This morning I read an article in Haaretz entitled, “Is Orthodox Judaism on the verge of a historic schism?” It talks about the deepening fracture between liberal orthodox Judaism and right wing orthodox Judaism, one of the highlights, of course, being the growing demands of women for greater public and leadership roles within traditional Jewish communities. While there are other issues causing conflict within the many strains of orthodoxy, Prof. Vered Noam of the Hebrew Culture Studies Department at Tel Aviv University summed it up in an article she wrote calling for a change in attitude toward women in religious life:
“This article is not a feminist manifesto, and anyone who thinks it’s about arrangements in the synagogue is mistaken,” she wrote…..The subject is the synagogue as an example and women as an example. The reference is to a society in which the tensions between its declared value system and the reality surrounding it and the world of its members’ natural inclinations, have led it on a difficult path of denial, ignoring and strong repression – of both the external and the internal reality. This repression leads to dichotomy, compartmentalization, fakery, double standards and the construction of wall upon wall and partition upon partition… The first ones to be crushed beneath these walls are the women, who in their very being, to their detriment, represent the fault line between the two worlds.”
While there are certainly other issues at play, women are the fault line – attitudes toward the advancement, or lack thereof, of women’s roles in orthodoxy determine which side of modernity a community rests upon. Those who oppose women studying gemorah, having a role in shul services, or obtaining an advanced level of Jewish studies culminating in some sort of official title are now pitted against those who maintain that there is room within orthodoxy to expand women’s roles and textual studies without violating halacha. At the core of any argument between orthodox factions is the argument for or against granting women more opportunity and control over their religious education, advancement, and spiritual possibilities.
When I read articles about the debate over women’s roles in the right wing orthodox Jewish media, I am reminded of the fable of The Little Dutch Boy Who Saved Holland. There are several adaptations of this tale, but the general theme is of a young boy who notices a leak in the town dike, and thinking quickly and selflessly, he plugs the hole with his finger and remains in place until the adults of the community can permanently repair the damage. The parable teaches a lesson about self-sacrifice, civic responsibility, and how one small boy can save a town from immeasurable damage by taking a simple action. One small finger can stem the tide of a raging flood, and many fingers together can hold up a crumbling wall against an imminent tidal wave until a more permanent solution can be found to fortify the breaches in the barrier.
Take the example of the rise of the Bais Yaakov movement. Although it took about 14 years from the time the general concept was brought up to the gedolim of Polish Eastern European Jewry in the early 20th Century, the movement to provide Jewish education for girls did eventually take off, to put it mildly:
“Leaders of the Orthodox community in Palestine or in Eastern Europe still often preferred that the girls study in alien non-Jewish environments than they be taught traditional Judaism in a school setting. The latter they considered an outright violation of the prescribed women’s role within Judaism. In 1903 at a conference of Polish rabbis held in Cracow, Rabbi Menachem Lando, the Admor of Zvirtche, [Rabbi Menachem Mendel Landau] blamed his colleagues for neglecting the education of Jewish girls and called for the establishment of schools to deal with the problem. His suggestion was almost unanimously opposed.
It took a dedicated and courageous woman named Sarah Schenirer to initiate the change. Influenced by a brief period in Vienna during the First World War when she was exposed to the spirit of German Neo-Orthodoxy, Schenirer founded the Bais Ya’akov movement in Poland in 1917. Beginning with a kindergarten class of twenty-five pupils in Cracow, the movement grew to encompass almost forty thousand girls on the eve of the Second World War, having spread to several continents and established day schools, afternoon schools, teachers’ seminaries, summer camps, youth groups, a monthly journal and a publishing house for textbooks and other educational materials. ” – Studies in Contemporary Jewry: Volume V: Israel: State and Society, 1948-1988, edited by Peter Y. Medding Institute of Contemporary Jewry the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, July 13, 1989, Oxford University Press, USA
It should be noted that Rabbi Landau, in his book Mekiz Nirdamim, came to the conclusion that formalized Jewish education was necessary for girls because of the growing prevalence of trafficking lower class Jewish women for prostitution among Eastern European Jews. Rabbi Landau blamed the lack of education. He proposed an organization to be called Shomer Yisroel that would foster education among women and girls in religious observance and the running of Jewish homes to be subsidized by communal funds. However, rabbis such as Rabbi Akiva Rabinovich of Poltava, editor of Hapeles, opposed Rabbi Landau’s proposal using various arguments, the main one being that teaching one’s daughter Torah is like teaching her tiflut (frivolity or immorality).
