Letter to the Editor
To the Editor:
Reading Darren May’s account of my shiur “Women Rabbis?,” given in response to student request, especially as it appears in the print edition of The Commentator (Nov. 30) brought home to me the veracity of Benjamin Franklin’s adage “half a truth is a whole lie.” It reminded me of the experience of reading one variety of student response on an exam: The student was clearly present in class, many of the words and ideas are familiar, yet significant elements have been misunderstood or omitted such that the response fundamentally misrepresents the material that was taught. When this happens on an exam, I both correct the student paper and consider how to present the material in the hope of precluding such misunderstanding in the future.
I appreciate The Commentator’s attempt to present a more complete account in the online version of the article but continue to find a need to clarify elements of my presentation that are still omitted from The Commentator’s account, thereby correcting the statement of my position, and to amplify my comments to avoid further misconstrual and misrepresentation. I will not belabor the article’s discussion of what has been attributed to me (much, but not all of which, is accurate) but will rather focus on what has been omitted.
Objections (or lack thereof) to any proposed practice or course of action on purely legal, or halakhic, grounds, are relatively easy to determine and articulate. But not everything that is technically permitted is appropriate or wise, and additional considerations must be taken seriously in making decisions, especially those that entail changing communal practice and norms. Thus, the impact on the fabric of our community must be carefully weighed before going forward even if a given practice is determined to be technically permitted. (I note here that many far greater than I have questioned the halakhic viability of the ordination of women.) Certainly change that has the potential to tear our community apart is counterproductive; in my opinion such change violates the prohibition against creating machloket, articulated by Chazal in no uncertain terms (Sanhedrin 110a).
I prefer to assume the best of motivations on the part of all, and motivations, like the people who harbor them, are frequently complex. As I see it, change should be motivated by communal needs rather than by a desire to adhere to any external ideological vision.
The midrash (Midrash Yelamedeinu Eqev) observes that the first luchot were broken because their giving was accompanied by great publicity and fanfare; in the second, enduring, giving of the luchot God kevayachol chose to do things with b’hetzne’a. To my mind, this provides a model for how change, when warranted, should be achieved in our community: Appropriate change must happen slowly and with b’hetzne’a (in a modest way).
I would have preferred not to articulate explicitly what should be obvious from the preceding sentiments, expressed at the conclusion of my presentation, but apparent confusion over my position necessitates my doing so. Recent years have brought a move in some circles of the modern Orthodox community in the U.S. to ordain women under one guise or another. Even assuming the best of intentions on the part of those involved, this push has been highly divisive and is one of the major issues that have pushed our community to the brink of what may be an irreparable schism. Thus, regardless of any theoretical analysis of the halakhic and hashkafic issues involved (and I think that these merit serious discussion) it is inconceivable for me to support this attempt. Our community can ill afford such a schism, and the onus of preventing it lies on those who wish to institute change. From the very inception of this move, I have adopted the position that if there is to be change, it must be instituted in the right manner by the right people at the right time. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that any of those criteria have been met.
Even more troubling to me is the potential impact that this push for ordination may have on other issues that are not problematic in their own right. I refer to those that have not been communally divisive to any significant degree despite genuine difference of opinion, but that are now being tarnished by association. Recent decades have seen many changes in the opportunities and avenues available to women for Torah learning and spiritual growth. We have witnessed the expansion of opportunities both for individual development and for women to meet the needs our community. There is much in this realm about which I am enthusiastic and I see many of these developments as a great blessing for our community. Although not everyone has embraced these developments, they have not had a schismatic impact on our community.
From my perspective, expanding opportunities in Talmud Torah and ways in which Torah knowledge can be used to meet communal needs is sacred work. But the pursuit of change in divisive ways makes many rabbinic leaders unfortunately, but understandably, reluctant to embrace changes that may not be objectionable on their own terms. To my mind, this would represent an incalculable loss to our community.
It would be folly for me to try to predict what our American modern Orthodox Jewish community will look like in a generation or two hence. It is, however, abundantly clear to me that the push for ordination of women in its current iteration is doing considerable harm to our community today. I have frequently found myself in disagreement with the rhetoric and tone of both those in favor and those opposed to this current development. When all is said and done, I continue to count myself among those who are, in practice, opposed. Lo zeh haderekh ve-lo zo haIr.
I hope it will not be a tefillat shav to pray that those directly involved step back from the edge of the precipice both rhetorically and in action so that with some divine assistance we can perhaps avoid the schism that so many of us fear. Oseh shalom bimromav hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu ve’al kol yisrael.