood well what the Jewish ideal of modesty entailed, not just in dress and conduct but in life. She simply learned at a young age that she had talents that could be turned to good, to spread Jewish values and Jewish knowledge; and so she felt the obligation to use them. But she didn’t revel in the renown or the respect she earned. In fact, she preferred the title “Mrs.” to “Rebbetzin.” She would sometimes say that if everyone in the next world was given an hour to return to this one, some would surely use the hour to study Torah or perform a particular mitzvah or recite Psalms. She, though? She would head straight for the kitchen to make a hearty soup for her children and grandchildren.

Not an image that would sit well, I imagine, with those who aspire to titles like “Maharat” or “Rabba”, the natty neologisms being chanted these days by some. The contrast between those chanters’ ideals and Rebbetzin Braunstein’s example is stark.

At a recent conference of a group called the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, the woman on whom a rabbinic title was conferred spoke of the “fight to confirm women as spiritual leaders”; called women Orthodox clergy a “dream” to be “vocalized”; insisted that Jewish institutions “must train women” for the role; and implied that Orthodox women currently lack “a voice in shaping and contributing to our community as spiritual leaders.”

Tell that to the thousands who were ably taught and guided by Zahava Braunstein. Or the many thousands more who have received, and continue to receive, no less instruction and guidance from hundreds of other Orthodox women teachers, Rebbetzins and Mrs.’s across the country and around the world.

There are many reasons why every recognized decisor of Jewish law across the Orthodox spectrum has rejected the concept of a woman rabbi. Among the reasons are objections based on particular technical requirements of a rabbinic role; others are based on those decisors’ judgment of what is sociologically proper in Judaism – a judgment of no less halachic import to a truly observant Jew. But what became apparent to me, listening to the presentation and reading reports of the JOFA conference, is that, beyond all those valid concerns, the entire enterprise is misguided in its essence.

Because the motivation of those brandishing the cause of women rabbis – notwithstanding all the high-sounding rhetoric about filling a need and benefiting the community– seems clearly to be the shattering of a perceived “glass ceiling,” an “advancement” of “women’s rights,” an end to “discrimination.”

The rabbah-rousers do apparently seek to serve – but their master seems to be feminism, not Judaism.

The Talmud (Ketuvot 67b) tells of a great scholar, Mar Ukva, who discovered to his dismay that, in the pursuit of a charitable enterprise, his wife had merited a miracle that had not been granted him.

The wise woman explained to her rabbi husband: “I’m in the house so much more than you, so I have many more opportunities than you to be charitable toward the poor who come to our doorstep. And the food and drink I give them can be enjoyed immediately, unlike the money you give [to the poor collecting alms]. And so, with regard to charity, my merit is greater than yours.”

Mrs. Ukva understood something most of us – men and women alike – don’t always sufficiently appreciate, that what counts over our years on this earth is not the prominence we acquire but the merit we achieve; not our particular roles but what we do with them.

That what matters in the end are not the honorifics we sport but the honor we earn.

© 2010 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


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15 Responses

  1. David says:

    If a woman can pass the test, then a woman should be called “rabbi.” Unless you have some reason (not yet articulated) as to why a person who has proved herself qualified should be deemed permanently unqualified.

  2. Meir Shinnar says:

    WADR to RYA, rav Mendlowitz was not just an “untitled prime mover”, he was the principal of the school and its public face for many years …
    Again, one need not require people to forego their title – but it is hard to say that it is required by most of those who us it – even if one holds that the issue of kavod hatora may require titles, it is hard to think that a director of public affairs requires more than the principal of a yeshiva….
    I would add that the principle of kavod hatora cuts both ways – when a woman reaches a certain level in torah learning and public status….

  3. Albert says:

    Titleless:

    What he wrote is that what MATTERS is who we are, not the title we have. So unless you know that Rabbi Shafran considers his organization title what “matters in the end” to him (do you?), there isn’t anything ironic here.

  4. Yakov says:

    >Who’s worse?<

    There is a great prima facie case to be made on this point. But it is just that, "on the face of it." The reason is, those acts of extremism make headlines. Those who accept upon themselves another hour to be careful in shmiras haloshon, another meal made for a friend in need, another call to a relative to make up and bring more shalom to the world, etc. etc. DO NOT make headlines.

