Motivations, Populations, and the Essence of Humility: Ariel Caplan Responds

[i]

I would like to first thank Ms. Gadish for her well-thought-out and carefully composed response to my article. As an enthusiastic participant in milhamtah shel Torah (the war of Torah study), I eagerly welcome the most passionate criticisms against my article, “Rav Lakhen Benot Yisrael: On Humility and Rabba-nut.”[ii] I also appreciate the opportunity this gives me to explain several points in my article that I did not originally express with sufficient clarity.

Ms. Gadish expressed objections to several points; her challenges include both rejections of particular claims and complaints about the manner in which certain ideas were expressed. For the sake of both brevity and clarity, I have separated my counter-counter-arguments into distinct sections, so that the reader may more easily follow the exchange of ideas.

On Leaders and Supporters

Ms. Gadish seems to principally focus on the contention which she perceived to be the thesis of my last article, that the women who seek leadership roles are motivated by a desire for power rather than a sincere desire to serve the Jewish community. She is, of course, correct that it would be arrogant, as well as simply preposterous, to claim that I can, like God Himself, enter the minds of aspiring female leaders and declare their thoughts devious. However, I never claimed to do so. Admittedly, certain points in my article might be read as ascribing insincere motives to female leaders. So I now hope to clarify in no uncertain terms that my concern was about the tone of the debate as it is carried out in the media, the blogosphere, and around the Shabbat table, by supporters of the women’s ordination movement, rather than the leaders themselves. The issue of supporters’ thoughts is no small matter, considering that for every woman interested in a communal leadership position, there are hundreds or thousands of well-wishers whose motivations are likely not in line with her own. Perhaps Ms. Gadish manages to surround herself with only the pure of heart, but in my personal exposure to media and social experience, the debate rarely focuses on the good of the community, but instead concentrates on whether it is fair to deny women the privilege of entering the rabbinate. Even if the “rights” consideration is only one of many factors discussed, it seems wrong to me to let issues of fairness or civil rights even enter the picture when debating the particular issue of women’s ordination. This point will be more fully developed below; for now, I would like to focus on several examples of statements in support of the women’s ordination movement that I find troubling.

First is the composition by Ilana Hostyk[iii] that initially inspired me to write my article. Ms. Gadish contends that Ms. Hostyk was “trying to stress a point about the inability to elevate…Torah to one of its highest levels.” I personally find this reading unconvincing. At any rate, it is undeniable that the article contains material emphasizing the right of learned women to hold leadership positions granted to similarly learned men. It is hard to see this advocacy for women’s ordination as purely ­le-shem Shamayim (for the sake of Heaven) when the author writes, “In all other ways, we have… allowed a complex conjunction of Torah u-maddah in our learning. However, when it comes to women’s issues, we are stagnant in a cesspool of discrimination.”

Ilana Hostyk is not the only one who has written in defense of the women’s ordination movement by invoking the principle of fairness. In an article entitled, “Why We Need Rabba, Not Maharat, Sara Hurwitz,” Dr. Haviva Ner-David writes, “I… know that there is no point in preserving the old if it has no inherent value. And I have yet to hear anyone articulate a convincing argument for keeping half of the world’s population down.”[iv] This entire piece, too, is a mixed bag of points, with some discussion of the communal benefit that female rabbis would provide, but the very presence of the fairness argument demonstrates that supporters are thinking along the wrong lines.

A third case comes from an address delivered by Rabbi Joshua Maroof (of Congregation Magen David of Rockville, MD) during the ceremony bestowing the title of Mahara”t on Sara Hurwitz. He said:

I firmly believe that our struggle cannot be deemed truly successful until the little girl attending a Gan in New York, and the young woman studying in a seminary in Yerushalayim, and the housewife living in Bene Brak, all know that the potential for Torah leadership is within their grasp… Our message today is loud and clear: There is a place for women in the world of Torah leadership.[v]

My interpretation of these words is that the struggle is on behalf of the potential Torah leaders, not on behalf of those who will be led.

