Jewish Journal

Are We Our own Biggest Problem - Part 2

by Rav Yosef Kanefsky

November 25, 2009 | 4:43 pm

In my previous post, http://www.jewishjournal.com/morethodoxy/item/are_we_our_own_biggest_problem_39091110/  , I listed four ways in which we, the Orthodox community, are shooting ourselves in the foot. That is to say, at a time in Jewish history when it’s particularly important that we find ways to attract Jews to halacha and tradition, these are four ways in which we seem to bending over backwards to make Orthodoxy unpalatable to the Jewish masses. Having already discussed the first way, namely that we make Orthodoxy harder than it has to be, I’ll now elaborate on way #2, namely that we seem to be hooked on non-halachik, ideological anti-egalitarianism. In numerous instances in which we have solid halachik ground for being inclusive of women, we nonetheless tend to reflexively, self-righteously, and anachronistically just say “no”, in fealty to some vague ideological notion that Orthodoxy and “equal treatment” are locked in a battle to the death. And in pursuit of this dubious ideological but not halachikly indicated end, we wind up locking the gates of Orthodoxy to many otherwise interested women – and men.  Yes, in many of these instances halachik arguments can be made in favor of excluding women, but these are arguments of the same order and rank as the ones that prohibit non-chalav Yisrael milk, or which disqualify virtually any eruv. We can acknowledge the existence of these arguments, and proceed with confidence in our own solid halachik footing, knowing that we have sound, Judaism-positive reasons to be doing so. Here are but two examples of our self-defeating tendencies:

(1) Excluding women from opportunities to lead our institutions: Whether this be something as simple as the opportunity to deliver a Dvar Torah to the congregation on a Shabbat morning, or things more involved, like serving on or chairing the shul ritual committee, or being elected as president of the shul or school, we tend to rule out these kinds of things on grounds that are halachikly unpersuasive, and often socially primitive. The truth is that a little bit of creativity in terms of time and space can obviate any mechitza-related issue, attire that would be expected of any religious man or woman can lay to rest any tzniut (modesty) concerns, and invoking the significant poskim who see no halachik bar to women holding any elected position no matter how high, neutralizes halachik opposition. The only obstacles that remain to be overcome are inertia and ignorance. What is at stake is not only rectifying a fundamental unfairness, but also encouraging – rather than discouraging - bright, leadership minded Jews to consider joining Orthodox communities.
(2) Fudging on the Judaic studies curriculum in our day schools. I can still remember the Shabbat morning when I asked my congregation what they would do if they discovered that their sons and daughters had unequal math or science curricula in school. How would they feel if their boys were being given the skills to do sophisticated work in their futures, while the girls were being prepared for a lifetime of pressing their noses against the glass of advanced learning? While we’ve grown to accept nothing less than equal education leading to equal opportunities in general studies, we’re still not routinely demanding the same in Judaic a, in particular in the area of rabbinic literature. (Not all of us live in NY!)  The plain fact is that families decide against Orthodox schooling for their children (girls and boys) on this basis alone. What is our hesitation? Do we not have faith in the assertions of Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rabbi Lichtenstein and two generations of rabbis and teachers of various stations that it is our halachik obligation to open the world of Talmud to our daughters as well as to our sons? Do we really believe that Orthodoxy wins some kind of ideological victory over radical feminism (whatever that is) through rendering the mothers of our grandchildren unable to engage in sophisticated conversations about halacha? For our children, and for the betterment of the Orthodoxy that we are committed to, we need to stop fudging and accepting half-measures, and instead insist on what’s halachikly and educationally right. (In 13 years here in Los Angeles, I have seen more than enough evidence that parental insistence in this area makes a concrete difference.)
A third way we hurt ourselves is through failing to seriously evaluate the options for being more inclusive of women in the delicate but front-and-center area of communal davening (prayer). This though, is a post (next week’s) unto itself.

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