    Those who have their focus on yiras shomayim and daily dedication to their avodas Hashem are the ones we should admire and take lessons from.

    I am not dismissing the sincerity to which some of those want a greater public expression of their dedication to Am Yisroel, but it is completely as Rabbi Shafran writes, the quiet acts bring much more honor to a person.

    If those maasim are consistent with our Mesorah, then they will get all the brochos they deserve. If it departs from it, it is a break with our ancestors and the ratzon Hashem they profess to want to uphold, no matter how sincere they are in their beliefs.

  5. Meir Shinnar says:

    So you think Rav Mendelowitz was wrong in foregoing his title, because the “honor due to a talmid chacham (or the organization he represents) is not optional; he cannot dismiss it because of his personal humility. The Torah’s honor is not his to forego”…

    [YA- I think that if he had been the Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaas instead of the untitled prime mover, he could not have allowed his personal humility to stand in the way of Kavod HaTorah. I am reminded of the Teshuvas HaRashba that encourages donors to have their donations made known to the public – despite their eschewing kavod – in order to stimulate more charitable giving.]

  6. Miriam says:

    I also felt like this was a preacher preaching to the choir. It doesn’t reach the minds of the ordinary and content Jews in the middle that Rabbi L describes, nor does it get inside the minds of the undecided less-than-frum who I assume is Rabbi Shafran’s real target audience.

    I think the point of the example of Reb Braunstein, is that there are already many opportunities for intelligent and charismatic women to serve the klal – with the full blessing of Rabbinic leadership – making the invention of female-Rabbinic roles unnecessary and therefore partially questionable in intent.

    Perhaps some feel that the title Rabbi is the ticket into an authoritative role within community service. But that is inaccurate. Some women do get a ticket – through their family or other connections. But most women, and for that matter men, start with a small role, and their talents will naturally expand their circle of influence and range of opportunities.

    But there’s one specific detail – the actual role of community Rabbi. That one is off-limits to women. The role of primary community leadership is for the men – when the prophetess Devorah took on that role it was with reluctance and disappointment.

    There are halachot concerning whether a woman can serve in such a position, and more importantly there are hashkafot – perspectives – on personal and community growth, including general differences between men and women. But when it comes to world views, the range of ideas and answers cannot be encapsulated in one paragraph, or one article. Which leaves it up to the reader’s own investigation and imagination.

  7. Titleless says:

    That what matters in the end are not the honorifics we sport but the honor we earn.

    © 2010 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

    [Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

    Anyone notice the irony here?

    [YA – Not at all. Sometimes people must emphasize their titles because of the honor it brings what they represent. A king cannot forego his honor halachically, because it is the position that is honored, more than the person. The honor due to a talmid chacham (or the organization he represents) is not optional; he cannot dismiss it because of his personal humility. The Torah’s honor is not his to forego.]

  8. L. Oberstein says:

    I am no advocating female clergy, just making a sociological observation. Part of the othodox world no longer allows photographs of females in their publications, won’t even print their names if they are still alive and offer a mazal tov to the father of the bride without mentioning her name. Thatg is one extreme. The rabbah side is the other. In the middle are many fine ,very frum, highly educated women who live in a part of the orthodox world that sees nothing wrong with their giving a dvar torah in front of a mixed audience. I remember a sheva brochos where the learned husband gave a dvar torah at one meal and his new wife at the next, and she was very sharp and knowledgable. I guess which Seminary she had attended in Bayit Vegan and was right on the first try. That women is today an attorney and her husbnad is a Rosh Kollel. One faction thinks what she did is not appropriate, the other thinks it was a kiddush Hashem. This middle ground may be the norm outside of the Yeshivish and Chassidish enclaves. if a women can be a top lawyer arguing cases in front of a jury, why can’t she give a dvar torah in front of men?

  9. david says:

    I identify fully with the anti-rabbah/maharat camp, and precisely for this reason I found this article disturbing.

    Rabbi Shafran’s opposition to ordaining women (as expressed in this piece) is based primarily on the assumption that all women seeking ordination and all those who seek to ordain women are driven by a desire to “serve feminism.” This is a tenuous assumption that cannot possibly be proven. By establishing our position on such a flimsy basis, Rabbi Shafran severely weakens our stance and makes us look absurd. It gives the impression that we have to make up unverifiable facts to explain our opposition.

