A Response to Ariel Caplan

Dear Editors,

 

I am writing in response to Ariel Caplan’s article in the previous issue of Kol Hamevaser, titled “Rav Lakhen Benot Yisrael: Humility and Rabba-nut.”[i] I was initially unsure whether or not to draft this response, for fear that it would be insufficient in addressing the many points in the article that distressed not only me, but many of my peers, both male and female. At the heart of my article lies the contention that the support for women in positions of communal leadership is primarily motivated by a desire to increase the quality and quantity of voices in the sphere of Torah leadership and a desire to further strengthen the Jewish community by creating more access points to spiritual guidance. It does not come from a wish to upend or denigrate Torah values. My motivation for responding to Mr. Caplan’s article is powerfully expressed in the words of R. Yehuda Amital, the late rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion: “So long as I feel that I am able to say something that will be to the benefit of the Torah, to the benefit of Am Yisra’el or of Erets Yisra’el, I will not refrain from speaking out.”[ii] It is in the spirit of these words that I compose this response.

Mr. Caplan penned his article in response to Ilana Hostyk’s article, “In Defense of Rabba Hurwitz,” published in The Observer in April 2010.[iii] However, Mr. Caplan’s article seems to focus on one point made by Ms. Hostyk about allowing women to be Jewish communal leaders and concludes that this one point accounts entirely for the popular support for leadership positions for women. Mr. Caplan contends with Ms. Hostyk’s statement, which assesses and comments on the heights reached in women’s learning.[iv] Ms. Hostyk writes:

…However, one could not have expected all of this learning to be for naught. Jewish women could not reasonably be expected to remain in the same position they previously had in Judaism now that they have attained all of this knowledge. A leadership position within the framework of halakha is the logical, and necessary, next step.[v]

 

Mr. Caplan is understandably troubled by the first sentence of this assessment.  “For naught” may not have been the best formulation, as it might imply that learning which does not enable the learner to achieve a public leadership position somehow lacks value. However, both from the statement’s context and from knowing Ms. Hostyk personally, I do not think she meant to discredit Torah li-shmah (for its own sake), but rather was trying to stress a point about the inability to elevate such Torah to one of its highest levels. For one who is engrossed in the study of Torah, using that Torah knowledge to teach within the Jewish community and to provide guidance in pastoral and communal work is indeed elevating Torah to one of its highest levels. Without the opportunity to do so, learned women are not using their talents and Torah knowledge to their highest potential in order to contribute to the community in the fullest way possible. Ms. Hostyk is taking issue with this lost potential.

Unfortunately, Mr. Caplan’s article oversimplifies and reduces the general argument made for women’s Jewish communal leadership to one of entitlement. He ignores entirely the compelling basis of Ms. Hostyk’s article which is that “stronger women leaders will create a stronger connection in the next generation; children will be raised with a stronger connection to God and to Judaism and with a greater love for Am Yisrael.”[vi]

Putting aside the question of the appropriate title for women who serve as Jewish communal leaders, the crux of Ms. Hostyk’s article is that the initiation of women into the body of communal leaders would only serve to benefit the Jewish community. Women who are currently serving as interns in synagogues and in communities have brought their own unique talents and Torah knowledge to those communities. Most importantly, the impetus for creating such positions for women is to allow women to give back to and improve the Jewish community. Mr. Caplan’s article implies that those who want women to be allowed a greater position of leadership within the community also want to somehow disrespect or reduce the importance of the rabbinate. This is simply not true. I strongly believe that if one would assess the effect of women communal leaders in the Modern Orthodox shuls and communities that have given women such positions, the communities would not report that these women were diminishing the role of the rabbi or assistant rabbis, but rather adding to and enhancing their leadership teams. Additionally, such women have been known to energize the women of the community in strengthening their limmud Torah and commitment to the community (not, of course, to the exclusion of inspiring the men as well).