Interestingly, one of the most beautiful formulations of support for the women’s ordination movement, in the way I would like to hear it, comes from none other than Rabba[vi] Hurwitz herself:

The time has come, the day has come, for women to transform their knowledge into service, to be able to stand together, with our male counterparts, as spiritual leaders of our community. And not because women should have the same opportunities as men – although they should – and not because women can learn and achieve on par with men – although they can. But because women, as Jewish leaders, have so many singular and unique gifts to offer, so much to contribute to the larger Jewish community.[vii]

Were this to be the only type of sentiment expressed in support of female leadership opportunities, I never would have written my article. At any rate, if there is to be a “Defense of Rabba Hurwitz,” it is in statements like this.

Misunderstood Rhetoric

Ms. Gadish takes particular offense to the title of my article (“Rav Lakhen Benot Yisrael: On Humility and Rabbanut”), which – as she correctly asserts – references the rebellion of Korah. However, I never intended to claim that the women who seek leadership positions or their supporters constitute a modern-day version of Korah’s revolt.[viii] In fact, I attempted to clarify the title’s purpose toward the end of the article, where I stated that “Rav Lakhen Benot Yisrael” was not meant in the sense of “You are seeking too much honor,” but rather to express, “You cannot claim a lack of spiritual opportunities.” Indeed, I maintained, and continue to maintain, that with or without rabbinic titles and positions, women have many ways to engage in spiritual and communal pursuits, just as there are more than enough spiritual outlets for the 99% of males who are not practicing rabbis. The comparison to Korah was only made to imply that just as we do not worry about whether it is fair for the kehunah to be limited to a particular class of people determined by their parentage, so too we cannot be troubled by a rabbinate that is limited to the group of people with a specific array of chromosomes. If there is a communal need for female rabbis, and the halakhic system does not stand in the way, there is certainly room to discuss such an innovation. But the fairness element is, to my mind, simply irrelevant. In truth, no area of Halakhah should be altered based on considerations of fairness.  However, I find the attempt to include judgments of fairness to be particularly troubling when applied to the issue of the rabbinate, where it is so important to concentrate on the spiritual needs of the people being led, not on the rights of the rabbis themselves.

Ms. Gadish also objects to much of the introductory section of my piece. In addressing the critiques of my introduction, I must emphasize that this section did not put forth an argument I necessarily agreed with; it was simply the deconstruction of an argument that exists. I first presented a three-stage argument which lays out the points made by Ms. Hostyk in orderly, analyzable fashion. I then proceeded to show why one might disagree with each point. Although I enthusiastically support women’s talmud Torah at the highest levels, I readily acknowledge that the talmudic and halakhic sources regarding women and Torah study indicate differences between the relationships that men and women are to develop toward the corpus of Torah; at the very least, women are less intrinsically connected to Torah study, not being obligated to engage in this pursuit. Ms. Gadish also objected to my “comparison between the legitimacy of a woman earning semikhah to the legitimacy of a learned non-Jew earning semikhah.” However, I did not make the comparison to indicate that the two are equally illegitimate; rather it was intended as a reductio ad absurdum, meant to show that the principle that any learned person deserves the opportunity to earn semikhah must be given some serious thought. Obviously, there is no room for a non-Jew to be a bearer of the masorah, while learned Jewish women may, in the end, have a place in this process. But we cannot jump to revise our practices without properly analyzing the arguments in favor of doing so.

Ms. Gadish further states that my piece “villainizes a legitimate and important discussion in the Modern Orthodox community” by casting “the notion of women’s ordination” as a “highly problematic view of the rabbinate [that] has infected the minds and hearts of kelal Yisrael.” However, toward the end of the article, I stated that “The debate about women’s roles in today’s Orthodox community is an important one, and the question deserves serious and careful analysis.” The sentence cited by Ms. Gadish was pointing out that the tone of the debate exposed the extent of the civil-rights perspective of the rabbinate; the “highly problematic view” is the thought that fairness should determine who may be a rabbi.

