By Noah Haber
Having recently read Rafi Dover’s article on the RCA’s statement I was compelled to write a response. This is because I felt that although there may be some merit to his ideas and opinions, he presented only one understanding of a statement which can be understood in more than one way. I thought that it was important to broaden the discussion by suggesting other ways of understanding the issue. Furthermore, I disagree with some of the assumptions and assertions he makes in the article and also felt a need to address them. This response is intended respectfully and in the spirit of healthy debate.
Firstly, to understand the statement of the RCA as saying “we’re the men we’re still in charge, and we’re not going to allow your study to go anywhere, to culminate in a position of leadership” raises several issues.
This interpretation implies that women’s learning cannot “go anywhere” unless it can “culminate in a leadership position”. However, to learn Torah Lishma-for its own sake-has always been seen as the ultimate value in Jewish Learning and this is not affected by whether or not one has semicha. Relatively contemporary manifestations of this axiological prioritisation are the life achievements of both Rav Yisroel Meir Kagan Ztl-also known as the Chafetz Chaim-and Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz Ztl-also known as the Chazon Ish. Neither of these major figures in the past 150 years of the Torah world had semicha for the vast majority of their lives, in fact the Chazon Ish never had it. However they were still two of the most venerated sages of their generations, largely through the strength of their scholarship. Although the RCA’s statement does limit women’s learning with respect to semicha, it does not at all limit women’s ability to realise the highest goals of Talmud Torah through their learning, even if this learning cannot “culminate in a leadership position”. However the example of these two sages demonstrates that lack of semicha is most certainly not an obstacle to leadership, as they are also both regarded as having been incredibly influential leaders of the Torah world.
Further examples of people who in recent times have been able to be extremely influential in the Torah world without semicha are, amongst other women, Nechama Leibowitz and Dr Erica Berger. The achievements of both of these illustrious and eminent female Torah scholars demonstrate that scholarship, not gender, has always been the most important value in Judaism. The published works of both can be found in Torah libraries around the world alongside works of many distinguished Rabbinic figures. Both are/were very popular lecturers to both male and female orthodox audiences and both have without a doubt exerted a greater influence on the orthodox world than many male scholars who have had semicha.
Indeed, almost none of the women mentioned by Rafi as examples of female Jewish leaders actually had semicha and yet were all able to be influential leaders and/or scholars. The Tosefta tells a story in which Rabbi Yehoshua, upon hearing a halachik ruling from Bruriah (the wife of the Tannaic sage Rabbi Meir), responds “Bruriah has spoken well”. This positive response demonstrates the respect that has always been given to learned women in the Jewish tradition. In a more contemporary context, last year in a Q & A at Yeshivat Hakotel, Rav Herschel Shachter was asked if women can give halachik rulings. He responded that if they know the halacha they can give them. Based on this response from an eminent Orthodox Rabbi, based on Rafi’s examples of strong female Jewish leaders who didn’t have semicha and based on many Orthodox women today who are in positions of both educational and communal leadership, it is clear that there are many positions available to women even without semicha. And this is especially significant in light of the fact that semicha has never been an absolute requirement for orthodox leadership or scholarship.
Rafi also asserts that the RCA’s statement runs contrary to an insight shown by the outside world, namely, that “women are not incapable of anything”. However, the statement does not cite the incapability of women as its reasoning. The reasons it gives are “commitment to sacred continuity” and the view that it would be a “violation of our mesorah”. As Rafi pointed out, the mesorah can be violated when there is an overwhelming need as has been done before. However, individual instances of the Mesorah being violated in the past should be analysed based on their own unique circumstances and they cannot all be compared to each other. The fact that something has been done before doesn’t automatically mean it should be done again. The mesorah has held together the Jewish people for generations and by saying that “when there is an overwhelming need, the mesorah ceases to be binding” Rafi acknowledges the mainstream orthodox view that, overwhelming needs excepted, the mesorah is binding. However, what exactly constitutes an “overwhelming need”? It is understandable that some feel the current situation should be considered one. But it is also understandable that, considering the significant range of opportunities available to women without semicha I described earlier, and bearing in mind that semicha has never been an actual requirement for either Jewish leadership or scholarship, the RCA do not currently feel that there is an “overwhelming need”.
