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Rav Mayer Twersky: Women Rabbis Are a Sign of Deep Assimilation

Editor’s Note: The following represents only notes and thoughts on several themes presented by Rabbi Twersky. Anyone interested is in further information is invited to please visit http://www.torahweb.org. The title of the shiur was “The Role of Women in Mesorah,” dated January 10, 2015. Rabbi Hershel Schachter also presented on “How to Ask Halachic Questions”.


Drawing extensively from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s eulogy for the Talne Rebbetzin, Rabbi Mayer Twersky shared conclusions from the Rav’s definition of the role of women in mesorah to deliver his own opinion on the current debate regarding women’s ordination, explaining in detail why women being ordained as rabbis is diametrically opposed to Jewish tradition and the proscribed gender roles of male and female as dictated by the Torah.

In a speech Sunday evening, sponsored by TorahWeb.org and hosted at Bergenfield’s Congregation Beth Abraham, Rabbi Twersky set the stage with a clear delineation of what the role of women is as part of our mesorah (legacy). He shared the differences between the two mesorahs in Judaism—the legacy of the fathers and the legacy of the mothers. From a father, one learns how to read a text, how to learn, how to analyze, how to infer, how to imply. In short, a father teaches a child what to do and what not to do. The father teaches discipline and law.

Rabbi Twersky then quoted the Rav’s more poetic view of the mesorah of the women. “I admit that I am not able to define precisely the masoretic role of the Jewish mother. Only by circumscription I hope to be able to explain it… I used to watch her arranging the house in honor of a holiday. I used to see her recite prayers; I used to watch her recite the sidra every Friday night and I still remember the nostalgic tune. I learned from her very much.

“…Most of all I learned that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life—to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive,” wrote Rabbi Soloveitchik.

As a comparison between the two mesorahs: “The fathers taught generations how to observe the Shabbat; mothers taught generations how to greet the Shabbat and how to enjoy her 24-hour presence,” wrote Soloveitchik. To that end, both men and women are created b’tzelem Elokim (in the image of God), with God encompassing the characteristics of both male and female.

Rabbi Twersky also named the biblical value of tzniut (modesty) as a key masoretic value and it is incumbent upon women to emulate that value. Rabbi Twersky went through the various roles of the matriarchs of the Bible, sharing how their work in the background of their husband’s or son’s lives were nonetheless pivotal to the outcome. They were not speakers, or even perceived as leaders to external view (for the most part), but they were the undisputed heads of their households and key deciders in major life events and all family activities.

The eternal universal relevance and applicability of the Torah depends upon applying masoretic values and principles in modern situations. Rabbi Twersky said that the mandate of tzniut for women must be adhered to in both the secular and religious sphere. “Guidance must be sought in terms of what is mutar (permitted) and what is assur (forbidden) and what is appropriate and inappropriate for women in a secular sphere,” he said.

However, Rabbi Twersky said there is no analogy whatsoever between what is allowable in the shul and what happens in the corporate boardroom. “Whatever meaningfulness, if any, roles and positions in the boardroom possess, they don’t in the least compare to the significance of the roles and positions in a Torah community. Behavior in a religious sphere most directly upholds or violates the Torah’s axiomatic gender differentiation in avodas Hashem. Thus, the question of women serving as CEOs is not linked to the question of women being ordained or serving as rabbis,” he said.

The ‘Profane’ Roots of Ordination of Women

Rabbi Twersky noted that despite the sincerity and sense of doing this l’shem Shamayim (for the sake of Heaven) of many women who desire to serve as rabbis, the broader social context is crucial. He took the time to acknowledge what he referred to as “this undeniable concerted effort afoot to egalitarianize” roles in Jewish practice.

Of this concerted effort, Rabbi Twersky said: “The profane roots of this antinomian movement reaches back to the 1970s with the demand for sifrei Torah for women during hakafos, and women’s tefillah groups. Ordination of women is one of the more recent fronts of that misguided effort. It’s overwhelmingly clear that a women serving in the very public religious leadership role of rabbi directly violates and contradicts the entire mesorah concerning the Jewish woman concerning tzelem Elokim.”

Rabbi Twersky made two further points on this topic. First, he said, “By no means am I implying that mesorah is the only ‘impediment’ to having women rabbis.”

He said that the claim that women rabbis represent a new and unprecedented situation is somewhat dubious. “Formal schooling and instruction for Jewish girls is relatively new. Instances of remarkably learned Jewish women are not,” he said.

He explained that most famously, Bruriah, wife of Tanna Rabbi Meir, was a very great Torah scholar who was called in to adjudicate a famous dispute between Rabbi Tarfon and the sages, and is one of several women quoted as a sage in the Talmud. “And yet, the existence of such eminent learned women never yielded women rabbis,” he said.

Rabbi Twersky said the politically incorrect, yet historically correct, explanation would seem to be simple. It was self evident that it would be unthinkable as it seems to contradict the Torah’s religious gender differentiation.

A Result of Deep Assimilation

We tend to think of assimilation in concrete, practical terms, Rabbi Twersky said. Someone eating treif, someone breaking Shabbos, for example. “Obviously, such behaviors are painful instances of assimilation, but assimilation often begins more subtly. It begins in the realm of thought, ideas and values. Ideational assimilation occurs when we absorb ideas and values antithetical to Torah from the surrounding culture,” he explained.

“Often these ideas and values penetrate upon our minds and hearts imperceptibly, by osmosis. Having penetrated our minds, they dictate our mindset. Sometimes the infection of the assimilation reaches so deep within our being that we mistake transient Western societal values for absolute universal values. And then we proceed to zealously, self-righteously reinterpret, in reality misinterpret, Torah,” he said.

Rabbi Twersky continued: “To be specific, Western society is aggressively utilitarian. It equates equality with uniformity. And conversely, diversity with inequality. This Western social axiom stands in marked contrast to the traditional Jewish community.”

For the full recording of Rabbi Twersky’s shiur, please visit http://www.Torahweb.org.

By Elizabeth Kratz

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