The implication stated above regarding Mr. Caplan’s intentions was most evident in the article’s title, “Rav Lakhen Benot Yisrael” — a reference to the Korah rebellion in the book of Bemidbar.[vii] Besides for being horribly insulting, the title also implies a fallacious and unfair comparison between women who wish to act as communal leaders and Korah and his following. There are many interpretations of the motivation behind Korah’s rebellion, none of which is comparable to the arguments posed in favor of giving Jewish women greater communal roles. Those in favor do not think women should replace male rabbis, nor do they wish to give semikhah to all members of the Jewish community.[viii] Additionally, it is quite contemptuous to so offhandedly compare a group of individuals who wish le-hagdil Torah u-le-ha’adirah (to heighten the Torah and to glorify it) to a group of individuals who were so rebellious against God and Moshe Rabbeinu that God Himself caused the ground to open its mouth and swallow them up, and inflicted a plague amongst the remaining people.[ix] Further, it should not go unnoticed that Mr. Caplan thought it necessary to cite Rambam, Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:13, “which discourages women’s Torah education” as a reason to disqualify them from joining the ranks of ordained Jewish communal leaders.[x] I refrain from responding to such a citation.[xi]

In addition, I find Mr. Caplan’s evaluation of semikhah and Jewish communal leadership to be mistaken, particularly in this excerpt:

My distaste arises from the notion that entrance into the rabbinate is a privilege, even a right, which may be fought for and won. On the contrary, it is clear to me that among the most essential elements of spiritual leadership is humility, perhaps to the point of not wanting one’s position at all.[xii]

There appear to be at least two problematic points in this assessment. The first is that reality contradicts what Mr. Caplan believes to be true of the rabbinate. Entrance into the rabbinate, at least in RIETS, is focused mainly on amassing Torah knowledge. While semikhah is not a “right” that any given person is entitled to, it surely is a privilege that “may be fought for and won.” There are few limits on any male in YU who wishes to get semikhah. A semikhah student spends several years learning in the yeshivah, and while he may spend many hours focusing on communal matters both in the classroom and in the community through rabbinic internships, his ability to receive semikhah has nothing to do with his character or motivations, but rather is based on passing a series of different tests on halakhic material. Semikhah is treated as something any learned man is entitled to, provided that he passes his exams. To claim that ordination should be treated as a limited privilege regarding women, when there is no such attitude regarding men, is to support a double standard.           

            Secondly, Mr. Caplan’s assessment of one of “the most essential elements of spiritual leadership” is misguided. Certainly there are traits one should have when aspiring to a position in the rabbinate, and humility is surely one of them. To say that humility is “contrary” to “earning” semikhah is entirely erroneous. Humility does not come to exclude passion, drive, and commitment to studying Torah and to training to deal with the plethora of communal issues and personal challenges that face a rabbi. In fact, one’s humility should be an impetus to introspection, to recognizing one’s weaknesses, which should ultimately lead one to transform those weaknesses in order to be a more effective and sensitive leader. This type of ongoing personal change requires intense commitment and inner-drive. Without maintaining the vision of oneself as a leader as an impetus for this type of introspection, without wanting to be in such a position of leadership, one will lack the motivation and necessary energy, self-esteem, and charisma to be an effective leader. If a self-aware woman assesses her strengths and flaws and sees that she can work with them to benefit the community by assuming a public leadership role, she should not be held back from seeking such a position.

Additionally, Mr. Caplan seems to connect feminism to a lack of humility, stating that he “focused on feminist considerations rather than misogynistic attitudes because [he] only see[s] the former as related to the humility issue.”[xiii] I think it is most important to note that the need for humility in leadership is not limited to women! Mr. Caplan’s article equated women who want to be leaders with a lack of humility, based on the assumption that any person who wants to be a leader should not be a leader. However, there is no reason to limit this requirement to women. If Mr. Caplan is truly to adopt this line of thinking, he would have to evaluate (and possibly disqualify) many current and aspiring male rabbis. If our community upheld what the author of the article claims is true, that “among the most essential elements of spiritual leadership is humility, perhaps to the point of not wanting one’s position at all,” then the state of our rabbinate and communal leadership might be abysmal. Encouraging humility to the point of discrediting one’s own desire or drive to be a leader is not going to result in better leadership.

