Agreeing to disagree: A response to Rabbi Willig for Bnei Akiva

Sam Gross

A couple of weeks ago certain sectors of social media and Jewish news outlets exploded in response to an online parsha post by a Rosh Yeshiva of YU, Yeshiva University, a Rabbi Mordechai Willig. In his post (although it is absolutely recommended that you read what he said for yourself), Rabbi Willig expresses his opposition to a series of things – specifically focussing on gay marriage (specifically in the secular sphere) and female Rabbis. Rabbi Willig then goes on to associate these phenomena with Open Orthodoxy, the most progressive wing of Orthodox Judaism in America, which has far more readily adopted feminist and egalitarian ideals and practice.

It is what Rabbi Willig does next that ignited the controversy – having set his sights on Open Orthodoxy, he traces it back to the point at which women became involved in learning Talmud. He suggests that this should now be curtailed, and suggests that women’s learning of Talmud should become the exception rather than the norm.

What needs to be taken seriously, though, is not necessarily what Rav Willig wrote about the status of women’s education. It is clearly not Bnei Akiva’s position that Talmud should be off the mainstream educational curriculum for women – we should continue to encourage chaverot to go to seminaries (without diminishing Lehava) and bogrot in continued and comprehensive Torah study. (I hope that) there is consensus on this issue in Bnei Akiva. Rather, the importance of what Rabbi Willig wrote is that he expects mainstream Modern Orthodoxy and Open Orthodoxy to part ways. To him, it is as foreign as Reform Judaism, as heretical as Conservative/Masorti. He sees no future together with those who would dare call women Rabbah or Maharat. And in an attempt to win this future war against what we might call the halachic Left, Rabbi Willig wants to retard its development by preventing most women from learning Talmud.

The major source cited by Rabbi Willig for this conclusion is a Ha’aretz article which contemplates whether Orthodoxy is on the verge of a schism between Centrist and Open Orthodoxy. Specifically referencing BA, the article quotes a source: “Today those who grew up in Bnei Akiva are divided” It is on this point that I feel that us, the chaverim of the movement have a responsibility to act.

The issue at stake is not just the unity of our movement – as important as that is – but the future of the segment of Am Yisrael that we ourselves inhabit. We are not at a point where we will achieve consensus in the movement – nor is complete uniformity desirable. Bnei Akiva happily tolerates a diversity of thought and approach in our Zionism. There are those of us who support a two-state solution, and those who do not. Some of us hold these opinions for religious reasons, some for political ones. We approach Israel out of a shared love and a common purpose, and come to radically different conclusions. This range, our differences of opinion and the discussions within the movement they generate are what give our education about Israel such richness and power.

The same is possible of our Judaism – some of us maintain that the “traditional” set up is the only one allowed by Halacha, and that tinkering with it is either unwarranted or forbidden by Halacha, others have prayed in partnership or egalitarian services. The danger of Rabbi Willig’s premise – the basis of his piece being an article about a putative schism in Orthodoxy – is that we come to view these differences as irreconcilable. It is our responsibility not to reconcile them but to live with them. This is achieved first by a basic measure of respect.

Supporters of change cannot simply tar their opponents with the brush of misogyny, but understand the weight of tradition and halachic opinion and seek to engage with it rather than dismiss it. The opposite is also true – those who like Rabbi Willig are suspicious of movements to change practice to include women must seek to understand and engage with both the ethical and halachic arguments that underpin and support those movements. At that point we can confidently call the disputes between Open and other Orthodoxy a machloket l’shem shamayim, and continue to do the vital work of making Torah V’Avodah a reality.

To accept a schism in Orthodoxy would compromise whatever unity is left in Am Yisrael. To allow a fracture in the movement would hobble Bnei Akiva, one of the main vehicles of Torah and Israel education in the country. Most of all, to fail to exist with people who think differently would be a betrayal of ourselves.

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