On Women Rabbis: A Response

An article appeared earlier this week in The Forward, entitled, "On Women Rabbis, We All Talk Past Each Other. Here's Why," penned by Alan Krinsky. I wholeheartedly agree with the title; we certainly do talk past one another. And I agree with the author's contention that the reason relates to a lack of empathy for where the other side is coming from, in terms of values, norms and ideology.

The author cites some intriguing ideas from a book by Professor Jonathan Haidt at NYU, who maps out six dimensions of morality:
  1. Fairness/Cheating
  2. Care/Harm
  3. Liberty/Oppression
  4. Authority/Subversion
  5. Loyalty/Betrayal
  6. Sanctity/Degradation
According to the author, Professor Haidt contends that:
[P]olitical liberals tend to acknowledge only the first three of these as moral realms, while viewing the others as outside the moral universe. Only conservatives view the maintenance of authority, loyalty, and sanctity as moral goods and obligations, as well as subverting authority, betraying people and traditions, and degrading purity and sanctity in the world as moral crimes.
Conservatives, in a sense, inhabit a much richer moral world, encompassing all six dimensions. Liberals find it difficult to fathom such a world.
The author suggests that this model be used to understand liberal forces within Orthodoxy, who favor women's rabbinic ordination as a manifestation of "fairness," and conservative forces, who oppose it on the grounds that it "subverts authority" and "betrays" the tradition (and arguably because it degrades the sanctity of the Jewish people and Torah). Yet neither side appreciates the perspective of the other:
[A]s per Haidt’s framework, the more “liberal” forces within Orthodoxy continue to see women’s ordination as a matter of justice and fairness, and therefore fail to understand how their opponents can view this all as a major threat and moral disaster. The more “conservative” forces within Orthodoxy remain dumbfounded at how their opponents cannot see the glaringly obvious moral peril.
There is undoubtedly truth to this analysis, but I feel that Professor Haidt's framework falls considerably short in our case as a tool for understanding. Specifically:
[P]olitical liberals tend to acknowledge only the first three of these as moral realms
I would argue that this analysis does not apply the same way to liberal Orthodox Jews; they do very much acknowledge and care deeply about the moral dimensions of authority, loyalty and sanctity.


Even within more conservative (i.e. traditional, "right-wing") Orthodox circles, you can find a wide array of attitudes toward rabbinic authority. Some people scarcely make a move without consulting their rabbi, while others, while they respect the rabbis, live basically autonomous lives. And every such community of course has its own authorities, chosen not simply because of their breadth of Torah knowledge but because they understand and can effectively address the specific needs of that community.

Liberal Orthodox communities are no different. Yes, they generally adopt a more autonomous version of the rabbi-congregant relationship, but liberal Orthodox Jews certainly do rely on and take spiritual and Halakhic guidance from their leaders. To imply that they find it "difficult to fathom" authority is simply incorrect. As for subversion, liberal Orthodoxy would find it morally objectionable if its leaders were out to overthrow or supplant other communities and traditions. They simply wish to maintain a community alongside other Orthodox communities, one that is capable of addressing their unique needs. 


Modern Orthodox communities are called as such because their philosophy is one of integrating the wider, modern world into their religious lives. That involves not only pursuits such as obtaining advanced degrees in secular education and enrolling their kids in sports leagues, but also embracing many of the values of Western society. Among those is what today is considered the self-evidently just and moral idea of women's equality before the law. Under Jewish law, women are not equals to men. Cherished and valued in Jewish tradition, yes, but not equal under the law. Neither are kohen and non-kohen equal, convert and Jewish-born, sighted and non-sighted, et. al. That is simply part of Jewish legal tradition.

This introduces a tension, particularly for those to whom "justice" intuitively, necessarily, includes women's equality before the law. What does one do with that tension? One can suppress it or dismiss it as coming from a "non-Jewish" place, a position often advanced by Orthodox conservatives. For more liberal-minded Orthodox Jews however, the choices are a) to leave Orthodoxy entirely, b) to respectfully dismiss those parts of the legal tradition which don't conform to the modern, expanded definition of "justice" (i.e. to depart from Orthodoxy in part) or c) to work creatively within the Halakhic tradition to afford women maximum equality in the confines of the law. The third position is effectively what liberal Orthodoxy aspires to do. Such an approach takes great care and time. Far be it to imply that such work is undertaken as an act of "betrayal"; no, it is done precisely because loyalty to the tradition is recognized as an important value. 


Throughout Jewish tradition, we are reminded that ritual observance alone does not render individuals pure and holy. This is only achieved when such observance is combined with sensitivity and care toward our neighbors, fellow human beings. Ritual observance without justice and compassion is not simply an empty religious facade; it is a sham, a degradation of Judaism. Acting toward others with the dignity and respect they deserve is every bit as "sacred" a duty as fasting on Yom Kippur.

As said above, liberal Orthodoxy possesses an expanded sense of justice and fairness, which includes the sacred value of equality of women before the law. It is considered "sacred" in the sense of being deemed a precious moral commodity, and because it is something to be fiercely guarded, protected against "degradation," and wholeheartedly and vigorously acted upon. To suggest that liberal Orthodoxy lacks a sensitivity to the moral dimension of the pure and the sacred is to fundamentally misunderstand the deep religious motivations - purity of heart and elevating the sacred - which underlie their efforts toward greater women's equality in Judaism.

* * *

So liberal Orthodox Jews certainly acknowledge and indeed embrace the values of authority, loyalty and sanctity - i.e. "all six dimensions." What's more, if any side might be understood as not embracing all these moral dimensions, it is arguably conservative Orthodoxy.

While Orthodox conservatives would agree that fairness is an important value where it comes to business practices (e.g. guarding against using incorrect weights and measures or selling damaged goods) and legal proceedings (e.g. not favoring litigants or taking a bribe), they will be quick to tell you that the modern, Western notion of "fairness" is something else entirely. Equal rights for women may be enshrined as "fair and just" by secular standards, but a faithful Jew will follow the divine will, regardless of what the surrounding society deems to be "fair" or "unfair."

Even more tenuous is conservative Orthodoxy's relationship to liberty. Yes, freedom from slavery is valued, as is freedom from materialism and decadence, and the freedom of the soul through adherence to Torah and mitzvot. But "liberty" per se, the notion that a person should be able to live as he or she chooses? This is in fact anathema to the traditional, conservative Orthodox mindset. One must subordinate him/herself to the will of God and live accordingly.

So on both sides of the equation, liberal Orthodox and conservative Orthodox, it is not clear that Professor Haidt's model is entirely accurate.
A lesson we can learn from Haidt is that we can and need to do much more to understand the moral and theological universe of those with whom we disagree.
With this, I wholeheartedly concur. I just happen to believe that the model the author cites has limited utility insofar as gaining an accurate understanding of both religious sides of this debate.

A Suggestion

This merits its own post, but I will say it concisely now. The best way to encourage peace and amicable relations is to endeavor to follow the model of live and let live. If you wish to affiliate with an Orthodox community that supports female rabbinic ordination, then simply do so, and at the same time do not condemn others as backward, oppressive, or anti-women. Such terms do not accurately depict the motivations of the other side. And if you prefer a more "conservative" Orthodox community that ordains male rabbis only, by all means make that your home, and do not condemn liberal Orthodoxy as heretical, subversive or anti-Torah. That too does not accurately depict the motivations of the other side. Understand that every community has its own needs, and that its unique halakhic and normative approach is designed for one singularly positive reason only: to meet those unique needs. Your community's solutions would leave others wanting, just as those of a different community would leave you wanting.

Instead, be thrilled when everyone has precisely what they need.


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