Furthermore, the midrashim quoted regarding Moshe Rabbeinu’s anavah (humility) have a certain quality of hyperbole in order to stress the importance of humility in a leader. But one must keep in mind the textual context of the pasuk on which this midrash is commenting.[xiv]  Moshe tries to tell God that he does not want the position of leadership due to his speech impediment. The midrash comments on the pasuk in which Moshe asks God to send anyone else besides him to lead. Immediately following this pasuk, God becomes angry: “Va-yihar af Hashem be-Mosheh — and the anger of God was kindled against Moshe.”[xv] Moshe is deterred by his speech impediment, yet God encourages him and even demands that he, with the help of his brother, Aharon, lead the people.

The only salient point made about humility in the article is the comment following the excerpt from Megillah 31a: “Perhaps, however, this is the point: humility is synonymous not with self-abnegation but with selflessness.  It is the ability to look beyond one’s own admirable qualities and focus on the needs of others.” This point is noteworthy in summing up the role of humility in leadership. Mr. Caplan’s following comments, however, are disconcerting.

This, it seems, is the reason humility is required for Torah leadership. Only a person who is humble in this sense – who would enter a leadership position for the sake of those who will be led, rather than for personal gain – is worthy of being granted the gift of knowledge of the divine Word. Only someone who is humble in this way will utilize the intellectual gifts granted to him for the public good.

…It is, then, a sorry situation indeed when a debate over the nature of the rabbinic establishment morphs into a vicious power struggle, rather than an honest assessment of the needs of the Jewish people.”[xvi]

In these two paragraphs, Mr. Caplan implies that women who wish to be Torah leaders are doing so for their own personal gain, and not for “the sake of those who will be led.” As previously discussed, this sweeping assumption is patently false. Unless Mr. Caplan has conducted a survey of women who aspire to be leaders in the Jewish community, it is impossible for him to know the motivation for any Jewish woman’s aspiration to be a Jewish leader. To assume that the majority of these women are doing so for personal gain and not for the benefit of the community is both condescending and untrue. Although Mr. Caplan concedes that “some” who believe in women’s ordination have assessed the situation “correctly,” he inaccurately claims that these voices are drowned out in the “clamor that is the civil-rights argument for women’s ordination.”[xvii]  The strongest and most prevalent argument for women’s ordination is that the small, yet admirable group of women who have reached heights of Torah learning and leadership qualities are not able to give fully to the people of the community. To assume self-exalting motives to these women is unfair and inaccurate.

Mr. Caplan dubs the notion of women’s ordination as a “highly problematic view of the rabbinate [that] has infected the minds and hearts of kelal Yisrael.”[xviii] This villainous characterization of the discussion surrounding women’s leadership cuts short a legitimate and important discussion in the Modern Orthodox community. What should concern us and occupy the minds of kelal Yisrael should be the cadre and quality of individuals we are choosing as our leaders. Such qualities and qualifications stand irrespective of gender.

Mr. Caplan notes that women who may possess these qualities of Torah leadership are not as easy to find as their male counterparts, but does not give a compelling reason as to why the quantity of such women should have bearing on their ability to serve as leaders. The fact that the number of learned, semikhah-qualified men may greatly exceed the small number of such women is not a reason to disqualify these women. Furthermore, the author points out that such women, due to the fact that they perhaps learn in their own, smaller, battei midrash, have less access to talmidei hakhamim, the great learned scholars of the generation. Thus, they lack a certain familiarity with great Torah scholars. However, this factor is also not a reason to exclude women from communal leadership; lack of shimmush talmidei hakhamim is likely a result of the novelty of advanced women’s Torah learning. Thus the obvious solution to Mr. Caplan’s issue is to increase the access that such women have to talmidei hakhamim, rather than claiming that this lack of access should prevent them from acting as public leaders.