    Basically, this just adds ammunition to the “Rabba rousers,” and I think that’s a bad thing.

  10. Meir Shinnar says:

    Rav Shafran illustrates the problem of much of the opposition to Maharat/rabbah etc. I have never met Rebbetzin Braunstein, but her position as principal of a high school is far more revolutionary to traditional hashkafa than the Maharat. The sociological role of girl’s school principal is quite a radical change – and that that Ms Hurwitz will fulfill is far less radical (after all, a principal has far more serara, including the male staff, than any pulpit rav (and for sure assistant rav) possibly has.

    yes, the desire for honorifics is problematic – both for men and women – but but in the end, when dealing with people in a professional situation, one wants some certification of their accomplishments. It may be a nice virtue not to desire titles or honorifics. As known. Rav Mendlowitz z’l wanted to be addressed as Mr. Mendlowitz.
    However, most of us don’t view the desire of most pulpit rabbanim or mechanchim (or Aguda activists…) to be known as rabbi as a moral or religious failure.

    I have yet to see any coherent argument about why the title (rather than a specific role) is a halachic issue. The main issue seems In the end, the argument is sociological – R braunstein was part of unserere, Ms Hurwitz is not There is no discussion at all of any difference in halachic role or communal role – except that Ms Hurwitz has relationships with “feminists” and R Braunstein did not…

    THis transformation of current social norms to halachic norms – a mirror image of Reform – is far more problematic than anything Ms Hurwitz has done.

  11. Reb Yid says:

    So some men and women don’t need this. To them, I say fine. I do not live inside their heads or hearts, and far be it for me or anyone else to dictate to them what they must do.

    That said, this is a two-way street. There are those who have very legitimate needs…if their “idol” was primarily feminism there are many ways they could have easily opted out of Orthodoxy, whether within a different denominational framework or outside of Judaism entirely.

    It does a tremendous disservice (not to mention lashon hara) to impugn the motives of those who are striving for these changes. Have any of those on this board who oppose these changes spent considerable time with Sara Hurwitz, the valuable work she performs every day, and the totally non-threatening manner in which she displays her love for leading an observant Jewish life?

  12. dr. bill says:

    “There are many reasons why every recognized decisor of Jewish law across the Orthodox spectrum has rejected the concept of a woman rabbi. Among the reasons are objections based on particular technical requirements of a rabbinic role; others are based on those decisors’ judgment of what is sociologically proper in Judaism – a judgment of no less halachic import to a truly observant Jew.”

    Arguments about “technical requirements of a rabbinic role” are well known and need not be debated further. However, the POV of “others” as you articulate it, is a textbook example of what divides the orthodox world.

    Delete two words and i suspect most who oppose the Maharat or Rabbah would agree with you. WORD 1: halakhic – rabbis can and should make make such religious decisions for their community and LABEL THEM as such. Calling them halakhic is both unnecessary and fails to recognize that there are religious values, not strictly speaking halakhically mandated, that our important. This is critically important because what is a halakhic principle is immutable; religious judgements are often situational. WORD 2: truly. Truly unnecesary and adds a perhaps unintended pejorative tenor. Take the two words out and your sentance becomes inclusive of most of the orthodox community.

  13. Here’s a different perspective:
    When Modern Orthodox folks go to extremes, they ordain women as rabbis.
    When some other people go to to extremes, they riot, destroy public property, call police horrific insults, protect criminals from prosecution, etc.
    Who’s worse?

  14. Joe Hill says:

    Well stated Rav Shafran.

    Thank You

  15. joel rich says:

    But what became apparent to me, listening to the presentation and reading reports of the JOFA conference, is that, beyond all those valid concerns, the entire enterprise is misguided in its essence.

    =======================================================================
    But you didn’t feel that way prior to listening?(the whole “intent thing” is interesting and requires more sociological analysis as to how to determine group vs. individual members’ intent)
    One thought-if titles are so unimportant (and I agree that we (males and females) should all be a bit less concerned with titles and more with letting our deeds speak for themselves)why do many orthodox educational institutions “confer” the title Rabbi on any male who teaches lmudei kodesh there?
    Chag Kasher V’sameach,