Of course, the world of women’s learning would have to grow significantly in order for the full extent and range of these possibilities to be realised, but bearing in mind the advances of the last 50-100 years against the previous 2000, this is not an unrealistic expectation. It is also completely encouraged by the RCA’s statement which makes clear that “The flowering of Torah study and teaching by God fearing Orthodox women in recent decades stands as a significant achievement”, and adds that “As [female] members of the new generation rise to positions of influence and stature, we pray that they will contribute to an ever-broadening and ever deepening wellspring of Talmud Torah”. The RCA are clearly not against women realising these possibilities. In theory, without going against the statement of the RCA, there is no reason why another Bruriah could not emerge, a woman whose Torah knowledge is so formidable that the greatest sages of the generation respect her rulings. These theoretical possibilities for women without semicha have little practical difference to the possibilities available to men with semicha. It is perhaps in light of this that the RCA does not feel an “overwhelming need” to violate the mesora to allow semicha for women. And as is strongly implicit in Rafi’s article, the mesora is considered binding without such a need.
One last issue I had with Rafi’s article was the subjective assertion that it is “Sad that Rabbis who claim to be Modern Orthodox don’t want this” and the description of Modern Orthodoxy as “the Modern Orthodox Project”. Perhaps I read too much into Rafi’s words, but it seemed that by calling Modern Orthodoxy a “project” he is under the impression that the Modern Orthodox ideology is some sort of recent innovation, perhaps as a response to modernity. While the term “modern orthodox” is new, an examination of the writings of leading Modern Orthodox thinkers shows that the ideology is anything but. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein Ztl, seen by many as having been a leading Modern Orthodox authority, provides an analysis or “spiritual accounting” of his ideology in the book “By His Light”. The sources he draws deeply on over the course of this analysis, range from Chazal and rishonim to more recent chachmei hamesora, showing that the modern Orthodox ideology flows straight from the age old Rabbinic tradition. Furthermore another major proponent of interaction with the general world, Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsh wrote that “isolation and estrangement from the secular world was never a condition of Judaism. This can be amply demonstrated by the shining annals of Jewish culture and literature”. Indeed, scholars of the interaction between Torah and general culture frequently cite Rishonim such as the Rambam as examples of advocates of substantial interaction.
In light of this understanding of Modern Orthodoxy, as a school of Jewish thought permeating the full history of Rabbinic tradition, the claim that it is “sad that Rabbis who claim to be modern orthodox don’t want this” should be re-examined. Modern Orthodoxy, based as it is on a wide range of Jewish sources, can naturally be understood in a variety of ways. One group of thinkers who are labelled as ‘Modern Orthodox’ are not obligated to follow the same stream of thought as another. That a form of modern Orthodoxy is more liberal or more conservative than another does not affect its validity, as long as it can be coherently justified through sources of the rabbinic tradition. As Rafi rightly points out, the RCA are a group of “extremely learned men” and so it is safe to assume that their form of Modern Orthodoxy can be justified. It may be on the conservative side of Modern Orthodoxy, but as long as it is justified it should be considered legitimate. To claim that a statement is not “in-keeping with Modern Orthodox values” is an invalid argument unless you feel entitled to dictate the precise values everyone under the umbrella of Modern Orthodoxy must subscribe to. Modern Orthodoxy does not preclude diversity of thought, and so this is not something which can reasonably be done. To attempt to claim that a group should be taking a certain position on the basis of the broad ideology they may be identified with, is therefore futile.
Regardless, maybe the RCA’s statement is not actually at all based on the points I have made. I have not asked them. It was not my intention to clarify exactly what they think and even if their statement was based on exactly the points I have made I would not think that everyone would be obligated to agree. I simply would like people to understand that there is more than one way of viewing this complex issue and that the RCA’s statement is not necessarily anti-women or anti-progress. This is because when dealing with issues this sensitive and complex, a broad range of factors and context must be considered and it is dangerous to reach conclusions without taking a broad view.