August 18, 2009
When Will the Slander End?
A few weeks ago I officiated at a wedding. The bride was a giyyoret (a convert to Judaism), and the couple had requested that the honor of reading the ketuba under the chuppah be given to the bride’s teacher. Her teacher was truly her rebbe muvhak, the teacher from whom she had learned the great majority of her Torah knowledge, and from whom she had learned how to practice Judaism. Naturally I agreed, and we proceeded accordingly.
As could be expected after many years of Talmud study, the rebbe read the Aramaic text flawlessly. The bride glowed with joy and appreciation. It was a magical moment within an already magical day.
Most Orthodox rabbis would not have allowed this rebbe to read this ketuba. Because in this case, the rebbe was a woman.
Halacha, as our community practices it, excludes women from a variety of public ritual roles. But reading the ketuba happens not to be one of them. Rabbis who have written in opposition to women reading the ketuba invariably open their arguments by acknowledging precisely this point. As one scholarly detractor has written, “If one judges the issue from the perspective of the laws of the marriage ceremony, there’s nothing wrong … The marriage would be one hundred percent valid”. Yet, he and many others would have said “no” in this case.
On what grounds? For one scholar, a woman reading the ketuba violates the laws of personal modesty. But is the reading of a ketuba less modest than teaching a class, or addressing a professional gathering? The latter are activities in which perfectly modest women engage in regularly today. For another scholar the issue is not modesty, but tradition. “Tradition possesses its own power, and why should we deviate from tradition for no purpose?”. But why would anyone assume that a particular women is being chosen to read the ketuba “for no purpose”? Have you ever been at a wedding and thought to yourself that the man who is reading the ketuba was chosen by the couple “for no purpose”?
But it is actually a third objection to a women reading the ketuba that seems to have the most currency. Put forward by numerous rabbinic writers in a variety of contexts, it declares that whenever Orthodox women perform ritual practices that are traditionally associated with men, their motivation is invariably subversive. Women who read a ketuba (or who recite Kiddush or HaMotzi at the Shabbat table, or who take a lulav, or who wear a tallit when they daven) are invariably engaged in an act of religious disobedience, cynically utilizing religious practice as a means of expressing their rebellion against perceived unfairness or injustice in Orthodox life. Thus, not only do their acts lack religious value, they actually constitute sin.
There are, of course, several things wrong with this way of thinking. For starters, there’s the astonishing implicit assertion that the seeking of fairness and justice are to be regarded as acts of religious rebellion. But beyond this, the very essence of the argument constitutes an outrageous act of slander against thousands of Orthodox women. They are rebelling?? Is there any lack of fully egalitarian Jewish movements that are open to women who want out of Orthodoxy or out of Halacha? Surely not. But these women have not bolted Orthodoxy. They are engaged in a campaign of religious disobedience?? Are Orthodox women who read ketubot, recite Kiddush and lain in women’s tefilla groups not observing Kashrut? Or Shabbat? Or the laws of Niddah? We are forbidden by halacha to be suspicious of the upright. How is it conceivable to causally, unthinkingly condemn thousands of pious women as being subversive religious rebels? And for how long will so many of us stand by as this slander continues to shape Orthodox practice?
The woman who read the ketuba at the wedding described above happens to be my wife, a profoundly religious woman, a role model, an inspiration, a lifelong Jewish educator. She is a person who believes in fairness and justice, and who wants to leave a fairer and more just Orthodoxy to the girls and women who will follow her. And there are so many Orthodox women like her in these respects, heroes of our generation, who, in addition to all of their other attributes, are wise enough to not be dissuaded by baseless slander, no matter where it originates. They deserve our support.