June 16, 2024
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Women Rabbis: We Don’t Need a Gender Revolution (Yet)

Judaism is an innovative religion. For 3,000 years we have sustained and thrived due to intuition, commitment and a motivated spirit. We are a people who have survived pogroms, inquisitions, blood libels, and more recently, the Shoah. We prosper not through luck, nor intervention of foreign nations, but due to our unwavering belief and conviction in the Almighty. Recently, we in the Orthodox community have been faced with a different kind of test, one that challenges our acceptance of secular notions and ability to cope with ever-growing demands of greater inclusion. Modern Orthodoxy was founded and staunchly committed to the ideals of my great-grandfather’s grandfather, Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch’s Torah im Derech Eretz. This strictly Orthodox concept, maintaining a traditionalist Jewish approach to an increasingly pervasive secular world, used to be ubiquitous in classic Modern Orthodox settings. However, new movements within Orthodox circles, namely the Open Orthodox denomination, have brought radical religious reforms and ideologies to full view. They challenge specifically the way synagogues, Jewish institutions and individual communities deem women’s participation in religious services, especially pertaining to the role of rabbi. To be clear: This article seeks to present not the halachic arguments concerning the ordination of women rabbis, nor am I in any position to debate such a topic. Rather, the goal is to view this debate with a more sociological perspective from the standpoint of someone who has been part of both denominational practices.

I am a teenager with a laptop. As a current student at SAR High School in Riverdale, a Modern Orthodox co-educational yeshiva that made headlines last year for allowing two girls to don tefillin, my premise is based on observations and experience. It is not my right to have an opinion on such a contentious issue, as I am not in a position of religious authority. However, it is my belief that by presenting a fresh viewpoint from an age group that will be most directly affected by these policy changes, or lack thereof, a more clear dialogue can emerge.

In economics, the term perverse incentive denotes the process in which a good intention ultimately leads to bad outcomes due to unforeseen incentives. It is my firm belief as one who has been active in both Modern and Open Orthodox shuls, schools and communities, that women who study to be maharats or receive rabbinic ordination do so out of a sense of religious duty and purpose. I wholeheartedly believe that the girls in my grade who openly talk about their aspirations to change the status quo of male-only rabbis in the Orthodox community are coming from the purest motivations, and their holy intentions should be noted. In fact, their passion to Judaism, especially at a time when synagogue attendance and religious affiliation have been challenges, surpasses that of most men in my school, and their level of enthusiasm for the future of Judaism should inspire us all to better ourselves in leading the next generation of Torah learners. Furthermore, any and all barriers or obstacles to a woman’s Jewish education need be removed, as it is every Jewish person’s right to obtain a yeshiva education regardless of observance or religiousness. Given all that, the issue still remains how far a woman’s rabbinic studies may actually go, along with any subsequent title that comes with it.

Currently, the main organization of orthodox rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America, or RCA, has repeatedly maintained their valued belief in which the title “Rabbi” be reserved for a man. For Modern Orthodoxy, the RCA is the authoritative rabbinic body that, among other things, implements how halacha should be practiced in a modern setting while keeping close to original religious source. Thus, their discourse should not be seen as political ideology, but rather as religious declarations. For many halachic objections to which this article will not get into, they have made it clear that they do not support this new movement. While I cannot disagree with such a statement, for I am in no position to, I still empathize with so many close friends, classmates and family members who feel as though they are not treated as equals under Jewish law in today’s modern world.

Western-feminist thought has reached the minds of bright, young Jewish women and while their concerns must be addressed, the repeated beliefs of our Modern Orthodox leaders, rabbis and institutions must be followed at the end of the day. I heed the core principle that Judaism must not conform to the individual’s expectations of what their religion should be. I ask my friends and classmates: Please do not push your agenda, as righteous as it may be, to a community that has repeatedly told you it’s against. Do not rebel against respected rabbis to prove a point to a denomination that is not ready for such drastic changes. One day, the RCA might reverse its current positions, and if they welcome women rabbis to our communities and shuls, so be it. It is for them and our noble institutions, as well as the gedolei hador to make such a decision. But as for today, in the name of badly needed achdus, do not fracture our community’s long-held unity and togetherness. The gedolei hador do not, in fact, approve of your requests, so I must insist you acknowledge the answers that have been given to your movement. If one so desperately feels rejection and exclusion by the current refusal to amend standard practices, the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist communities will welcome you with open arms, but as for Orthodoxy, please acknowledge and respect what tradition and rabbinical decree tell you.

Lastly, rabbinic ordination is not the only way in which women can become important in a religious community. My Tanach, Gemara, Halacha, Chumash, Navi and Hebrew teachers are and have all been women. They have impacted my life and furthered my education in immeasurable ways, more so than any man, for that matter. Women should be proud of who they are and what they stand for. The reality is, no one can perform all 613 mitzvot. Much like my Kohen friend who can’t attend funerals, certain things apply to certain people. I, as a man, will never be able to have a child and say that he’s 100 percent a Jew. The mother is responsible for the affirmation of a child’s Jewishness, and continuing Jewish lineage. Rather than focus on what limits you, focus on what attributes and obligations are incumbent upon you. If your passion for Orthodox Judaism is as great as I know it is, this particular issue should not be of such concern that would motivate you to leave the practice altogether! It is my hope to see an era of unprecedented learning and dialogue, further pushing spiritual prosperity and seeing the passion in my friends’ eyes; I know it’s possible, with or without the title “Rabbi.” Maybe one day the status quo will be of distant memory, but for now, let all women and men come together and strive for greater unity, learning and peace.

Shabbos Kestenbaum is an 11th grader at SAR High School in Riverdale. Currently serving his second term on student council, Shabbos hopes to become active in politics later on in life.

By Shabbos Kestenbaum

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