On Humility

Although I never intended to address the motivations of would-be female rabbis in my original piece, I did present a view of the ideal rabbi, which Ms. Gadish disputes.  Ms. Gadish objects strongly to the idea that humility is something that would make a person reluctant to accept a leadership position. In her words, “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.” Furthermore, she claims that “without wanting to be in…a position of leadership, one will lack the motivation and necessary energy, self-esteem and charisma to effectively be a leader.” In saying so, she is not without basis. Indeed, a psychologist who hates dealing with people or a biological researcher who detests pipettes will be ineffective and unproductive. And it is difficult not to sympathize with the celebrated metaphorical statement of R. Akiva, “More than the calf desires to suckle, the cow desires to nurse,”[ix] meaning that the teacher’s need to teach is stronger than the student’s desire to learn. Still, the teacher who teaches – or the leader who leads – when others could provide this service more effectively is engaging in false compassion rooted in a desire to satisfy the giving impulse, rather than a desire to maximize the community’s benefit.  Apparently, then, there is more to the equation than a simple desire to give: A true leader is motivated to lead, but is even more dedicated to the welfare of the people, and is willing to abdicate his or her own position if the greater good would be served by doing so.

The stories of Moshe and Aharon which I cited were tales of leaders who believed that their leadership would be to the detriment of the people. Moshe felt that another messenger would better serve the Jewish people, and Aharon felt that he personally was unworthy of the office of High Priest. God became angry at Moshe for the extent of his refusal to lead when called upon, but the essential instinct is, in my opinion, nonetheless praiseworthy.

My initial formulation in my previous article – humility “perhaps to the point of not wanting one’s position at all” – was a bit extreme, though a Novardokher might be inclined to agree with it. Even if we do not find this form of humility – self-abnegation – to be ideal (indeed, in a later portion of the article, the self-abnegation viewpoint was significantly mitigated), it is certainly clear that rabbinic aspirations must be driven by a desire to use one’s talents to serve the community. A humble person who perceives that others are more capable of fulfilling the community’s needs will readily accept this reality.  Ultimately, I agree that passion and drive are excellent qualities that will serve any communal leader well. But the final decision to enter a communal leadership position must emerge from a cautious, logical assessment of the realities of one’s own abilities and the needs of the community, ignoring  inclinations and desires except insofar as they enable effective leadership.

On Double Standards

Ms. Gadish astutely notes that in reality, unlike my idealistic portrayal of motivations that should draw people to the rabbinate,

A semikhah student spends several years learning in the yeshivah, and while he may spend many hours focusing on communal matters… 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 then claim that ordination should be treated as a limited privilege regarding women when there is no such attitude regarding men’s ordination is to support a double standard.

In short, Ms. Gadish complains that we only scrutinize women’s motivations to leadership, while granting semikhah to men without taking their motivations into account.  I believe, however, that she has conflated two issues: character analysis of individuals, and interpreting the psyche of the community.

It is true that semikhah programs include neither a gauntlet of hesed nor an interrogation to verify yir’at shamayim. This is unsurprising; such tests would be nearly impossible to implement. Were women’s ordination to become accepted by the mainstream, I assume their programs would also be focused on halakhic knowledge.

However, our discussion is not about the structure of women’s semikhah programs, nor is it even about potential leaders’ motivations, which I have no reason to interpret negatively. Rather, we are considering the move by a section of our community toward ordaining women. And in this context, I think it is entirely fair to ask: What is behind popular support for women’s ordination?  Perhaps the answer to this question should not affect the decision whether or not to institute women’s ordination.  But it can reveal to us some elements of communal psychology, and show us that the community has come to view the rabbinate as a position of privilege, rather than a position of service.

I will accede that my openness to the idea of non-egomaniacal female leaders is not universal. I personally feel that it is unfair to prejudge women as having malicious intent solely based on their desire to serve the community. Others are, however, more inclined to assume that women would only be motivated to become leaders by feministic inclinations.  Ms. Gadish’s complaint would be quite appropriate in the face of objections coming from this standpoint.

