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.