Yeshiva University Dean Wants to Reverse Gains in Women’s Torah Learning

My social media has been abuzz this past week with the commentary on a recent article published by Rabbi Mordechai Willig of Yeshiva University (YU). Rabbi Willig is one of the most prominent Roshei Yeshiva (Rabbinic Deans) of Yeshiva University and part of the small inner circle of significant influencers and decision makers at the institution. He holds the Rabbi Dr. Sol Roth Chair in Talmud and Contemporary Halakha and is looked to by countless students and alumni for religious guidance and direction.

Rabbi Willig in his article, “Trampled Laws,” reflects on the Torah portion of last week, Parshat Ekev. He begins by presenting various classic opinions on the opening verse of Ekev to illustrate the idea that we must be exceedingly careful with so called “minor laws” in Judaism and not trample upon them in disregard.

He then launches into the central thrust of his argument, which is a full-throated defense of male-centered religious leadership, male-centered religious ritual and male-centered religious study. He bemoans the “infiltration” of feminism, female empowerment and female voices into Jewish public life. He links this infiltration with a broader attack by “postmodernists” to undermine all of the Torah.

The solution, in Rabbi Willig’s opinion, is to “reevaluate” the place of higher Torah learning for women in Jewish day schools, post-high school seminaries and, presumably, at his own institution of Yeshiva University. In his estimation, it was, ironically, the opening up of the primary texts of Jewish tradition to women that led them on the path away from tradition, as he defines it. Therefore, the time now calls for a closing up of the study halls to women once again to preserve what he has determined to be the unequivocal voice of that very tradition.

The comments on social media have spanned the spectrum of opinions. Some people are actively discussing how to implement Rabbi Willig’s policy directive in Modern Orthodox high schools. Other people are attacking the foundational arguments made in the article and critiquing various assumptions present in Rabbi Willig’s articulation. A third perspective, one that has been dominant in the conversation, has been to wonder where the Centrist or Modern Orthodox religious leadership has gone? Why are we faced with a vacuum of religious leadership? Why do the religious leaders who are meant to represent the Modern Orthodox community say things in such complete dissonance with the way Modern Orthodox families raise and educate their children and the way women in the community seek to express their connection to God and to Judaism?

I would argue that what we have in front of us is not a dearth of leadership. We have the leadership right in front of us. Indeed, Rabbi Willig is to be praised for modeling genuine religious leadership. You do not need to guess how one of the most senior rabbinic deans of Yeshiva University thinks about the topic of education for women. You do not need to speculate his position based on inference. All you need to do is read the words written by him to understand his position, which is as clear as day. What an incredible example of genuineness!

There are, of course, many subsequent questions that need to be answered.

There are questions on the spectrum of practical outcomes of this article: What will the place of Torah education for women look like in the next year, five years or ten years from now? Which of Rabbi Willig’s students in positions of communal leadership are working on implementing this policy directive? Will Yeshiva University cease its programs of higher Torah learning for women? The answer very well may be that no one in positions of authority is listening and Yeshiva University is not acting on the directive of its Rosh Yeshiva, but that warrants an explanation.

There are questions on the spectrum of Jewish religious life and theology based on this article: Is Torah learning for women a new line in the sand between Rabbi Mordechai Willig and Yeshiva University, on one side, and the more progressive Orthodox communities on the other? How does this reconcile with the historic decision by the most important authority of American Modern Orthodoxy in the 20th century, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, and his act to make Torah learning the same for both boys and girls at his Maimonides School in Boston and at YU’s Stern College for Women? If one can forgo a most important teaching of their mentor like this, what are the parameters for doing so? How does one decide when to alter their teacher’s ruling and when not to? Who gets to decide?

In the most broad terms, a central question that needs to be addressed, is how does this policy directive situate itself in the continuing evolution of Modern Orthodoxy?

These questions are pressing and must not be ignored. They require answers from the administration at Yeshiva University and from the students of Rabbi Willig who run our day schools, seminaries and other learning institutions. However, for now at the very least, it can be said that Rabbi Willig has done a great service for those invested in these questions. He has shared what he truly thinks on this topic to a broad audience preserved on the eternal records of the Internet. It may not be a leadership decision that I agree with but it is certainly genuine leadership.
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