Controversial Rabbi Willig Statement Prompts Conversation on Women's Talmud Study
There’s one certainty about the Yeshiva University faculty: it is not homogenous. In no area is this more apparent than when it comes to views about feminism and religion. There are egalitarian members of the University’s faculty who want total equality between the sexes in all religious arenas, and there are those who would like nothing better then to revert to the practices of yesteryear, where women had very little say in Jewish communal life. Of course, most of the religious leaders within the University fall somewhere between these two ends of the spectrum, but the best place to be seems like a point of constant contention. This tension came to the surface this summer when a Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Mordechai Willig, wrote an article on TorahWeb.com about re-evaluating the norms of religious society.
The article discusses the importance of following the dictates of the Torah, and how terrible it is that some people are not careful when it comes to Torah observance. “We must obey all of Hashem's laws, especially those that others trample upon,” Rabbi Willig wrote. He writes that one of the sources of rampant transgressions among many in the Modern Orthodox community is due to blurred lines in gender roles as they concern religious practice. He talks about how many may not like the message that he is spreading, and that issues such as gender equality may lead to a “schism” among Orthodox Judaism.
“This phenomenon (feminism within orthodoxy) may lead to a schism within Orthodoxy. In a very recent article (Ha'aretz July 27, 2015 - available without login from The Forward), Israeli Orthodox scholars indicate that the beliefs of liberals are really Conservative but they publicly cling to Orthodoxy because of its identity ("lifestyle, ideology, value system, social ties") and its association with authenticity. However, the "blurring of boundaries between Conservative and Modern Orthodox Judaism" undermines the very authenticity of self-defined Modern Orthodoxy.”
The most significant line of the article, however, came at the end of his discussion of women and Talmud study. Rabbi Willig wrote, “the inclusion of Talmud in curricula for all women in Modern Orthodox schools needs to be reevaluated. While the gedolim of the twentieth century saw Torah study to be a way to keep women close to our mesorah, an egalitarian attitude has colored some women's study of Talmud and led them to embrace and advocate egalitarian ideas and practices which are unacceptable to those very gedolim.”
The idea of reevaluating women’s education elicited a multitude of reactions amongst many people in the Modern Orthodox community. President Richard Joel said, “there’s no limit to what women can do and learn. This is a university that honors thought, even when there is profound disagreement about that thought. Universities should be safe spaces where its scholars and faculty can express themselves civilly and be free to disagree. Yeshiva University has to honor that, even as it says clearly that statements of faculty, whether religious or secular, are statements of their own, and in no way represent the policies of the university. The president speaks for the University. Within halacha, there should be no limits to what women can learn and achieve.”
Other members of the YU community also penned responses to Rabbi Willig’s stance. Dr. Aaron Koller, last years’ Associate Dean of Yeshiva College, along with his wife, Shira Hecht-Koller, wrote a response entitled “New Circumstances Demand New Halachic Views,” which applauded the progress made in the Modern Orthodox community in general and in regards to women’s study of Talmud. Similarly, Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, another Rosh Yeshiva at YU, issued a response entitled “Re-evaluating Talmud Torah for Women?”
Although there seem to be many details of Rabbi Willig’s nuanced opinions about women and Judaism that are not totally fleshed out within this article, it is clear that he has a more right-wing stance in relation to some of the other religious leaders in the YU faculty. What makes YU such a remarkable institution is that it allows so many different voices to coexist under one roof. We must guard this intellectual openness, as it is the key for future growth not just for Yeshiva University, but for the Modern Orthodox community in general.