Points of Agreement

Despite my contentions with Ms. Gadish’s response, I must acknowledge one excellent point she has made. I do, indeed, take issue with her question of “why the quantity of [learned] women should have bearing on their ability to serve as leaders.” Quantity is indeed irrelevant to ability, but it is relevant to the decision to ordain women, because one could argue that a small number of potential female leaders does not justify overthrowing a system or creating a rift in the community. However, I wholly agree with her call to “increase the access that [learned] women have to talmidei hakhamim.” In Yeshiva University, the sad reality is that women are often not given access to first-rate talmidei hakhamim, and are not even mildly exposed to some of our greatest Torah personalities. With a hefty supply of talmudic power-hitters, there should be ways to establish closer ties between the two campuses. There must be ways to open up the doors of communication and let motivated and sincere women plumb the depths of Torah, guided by great Torah personalities.

I will also agree that history has borne out the benefits of at least some elements of women’s Jewish leadership, particularly through the system of yo’atsot halakhah. Based on reading, hearing from others, and interacting on many occasions with a prominent yoetset, I can attest to the good that yo’atsot have done, opening the frontiers of halakhic guidance where none was being given before. I am far from convinced that the title “Rabbi” or a synagogue position is necessary for these benefits, but this is a question of strategy rather than of principles. I will also add, beyond what Ms. Gadish has stated, that I feel there are not enough female Torah educators, and that the Jewish community would be much better off if young women were able to develop relationships with intelligent and Torah-educated adult women who could serve as spiritual guides. As a good friend of mine put it, “Women connect best with members of their own gender. They learn better together and from each other, because, like men and unlike subatomic particles, they need commonalities to bond.”[x]  The Biblical women in the desert had Miriam to lead them in song when Moshe could only lead the men, and today we sorely need women who can properly guide and educate women. This is presumably what underlies the success of yo’atsot as well – women were uncomfortable seeking guidance from male rabbis who were formerly the only approved sources of instruction. The opportunity to speak to knowledgeable yo’atsot has encouraged many women to be comfortable seeking guidance in crucial halakhic areas.

Concluding Thoughts

Ms. Gadish has pled the case of “women and men [who] are choosing to leave the Modern Orthodox community and go elsewhere” because “they feel estranged from a community that chooses not to utilize the talents of (even) the small population of esteemed female Torah scholars.” If she means that these individuals are defecting from Orthodoxy entirely, it is clear that the answer is not to change Jewish practice, but to help people come to terms with Jewish norms. Hazal were well aware of the difficult circumstances that women often face; one of the most interesting formulations of this awareness I have seen is cited in Eruvin 100b.: “R. Dimi said, ‘[A woman is] wrapped like a mourner, excommunicated from every man, and trapped in jail.” Despite this recognition, they did not change Halakhah based on their sensitivities, even while expressing sympathy for the female condition.

Should someone leave the fold of Orthodoxy over objections to the halakhic system, he or she has made a statement that fealty to Halakhah (or at least the Orthodox interpretation of Halakhah) is less important than living in a society that feels fair. If someone feels, based on an internal understanding of the halakhic system, that the Halakhah is being misunderstood and misapplied, the answer is to work within the system to change things, not to throw it off entirely. The trend described by Ms. Gadish cannot be described as le-shem shamayim; it is le-shem­­ feeling comfortable at the expense of a life of avodat Hashem (serving God).

As a contrast to those who have garnered Ms. Gadish’s sympathies, I would like to cite a fascinating quote from Mekor Barukh, the autobiographical work of R. Barukh ha-Levi Epstein (author of Torah Temimah):

More than once, I heard the wife of the Netsi”v of Volozhin zt”l… worrying and upset that women were deprived of the enjoyment of Torah study. Once, she told me that if Hazal said Havah was cursed with ten curses after the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, the pain of not learning Torah is the curse that rises above all the others… When I explained to her at length and gave reasons why women are not included in the commandment of Torah study, she thought a lot, contemplated the matter, and said to me, “What can I do? Practically, this is how it is. ‘You are just, Hashem,’[xi] and ‘Your justice is a great depth,’[xii] and it is incumbent upon us women to bend our heads. Blessed is He Who made me according to His will.”[xiii]

We may well note that the woman speaking was the great-great-grandmother of the Rav, who established the Maimonides School, which teaches Torah to high school boys and girls together, and who also gave the first Gemara shi’ur in Stern College. Some would say that he strayed far from his origins, but I cannot see things that way. He disagreed with his forebears’ opinion on women’s talmud Torah, but for reasons which were internal to the tradition. Because the Netsi”v’s wife submitted to God’s will, she refused to study Talmud; because of the Rav’s submission to God’s will, he taught Talmud to women.

