Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Women's Learning and Women Rabbis

I surprised myself the other week by engaging in a passionate Feminist speech. I say surprised myself, because as I see it I have never held particularly Feminist views. I have certain problems with Shira Chadasha - the current cutting edge of Orthodox (?) Feminism - and I frequently find Feminist activism as petty, irritating and destabilising/anti-establishment.

So my harangue began as we raised the topic of the Maharat ordination (link1 link2). For the uninitiated, the Marahat is a title aimed at ordaining women as Rabbis in the Orthodox community. It has been instigated by Rav Avi Weiss of HIR in Riverdale and Yeshivat Chovevai Torah.

I guess a few comments are in order as a prelude:

1. I am a big believer in Limmud Torah for women. I believe that true depth in Jewish belief, practice and emotional experience is a function of the extent to which we have learned and absorbed classic Jewish texts into our consciousness. This can only happen through serious and extensive Talmud Torah. I see no difference between men and women in this regard.

2. I have many role models of wonderful women Talmidot Chachamim in my community (Alon Shevut). My neighbours include several women who are widely respected and consulted for their Halakhic knowledge as Yoatzot Halakha (link). Then there are my colleagues and friends - some of the finest and most sought after women Torah teachers in Jerusalem. Alon Shevut has a women's Daf Yomi that meets daily, and every day, I encounter committed, bright, halakhic, spiritually and religiously motivated women who are living exemplars of Torah and who are certainly learned by any definition of the term.

3. I have said for some time, in conversation with my students, that Rabbis serve four primary functions:
#1. psak halakha; #2. teaching; #3. Counseling and giving guidance/advice; #4. A synagogue function.
As for women, functions #1-3 they already do. Women DO pasken (Yoatzot Halakha), DO give guidance and advise, and DO teach men and women Torah (Nehama Leibowitz anyone?) All this is de rigeur in the Modern Orthodox community.

Function #4. is more problematic since we have seperate zones in shul. But effectively, ignoring that, what is wrong with a woman "Rabbi"?

... And having said all of that, I didn't see it important to push for a title, or a communal status. It just didn't seem that important!

So, back to my harangue. It is connected to my experience, and frustration, with my daughter's schooling. My daughter is an excellent student, thank God, and is generally at the top-end of her class. She frequently acts as if school just isn't that challenging.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that in her school, she has just started a Torah Shebal Peh program this year. Let us begin with the fact that this topic receives only 2 hours/week, and she is in 5th grade...not exactly reinforcing the importance of the topic. But OK, if we do accept that, what are they studying in these 2 hours? - A single Mishna from Pirkei Avot each week. ONE MISHNA! These are Israeli kids who can simply read it. They aren't doing mepharshim. What are they doing???!!! Let me add that I have already studied multiple massechtot of Mishna with my daughter including Massechet Shabbat (24 chapters!) She knows Mishna. Why is Avot the only Toshb"p that she is doing in school?

[Just to make things clear, they study 18 hours+ Tanach a week! It is a high-level seriously religious girls school]

So why are they doing so little? So many excuses were given. But two things stood clear to me after some investigation:

1. The school doesn't particularly see the great need to teach my daughter Torah shebAl Peh. Let me add that in a neighboring school, boys are given the opportunity to study 2 extra hours of Gemara after school (called Tigbur - strengthening!) and the girls simply go home. Apparently girls don't need strengthening! But also it is clear that even in Gush Etzion with so many learned women and the towering institute of Migdal Oz, women's Torah Shebal Peh is not taken nearly as seriously, and is far below the level of their male counterparts.

2. One of the problems was that there simply were no female teachers on the staff of this particular school who felt adequately trained to teach Mishna at the requisite level. After all, a great Mishna teacher has studied Mishna and Talmud for years. He or she knows the material at a very high level and can bring all his or her experience to bear when teaching even basic material (Mishna) thereby injecting interest and investing the subject matter with depth and relevance. No women on the faculty had this capability.

So how can I change things? How can I get the school to take my daughter's brain and soul seriously? How can I get the teachers who know Torah Shebal Peh into the school?

And so, I began to think: In the Western world, when High Schools failed to take girls' physics seriously, someone said: "Well, we need women physics teachers. Until the students see a female role model, they will never take it seriously. And to get women's physics teachers we need female University professors. Because unless we have women teaching physics in University, we will never have physics taken seriously for girls at High School. " And I guess that is Feminism. And maybe - just possibly - it applies to my frustration. Maybe what is true for physics is true for Torah, or in our case, Mishna.

