Monday, March 23, 2009

Women Rabbis

I noticed a few people speaking about the place of female spiritual leaders in Judaism. Namely Gil Student (Hirhurim) and the "Garnel Ironheart" blog in regards to Sara Hurwitz, a woman appointed by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah's Dean as a "Spiritual Leader" after her completion of a rabbinic course. "Garnel", as I suppose he shall be called, seemed to just be criticizing Yeshivat Chovevei Torah for considering women for spiritual-leadership roles. I couldn't disapprove more of his approach. He has his idea of the limitations of Orthodox Judaism, and nothing, not even an honest inquiry into the halachic sources, would change his mind that such things are evil, and that this modern Orthodox yeshiva is forfeiting on it's orthodoxy for even considering such things.

Gil on the other hand, did at least take a bit of time to consider the halackic and "hashkafic" reality of the subject in a novel light, though even he discussing the most practical aspect of it, and is mostly just quoting previous halackic authorities (who rule against the idea).

Personally I never considered the "unorthodox" approach to it much, until I dated a girl who happened to be a "rabid feminist". Upon my conversations with her I started considering the subject more seriously than I had in the past, and started to "see the light" in some forms of Feminism. Yet even today my opinions about it haven't been fully shaped, as, I hope, my opinions about all things. Still, I'm very clear that the current Ultra-Orthodox approach would be inconsistent with the "spirit of the law".

Though I must also state that I feel the whole idea of what it should mean to be a spiritual leader in Judaism is a bit misunderstood. The modern concept of what it means to be a "rabbi" is a relatively modern one, and has changed dramatically since Talmudic times. To put it shortly the current concept of a "rabbi" was born in Western Europe in the fourteenth century, partly to mimic the Christian minister. In Talmudic Judaism though, there was a much greater amount of self-autonomy in the spiritual realm, and let's not even discuss pre-Talmudic times!

There were obviously female prophetesses who advised male visitors, female Judges and learned and pious women in Tanaitic times. Reagarding women in the Talmud though, one might say that we see that there were no "women rabbis" and that the Talmud frowns upon such innovations. In my opinion, though, the fact that the great women the Talmud discusses were not public spiritual leaders was, it can be said, only an influence of the time and place of the Talmud (the situation for wome has changed little until recent times). I feel that if the Talmud itself, so to speak, if it were to be strolling about today, it would seem much more liberal about the subject than Orthodox rabbis today..

From a halakhic viewpoint there seems to be a difference in interpretation between Orthodox and Conservative rabbis in regards to the Talmudic source passages regarding women in the public domain, for which traditional reasonings are usually given concerning a fear that putting women in the public eye would endanger the spiritual safety of men (and which liberal rabbis interpret differentely). Though it can be said that there is more than halakha guiding the Orthodox pinion, and more than halakha guiding the Conservative opinion, but I would add that considering the "temporal conformity" of the Torah and Talmud, the responsa of the conservative rabbis should be considered more seriously.


Chaviva said...

A big, hearty ditto on what you said.

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...


It's funny, because after I wrote this I thought that it covers the topic in so limited a way that it should actualy just be a draft..

..look out for edits, I guess..