It should be noted that yo’atsot halakhah (women who advise on halakhic matters of family purity) are very much in contact with gedolei ha-Torah both in Israel and in America. This is not to imply that yo’atsot halakhah are or are not looking to be ordained as rabbis. It is simply important to recognize that there surely are cases of learned women who have very strong connections to esteemed Torah scholars, and the fact that others do not is not a reason to exclude them from assuming positions of communal leadership. Furthermore, regardless of whether Torah-learned women are looking to be a part of the rabbinate or not, women’s battei midrash can only benefit from an increase in contact with talmidei hakhamim.

Additionally, it should be acknowledged that many members of the Modern Orthodox community do not feel that Mr. Caplan’s statement, “Rav Lakhen Benot Yisrael – There is much [opportunity] for you, O daughters of Israel,” is an accurate one. There are some Jews who no longer wish to engage in this discussion for they feel estranged from a community that chooses not to utilize the talents of (even) the small population of esteemed female Torah scholars. They do not feel represented in a community that does not acknowledge the importance of having Jewish female leaders who can truly enhance the community through their Torah and leadership. You will not hear the voices of these individuals in this conversation, for these women and men are choosing to leave the Modern Orthodox community and go elsewhere. Leaving the Modern Orthodox community is a choice that such individuals must contend with, but the Modern Orthodox community also must contend with its own choice – a choice that may result in losing many of its learned and Torah-committed members.

Beyond this, it is important to stress Ilana Hostyk’s most potent point: “Stronger women leaders will create a stronger connection in the next generation” — allowing learned and talented women to be Jewish leaders is not about being “insensitive to Torah values”[xix] or about breaking with tradition. Women who are qualified, who are coming from a place of wanting to contribute their unique talents to the community which needs those talents, should not be accused of sullied motives and self-serving incentives. Rather, they should be admired for how far their passion for Torah and for the Jewish community has taken them. The Modern Orthodox community can use all the talented leaders it can get in order to help the future generations be strengthened in Torah and mitsvot. The need for women to be incorporated into the Jewish communal leadership is about ensuring the continuity of tradition, about adding to and enhancing the number and quality individuals who are involved in the transmission of the Mesorah in a way that ensures that many members will not fall through the cracks.

 

Sincerely,

Ilana Gadish, SCW 11

Former associate editor of Kol Hamevaser

 

 



[i] Ariel Caplan, “Rav Lakhen Benot Yisrael: Humility and Rabba-nut,” Kol Hamevaser 5:1 (2011): 10-12.

[ii] Yehuda Amital, Commitment and Complexity: Jewish Wisdom in an Age of Upheaval, ed. Aviad Hacohen, trans. by Kaeren Fish (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Pub. House, 2008), 124.

[iii] Ilana Hostyk, “In Defense of Rabba Hurwitz,” The Observer (YU), April 19, 2010, available at: http://www.yuobserver.com/opinion/in-defense-of-rabba-hurwitz-1.2470661#.Tri-4lYu7Ro.

[iv] Cf. Caplan 12, n. 1.

[v] Hostyk, ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Bemidbar 16.

[viii] Korah’s initial protest begins as such: “[For] all the congregation are holy, all of them… Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Bemidbar 16:3, JPS translation).

[ix] Bemidbar 16:31-34; 17:11.

[x] Caplan 12, n. 5.

[xi] I feel similarly regarding Mr. Caplan’s line of argument involving a comparison between the legitimacy of a woman earning semikhah to the legitimacy of a learned non-Jew earning semikhah, ve-ein makom le-ha’arikh– there is no room to prolong this discussion.

[xii] Caplan 11.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] The midrash comments on Bemidbar 4:13.

[xv] Bemidbar 4:14.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Caplan 10.

[xix] Caplan 11.