When a mahaloket le-shem shamayim exists, it will reach the correct conclusion, and the Halakhah will emerge with clarity. Va-ani tefillah that the issue of women’s ordination will be debated in a manner that is le-shem shamayim, with proper respect for the integrity of the halakhic system, and with attention to the needs of the community rather than the rights of individuals. In this way, we may hope to succeed in correctly applying the dictates of the Torah to the issue of women’s ordination.

Ariel Caplan is a senior at YC, majoring in Biology, and is an associate editor for Kol Hamevaser.



[i] I would like to acknowledge the many individuals – male and female, from high schoolers to established Roshei Yeshivah, from within and without the Yeshiva University community – whose conversations with me have greatly enhanced my perspective on the issues raised in my article. While I do not think I have substantially altered my opinions, my  understanding of the issues has been deepened by exposure to others’ perspectives, and for this I am eternally grateful. I do not mention these individuals by name simply because there have been too many.

[ii] Kol Hamevaser 5:1, 10-12.

[iii] Ilana Hostyk, “In Defense of Rabba Hurwitz,” The Yeshiva University Observer, April 19, 2010, available at: www.yuobserver.com.

[iv] Haviva Ner-David received rabbinic ordination in 2009 from YU-ordained Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Strikovsky of Tel Aviv. She has since been involved in the formation of Shira Hadasha, and, more recently, became the leader of a fully egalitarian synagogue in Kibbutz Hannaton (Haviva Ner-David, “Why We Need Rabba, Not Maharat, Sara Hurwitz,” Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture, April 7, 2010, available at: zeek.forward.com.). I have left out her title of Rabbi to avoid confusion, as many readers are presumably only familiar with the recent, well-publicized ordination of Sara Hurwitz, while being unaware of other, less famous attempts in the last few decades to ordain women.

[v] Joshua Maroof, “Speech at the Conferral Ceremony of Sara Hurwitz,” Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, March 22, 2009, available at: http://www.jofa.org/pdf/uploaded/1620-WLDK1997.pdf. Despite my selection of this quotation, I find it much more problematic that in the remainder of the speech, he seems to equate being barred from the rabbinate with “being systematically denied equal access to the Torah.” I see no reason that being unable to deliver a sermon in the context of a synagogue or to officiate at a wedding or funeral defines women as having a lesser right to equivalent halls of study.

[vi] Writing her title is not meant to express support for her ordination; I am happy to call people by the titles they select for themselves, provided that there are no universally accepted standards for these titles (as there are for Mrs. or Dr. – i.e., being a married woman and having written a doctoral thesis, respectively).

[vii] Sara Hurwitz, “An Inaugural Moment,” September 10, 2009, available at: www.morethodoxy.org.

[viii] The explicit comparison of Korah’s revolt to “the more recent attempts of leaders within our community, spearheaded by individuals or groups, to unilaterally alter the practices of our community and transform the power structure of American Orthodoxy” referred to events such as the formation of the International Rabbinic Fellowship to compete with the Rabbinical Council of America. The establishment of this new rabbinic body was also the intended subject of the reference to a “vicious power struggle” later in the article, the assumption being that the women’s ordination debate was one of the primary factors that led to the split.

[ix] Pesahim 112a, translation mine.

[x] Jason Strauss, Jewish Leadership for Women, by Women, personal communication, October 30, 2011.  A small, informal survey conducted by this author revealed that this may not be true of all girls – some may feel equally or more inclined to connect with male role models – but it is clear to me that a greater presence of well-educated mehannekhot would be a boon to many young women.

[xi] Yirmiyahu 12:1, translation mine.

[xii] Tehillim 36:7, translation mine.

[xiii] Cited in Tsevi Yavrov, Hanokh la-Na’ar (“Teach the Young Man”) (Benei Berak: Tsevi Yavrov, 2002), 28-9, translation mine.