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Fighting Back

A gut-wrenching blow was recently dealt to the Orthodox feminist cause. The kind of punch to the stomach that makes your insides churn and your whole body shake, leaving you stunned and speechless for a minute as you fathom the damage done to you. But that, after a minute, when you realize you’re okay, makes you angry at whomever tried to damage you: Anger propels you to fight back, and you attack like a crazy person, out for blood from the person who wronged you.

That’s the kind of punch the National Council of Young Israel dealt when it decided recently to bar women and converts (the latter is a separate blood-boiling issue) from becoming Young Israel synagogue presidents, and banning women’s prayer services and megillah readings from its synagogues. The NCYI also decreed that it must approve all of its synagogues rabbinic hires.

(Forgive my above hyperbole, but this really makes me mad.)

The NCYI’s new bylaws are about a lot more than feminism. They’re essentially an attempt by the Young Israel’s national umbrella organization to assert control over its constituent synagogues and, insomuch as Young Israel is the only modern-Orthodox synagogue “brand,” it’s an attempt by the NCYI to impose its iron will over what it means to be modern Orthodox, suppressing diversity and taking away individual congregations’ and rabbis’ ability to make decisions about what is appropriate for their own communities. Yeshiva University’s paper, the Commentator, has a comprehensive report of the NCYI’s modifications and the YI synagogues’ reactions to them, but for the purposes of this post, we’ll focus on the repercussions for Orthodox feminism.

The success of feminism in Orthodoxy boils down to one factor — whether or not the Orthodox are receptive to feminism. The goal of an organization like the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance is to figure out ways for women to participate more fully in Jewish ritual life within the bounds of halacha, and, given that historically women have been barred from so many areas of Orthodox ritual life, JOFA’s mission relied on the belief (on the fact, many would say) that there are different ways to read and interpret Jewish law. Some of those ways are more sympathetic to the needs and wants of women. But here’s the catch: You have to be open to such interpretations. You have to want to challenge historical notions of men’s and women’s respective places in society. You have to actually believe that in an ideal world women should have access to the same rights and responsibilities as men.

The NCYI clearly does not share this belief, and does not believe that anyone else should either. Where there are debates in Jewish law — over whether a woman can serve as a synagogue president, for example — they chose to decide against being more inclusive of women, and chose to mandate that individual synagogues must rely on this strict and exclusive interpretation of law. Even Gil Student, a right-wing Orthodox blogger, who agrees with the NCYI’s decisions, writes about this particular decision: “there is a view among posekim [halachic deciders] that women may serve as synagogue presidents. So I’m not quite sure why the NCYI is making it official policy to follow the posekim who prohibit it, especially given the sensitive nature of the subject.” Indeed, why? Because they’re making a clear statement: women do not belong in leadership synagogue leadership positions.

The view the NCYI is expressing clearly summed up in this anger-inducing post by Harry Maryles on the Emes Ve-Emunah blog. (When I first read it I was so mad I could barely see straight.) Maryles notes the phenomenon of women holding rabbinic-like positions, without being actually called rabbis, in certain modern-Orthodox institutions, such as Rabbi Avi Weiss’ shul, and the phenomenon of women learning Talmud in a serious way and at high levels. Maryles very thoughtfully disapproves of these phenomena. But what’s so upsetting is that he disapproves not on halachic grounds but on philosophical ones: “While ordaining women may be technically permitted (see Tosefos in Bava Kama 15A) is that really a wise course to pursue?” he writes.
Jewish law may allow it, Maryles says, but we just shouldn’t go there, because, really, who wants women to be rabbis?

Maryles explains his reasoning further:

Part of the reason I am opposed is the ‘slippery slope’ effect. Once you have motives that are based on a non Torah Hashkafa [philosophy], the alien Hashkafa does not go away if it is only partially satisfied. It continues to exert pressure for more change and innovation. Halacha is never compromised, but it inches ever closer to it with every new innovation. Is this really what God prefers from us?
[…]
… Judaism is not about equality of the sexes. It is about fulfilling the will of God. We must ask what is it that God truly wants of us. And we must seek honestly an answer to that question. The source for that answer should be the Torah and our Mesorah [Tradition]. Not feminism.

It is arrogant for anyone to assume he knows what “God truly wants of us,” and simple-minded to assume that “our Mesorah” haven’t been influenced by “non-Torah Hashkafa” over the years, and narrow-minded to rule out the possibility that equal rights for women might fall under some of the overarching principles of halacha (such as pursuing justice, loving thy neighbor as thyself, caring for the women and converts in your midst, to name a few). The argument has been made, in fact, that sometimes halacha gets in the way of the principles it’s supposed to espouse (see this post on Dr. Ronit Ir-Shai’s talk, “Towards Building a Gender-Critical Approach to the Philosophy of Halacha”).

At least, Maryles says he thinks these decisions, even the ones of which he disapproves, should be left up to individual congregations, and has “called for a ‘hands off’ policy by modern Orthodox institutions like NCYI with respect to these issues.”

Which brings us back to the NCYI and the second part of the reaction to that punch. Fighting back.

The NCYI has made its stance more than clear. They will not be a part of any progressive movements within Orthodoxy. Now it’s up to its constituent synagogues and individual members to make their stances clear. Synagogues should not hesitate to drop the Young Israel name, to make it clear to the NCYI oligarchy that they few do not control the fate of modern Orthodoxy, and that modern Orthodoxy no longer needs or wants them. The “Young” Israel has gotten old, and should be retired.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman