How I Ended Up Delivering the Sermon on Rosh Hashanah

Over the summer, Larry, the organizer of the minyan that I attend for Rosh Hashanah, sent out an email asking for suggestions of how to be more inclusive of women during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. I responded with about half a dozen ideas, all of which are within the bounds of halakha (Jewish law) but most of which are not “done” within our community. Larry took me up on one of my suggestions — to have a woman deliver the d’var Torah — which is how I found myself standing on the pulpit on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Larry responded to some of my other suggestions by asking whether such incremental activities were just tokenism and in fact would be more condescending than uplifting. As we began to discuss the integrity of incremental change vs. big bang new paradigm — the sociological impact of each, and what these different modes of change would mean for us as individuals and community members, a number of interesting events began to unfold with respect to women’s roles within Orthodoxy.

I believe that women’s roles are the wedge issue today for Orthodoxy. In Samuel Freedman’s Jew vs. Jew, written 15 years ago, he states,

“The feminist revolution within Judaism will create a crisis of definition for the Modern Orthodox movement….It seems impossible to me that Modern Orthodoxy — having given women full religious education, tefillah [prayer] groups, even some pastoral and legal duties — can dodge the ultimate decision to ordain women as rabbis and give them full roles in worship. Whenever that happens, Modern Orthodoxy will give up its already tenuous partnership with the haredim [ultra-Orthodox]…”

So let me outline for you a few events that happened in August:

  1. On August 3, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch in Israel published a lengthy responsa adamantly opposed to halakhic pre-nuptial agreements, and specifically the version written by the RCA and supported by organizations such as ORA, the Bet Din of America, and most of the rabbis at RIETS.  
  2. On August 6, Rabbi Mordechai Willig published a dvar Torah about Parashat Eikev which agreed that reliable sources allow “women who have proper yiras Shomayim [fear of Heaven] and whose motives are consistent with our mesorah [tradition] to further their Torah study;” however, he thinks that Talmud study should be re-evaluated as part of the standard curriculum for girls. His concern is that “an egalitarian attitude has colored some women’s study of Talmud and led them to embrace and advocate egalitarian ideas and practices which are unacceptable.”  His concern is that feminism “may lead to a schism within Orthodoxy”– exactly the prediction of Samuel Freedman fifteen years ago.
  3. Freedman had also stated “The gender issue was unique among all the collisions between modernism and traditionalism in American Judaism because it represented a drive toward deeper observance rather than away from it.” Many of the responses to Rabbi Willig, including from Rivka Kahan, the principal of Ma’ayanot, and Rabbi Jeremy Wieder from Yeshiva University (YU), focused on Torah study as a way of bringing women and girls closer to God. Kahan writes “Far from being a subversive force, the movement to advance women’s Talmud Torah [Torah study] continually deepens the avodat Hashem [service of God] of individuals and our community.” And “In my experience, young women who are most engaged in Talmud Torah are among those who are most invested in avodat Hashem writ large.” Wieder writes similarly “Torah study on the highest level is one of the most powerful ways of encountering the Divine.” And “women now have the opportunity to enjoy the munificence of the Ribbono shel Olam [Master of the Universe] in having given us the Torah in whose study we toil. ” Wieder also brings up, in a parallel to the reasoning that allowed Sara Schneirer to open the first Beis Yaakov [Jewish girls’ school] school less than 100 years ago, the more practical issue of the increasing secular opportunities available to women which need to be responded to by greater Torah education. He added, “In my experience, it is only through a deep understanding of the way that halakha operates that sophisticated women are led to accept limits mandated by halakha that they might justifiably reject in any other aspect of their lives.”
  4. YU also issued a response “Yeshiva University encourages and supports the advancement of women’s Torah study at all levels. We are proud of the Torah and Talmud study at our Samuel H. Wang Yeshiva University High School for girls, Stern College for Women, Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and the Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies. Our faculty embody a wide range of diverse opinions and do not necessarily represent the views of Yeshiva University.” And President Joel, at YU orientation, repeated the sentiment “there’s no limit to what women can do and learn. This is a university that honors thought, even when there is profound disagreement about that thought. Universities should be safe spaces where its scholars and faculty can express themselves civilly and be free to disagree. Yeshiva University has to honor that, even as it says clearly that statements of faculty, whether religious or secular, are statements of their own, and in no way represent the policies of the university. The president speaks for the University. Within halakha, there should be no limits to what women can learn and achieve.”
  5. Later in August (though dated in late July) Rabbi Herschel Schachter published a letter, co-signed by four others, including the head of the Bet Din of America, condemning the new International Beit Din. He stated that “it is forbidden for average rabbis to involve themselves in these matters” and that it is a “tremendous chutzpah that they have” created this beit din.  One of his co-signers called it the “nonsense of fools. ”
  6. In the subsequent media conversations it became clear that two of the rabbis who had sat on the International Beit Din, Rabbi Blau and Rabbi Kahn, had actually been forced off of the beit din by the RIETS faculty. Which completely confuses me as to what YU’s press statement about allowing a wide diversity of views actually means.

These events show a stark contrast in Orthodox leaders’ responses to the challenge to women’s Talmud study, and to potential solutions to the agunah issue (the problem of women unable to obtain a Jewish divorce). Rabbi Herschel Schachter and Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch slammed the door on any potential modifications that could alleviate the plight of agunot, while Rabbi Weider, President Joel, and Rivka Kahan defended women’s continued access to Talmud study.

We see these themes of women’s access and gatekeepers in the readings for Rosh Hashanah. In the haftarah (section from the Prophets) we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Hannah yearns for a child. Her infertility is so vexing to her that she cries and stops eating. Her husband doesn’t really understand her anguish and so she goes off to pray to God. And what does she encounter?

Eli, literally guarding the door. He is the gatekeeper and can decide who can stay and must leave. He watches Hannah. Her behavior is too suspicious and he decides to throw her out. However, this story has a happy ending. She explains herself — her desires, her actions — and Eli not only comes to see that her prayer too can be valid, but also goes the extra yard and blesses her. And of course, we ourselves today still learn how to pray from Hannah.

What does all of this have to do with incrementalism vs. big bang? What Hannah did was clearly outside the common practice — she created a new paradigm for prayer. She took a risk in disagreeing with the gatekeeper. In her case it paid off. But we only have to look to Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, to know that it doesn’t always. There are a number of new paradigms developing around us – partnership minyanim and Mechon Hadar are two of the most obvious — and most declare them “not Orthodox.”  But they clearly hold an attraction for many — and especially for the next generation, which I think we can see for example from the number of partnership minyanim on college campuses.

And what about incrementalism? Does it lead to the slippery slope? Rabbi Willig clearly thinks so. Rabbi Wieder on the other hand is “hard pressed to see systematic study of Torah on anyone’s part as giving rise to or contributing to recent developments that are counter to halakha.” However, he does not elaborate on what has led to those developments.  

I happen to agree with Rabbi Willig about the slippery slope (you probably didn’t see that one coming, did you?). Talmud Torah by women is a factor that has led to many of these new roles for women — not the only factor, but to me clearly one of them. And what really drove that home to me was a recent Friday night dinner at my house, with a number of college-aged guests. I was applauding that the Rabbi Willig controversy had caused so many feminists to come out of the closet and to defend their right to study Talmud. The teenage gang jumped on me: “They’re not feminists, they just want to learn Talmud!” Learning Talmud is not considered a feminist act anymore — no more than me voting in the local elections feels feminist to me.   

Shana, the word for year, comes from the root meaning to change. As we think about this coming year, what will we change about ourselves? Where will we speak up and where will we not?  And most importantly, what kind of change will we create in the world?

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