Certainly Jewish Polish society probably wasn’t any more immune to societal ills such as prostitution than the rest of early 20th century Polish society. However, it’s most likely safe to assume that, like today, most women exposed to secular society and educational opportunities during Rabbi Landau’s era wouldn’t choose prostitution as their preferred way of life. So was this really the burning reason driving him to propose a women’s educational system? After all, Rabbi Rabinovich’s response that teaching a woman Torah is like teaching her immorality seems a weak response if the alternative is that she becomes a prostitute, as Rabbi Landau feared.
Whatever the arguments made against developing Torah education for women, they were obviously fingers in an ever crumbling dike, springing new holes until finally, Sarah Schenirer helped them to create a new fortification. The Bais Yaakov movement became a new edifice in preserving the future of traditional Judaism by teaching women subjects that would help them to become better wives and mothers in both a practical and spiritual sense, but not venture anywhere near the sacred texts that are the realm of men. The old wall of keeping women illiterate in Hebrew and Jewish studies may have fallen 98 years ago, but the bricks of limitations that the rabbis set forth regarding women’s education have been firmly embedded inside the new structure. Only with those limitations in place could a new wall have been built.
Make no mistake, the development of Bais Yaakov was nothing less than miraculous. In addition to promoting women’s basic literacy skills, the Bais Yaakov movement also provided the most advanced formalized opportunity for women’s education in the history of Judaism (within those texts approved for female study). Additionally, it also instilled a sense of pride and connection to Jewish heritage that has probably kept countless women in the fold who otherwise would have left. However, for some, maybe even for many, today a Bais Yaakov education is no longer enough.
With its inherent limitations, there are women who are looking for further avenues of Jewish education for their daughters and themselves. Women are seeking higher educational opportunities beyond one or two years of post-high school seminary, that will lead to a career path either in addition to or beyond teaching, venturing into the realm of halachic expert and advisory roles.
There is a current phenomenon underway where the disparity levels between the leadership roles frum women are assuming in the secular world compared with the limited leadership roles they can play within their own communities is becoming a distance too great to bridge. Additionally, even voicing a desire for the opportunity to achieve a greater level of involvement or leadership in ritual life or communal institutions is met with suspicion. For example, a man who aspires to be the President of a right wing modern orthodox day school board will be seen as ambitious, while a woman who aspires to the same role will be seen as trying to rock the boat. President of the PTA is her lane, and she should stick to it.
Just as the Bais Yaakov educational movement was an inevitability in the early 20th century, so too is giving expanded Jewish leadership roles to women in the 21st century. Right now, the only movement that seems to have found tentative acceptance is the Yoetzet Halacha movement. Because of its narrow emphasis on women’s health issues and niddah, and its commitment to defer to rabbinic authority on all questions, it is an example of an innovation in female leadership that more centrist and right wing elements of modern orthodoxy are willing to accept. Any further acceptance of an expansion in ritual or advisory roles for women in right wing modern orthodox communities will have to follow this example.
The slippery slope argument isn’t far-fetched. Education and knowledge follow a path leading to the desire for more education and knowledge. The more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. Will 21st century women ever be happy to travel paths that ultimately lead to dead ends? The end of the road might get pushed back a bit further each time, but still, for us, there is always an end in sight. The fear of a swelling tide rising up against a 98 year old wall is real, the question is, who will be the engineers involved in building the new fortification?