And I suddenly thought, well maybe we DO need to have publicly recognised communal figureheads who are versed in Torah ShebAl Peh. Maybe we do need women Rabbis, or at least women Talmidei Chachamim with some hefty public recognition. Why? -So that someone will take 5th grade Mishna seriously for my daughter!

Now, .... I am still torn, still a little stuck on this one. Maybe I am just torn between innovation and traditionalism. Maybe I am wavering due to my inability to read the long-term implications of such a move. I know that I don't particularly like the Maharat title as such. To be honest, I would like to see the Yoetzet title develop as the prime title that recognises women as masters of Halakhic study, (even if it is in Hilchot Nidda... after all, traditional Semicha is just on Kashrut topics.) I also have no real clarity as to the precise role I want such a women to play in shul, if she were to be the sole spiritual leader of a congregation. And yet, let me reiterate that unless the community see women Talmidei Chachamim ( - It doesn't have to be a Rabbi, or a Maharat, or a Yoetzet - ) and recognise that role of scholar, teacher and religious guide as a valuable pursuit, as a noble status for women; until then, our daughters' Talmud Torah will be relegated to second-rate status. Always.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Maccabiah 18. Everyone is Jewish!

The Maccabiah is a phenomenal enterprise. I saw this headline in Haaretz this week, which sort of sums it up:

'It's Amazing! Everyone's Jewish' (link)

To participate in a sporting event with over 5000 Jews coming together in Israel, is quite something. Many of these Jews mix predominantly in non-Jewish social circles. Some are from small communities where there are small Jewish populations. Suddenly they are in Israel, with 5000 Jews. It must be quite a celebration.

I spent a wonderful Shabbat this week at Kfar HaMaccabiah. It was quite a happening scene. A beautiful hotel and sports complex teeming with young and old - over 180 athletes and 150 delegate leaders - all dressed in colourful sports clothing, branded with their national colours and the Maccabiah symbol.

So why was I there? The Rabbinic organisation, Tzohar, sent me. They figured that with so many Jews, there should be some Judaism. This excellent initiative sent Rabbis to each of the Maccabiah hotels in order to inject some Judaism. We ran a lovely Kabbalat Shabbat and kiddush on Friday night. We tried to run some other programs in the course of Shabbat. (They didn't all succeed mainly due to lack of publicity. Next time - in 4 years - I will have understood better how to manouver the Maccabiah organisational system.)

We met some incredible people, including a lovely 84 year-old South African man, Isaac Joffe, who plays tennis in the over '80's category, and Albert, the head of the French delgation, as well as the Chilean rugby team who all attended Kabbalat Shabbat.

And yet, what does strike me is that we were a drop in the ocean there. There are so many Jews., but very little Judaism. Shani - the Israeli Culture Coordinator at our hotel, a young secular looking woman - was really excited at the prospect of a good spiritual Kabbalat Shabbat. I don't know her background, but as an Israeli, she had participated in Birthright and the spiritual quality of Kabbalat Shabbat on that program made a deep impression on her. It was strikingly evident that Shani was really hoping for a Jewish spiritual Friday night experience, as were many others. But 80% of the athletes were doing other things. (Yes - I know these people come for the sport, and have their mind on sport, but still, since this is a Jewish event, how DO we give it greater Jewish content?)

I have to be honest; I generally educate in Modern Orthdox circles, a world which I know intimately. I am more than a little puzzled whenever I come into contact with very secular Jewish groups, especially from abroad. I am always wondering: Where is their Judaism rooted? Of what does it consist? For me, my Judaism rests on the foundations of Halakha, ritual, community, study. It is everything to me. Without that, my Judaism would feel flimsy, unsubstantial. But can a Maccabiah identity be the totality of a person's Judaism? Can a Judaism that consists of vague rituals on Pesach and Yom Kippur, of sporting groups and some social and fundraising events, truly mobilise young people to be proud Jews? What content do these people give their Judaism? I don't mean to patronise. I am genuinely curious.

Tzohar have made a start. I would love to find ways to take this sort of thing further. But I also need to understand better what makes these young proud Jews tick. After all, these Jews are the majority of the Jewish world. What excites them? When they are proud to be Jewish, what is the source of that pride? These people do not observe shabbat, and their cultural context is entirely secular. I wonder, what acts ro situations do they consider to be "Jewish?" What contitutes their Judaism? What role does Israel play in all this? And will this be powerful enough to pass on to their children?