Thursday, March 18, 2010
Eishes Chayil, Mi Yimtza?
It is often noted that traditional Jewish society is patriarchal, as the public aspects of the religion seem to be dominated by men. While it is true that public aspects of Judaism often include only men, and men themselves are required to participate in more religious acts than women, these rites and practices do not form the center of Jewish values and life. In Jewish belief, the purpose of a mitzvah (commandment) is to bring the person doing the act to a closer connection with G-d as a result of the Divine act. From a Jewish perspective, men are in more need of this connection and inspiration than women as men are innately on a lower spiritual level. As shown in Bereishis (Genesis), men were simply formed, while women were “built” (“v’yiven l’isha”). Chazal (ancient Jewish sages) note the connection between the word “build” (“banah”) and the word “binah”, which generally means “intuition” or “deep knowledge”, taking from this the notion that women have an innate knowledge of the world that men can only access through much trial and struggle. Because of their increased binah, women also have a closer natural connection to the shechinah, or the dwelling presence of G-d in the physical world, which itself represents the feminine qualities and values of G-d.
Though it may appear otherwise to many, women actually have a central place in Judaism and in the Jewish home environment. A women is meant to be the akeres habayis (foundation of the home), and while her role may not often be shown to the public, it is much more important than the role of men in our society. This is because the woman is responsible for the education of the children, who represent the next generation of the Jewish community. Without women, then, Judaism itself would fail to continue, and the community would find itself utterly lost. Because the redemption and completion of the world will come through the intense concentration and contemplation of religious life, which are taught primarily by the mothers in Jewish society, it is said that redemption itself will come because of the Jewish woman.
The differences between the outside world and the world of Orthodox Judaism often create many of the misunderstandings that lead to notions of Jewish religious sexism. Because the majority religion in America, and much of the western world, is one that does not include a complete lifestyle driven at every second by detailed religious laws, the services that take place during the week are perceived to be central to the religion. The same, then, is transferred to Judaism, with people expecting the daily services, culminating with the services on Shabbos (the Sabbath), to be the culmination of Jewish religious life and practice. In truth, though, the services were created as a way to induce communal activity and unity for the men, who are in much more of a spiritual struggle. The prayers themselves were created with a careful selection of verses from the Torah, in addition to other prayers written thousands of years ago by sages to force men to shift their concentration from the physical distractions to the spiritual realities of the world. Jewish prayer, then, is a sort of medicine for the male neshama (soul), and communal prayer serves as a sort of required group therapy. When seen from this light, women not often participating in public aspects of Judaism is a sign not of suppression, but of their spiritual elevation.
With this idea of public religious practice in mind, it is understandable why men serve as the spiritual leaders in Judaism. Those men who serve as rabbonim (rabbis) are meant to be men who have attained a piece of spirituality through long learning and struggle, and they then work to help other men achieve the same. If a women were to serve in this role, she would not have the same ability to help men elevate themselves, as she began her life at a higher spiritual level than many men will ever reach, and cannot begin to understand the complexities of the struggles than men face while attempting to overcome their spiritual shortcomings. For a woman to serve as the spiritual leader of a group, then, would mean one of two things: either the men of the community are not at all important (as we are only as strong as our weakest members) or this particular women is herself innately low and has had to struggle to meet her current (somewhat basic) spiritual level.
It is strange, then, that a “rabbi” who reports himself to be Orthodox has given a sort of rabbinic title to a women in his community, who also reports herself to be Orthodox. For the past several weeks, great debate has been going on in the more modern segments of the Orthodox community as to the religious basis and appropriateness of a women serving as a rabbi in the traditional Jewish world. The head rabbi of the religious school and synagogue that have been involved in the controversy is no stranger to Orthodox debate, as many of his previous opinions, comments, and writings have shown him to be on the extreme borders of what constitutes an Orthodox Jew. His latest personal “triumph” is simply the most recent in his long line of acts that call into question what it means to be an Orthodox Jew.
To be sure, women have played important roles as leaders in the Jewish community, specifically with regard to instruction (which has already been noted as the most important aspect of women in the Jewish community). However, in this case, something else must be at work. If she was simply continuing in the long line of Jewish educators that form the next generation of the Jewish community, I wouldn’t expect there to be such pomp and show associated with her addition to the staff at her particular congregation. The recent label of “rabbah” (supposedly the female version of “rabbi”) given to her by the head rabbi at her congregation seems to show the reality of the situation.
As a person of deeper leanings, I find this issue to have the possibility of saying a great deal about the state of the Jewish community today. If the rabbi in question truly felt that it was necessary to have a woman serve in a rabbinic role, and it was not simply a ploy to push the boundaries of Orthodoxy (which seems to have been the purpose of his previous controversial acts), this means that he feels that women (presumably particularly Modern Orthodox women), by virtue of their connection with modern society and the outside world, have come to think of themselves as on par with men in their low state of spirituality. If this is actually the case, and the women in these communities have been spiritually impacted by their closeness and intense involvement in modern society, the solution to the problem is hardly a legitimization of this fact by asserting the need for women in rabbinic roles, but in a reevaluation of just what side Modern Orthodoxy is on: the side of Judaism or the side of the rest of the world.