Rabbi Chaya Rowen-Baker

Why Wait?

Not ordaining women as rabbis is a serious mistake that deprives the Jewish people of divinely inspired leadership

In a recent article titled "How Dangerous it is to Destroy the Old Ways," Rabbi Haim Navon presents a plan to incorporate women into the Orthodox rabbinate. He suggests that initially women could be given partial rabbinic functions and, in a few hundred years, on condition that they meet certain criteria, which would be carefully scrutinized, and that they maintain an appropriate life-style, they might be permitted to lead congregations.


Impeccable logic. A deeply chauvinistic attitude parading as religious piety proposes a 200 year trial for women. Who do they presume would be the examiner? What would be considered a successful combination of rabbinic leadership with the family life and the spiritual welfare of the lady-rabbi? Are male rabbis examined for their devotion to family obligations or graded on their success in combining scholarship with humility? Rabbi Navon’s proposal has no relation to reality and meets no standard you may set – halachic, sociologic, or even moral.


Navon deplores change which is artificially initiated. If, however, there is a revolution which stems not from the philosopher’s desk but from the true needs of the majority of the people, that is the revolution of religious feminism. The very fact that he wrote this article is a reaction to this powerful movement, whose strength has increased in the last two decades under the aegis of the liberal religious movements. Indeed, it is the fear of being associated with liberal religious groups, the Masorti Movement and others, that stifles Navon and others like him from saying what should be said.


Traditionalists cannot lead

However, by clinging to a conservative model they diminish their leadership and preclude necessary change. The true initiator of change is the radical, whose ideas are at first condemned and ridiculed, and later revealed to be of value. Slowly those ideas filter into small groups and finally become generally accepted. This is the case with the feminist awakening among the Orthodox, following the breakthrough made in the Masorti and other movements. Traditionalists, who by their very nature cannot lead, jump on the band wagon at the end, pretending to still be relevant.


Our tradition applauds those who led, dared and brought us all to a better place.


Nahshon Ben Aminadav, who jumped into the Red Sea, is applauded throughout the ages. Even Rabbi Akiva, who erred in calling Bar Kochba the Messiah, is considered a leader. His mistake cost many lives and utter destruction, but he remains regarded as a leader and daring innovator. The Talmud sent us a clear message when it chose to overlook his error and praise his daring.


In contrast, the Gemara considers Rabbi Zecharia Ben Abkolos, stiff and uncompromising, as the one who brought about the destruction. "The timidity of Rabbi Zecharia destroyed our national home, burnt our Temple and sent us into exile."


Denying women for 200 years is oppressive

Rabbi Navon and religious Zionists: Take care not to let your timidity bring about destruction. Lift up your heads, gird your loins and declare: Not ordaining women as rabbis, as qualified to answer religious questions, and to serve as congregational leaders is a serious mistake that deprives the Jewish people of divinely inspired leadership and opens our tradition to accusations of misogyny, oppression and discrimination. It should be rectified at once!


There are thousands of talented women, brilliant scholars, wise-hearted thinkers, devoted religious people, capable of leading the Jewish people wonderfully. It is what they were born to do; their way to contribute to the world. Denying them, or forestalling them for 200 years, is oppressive. Wrapping this denial in religious terms is sheer hypocrisy, as Navon admits that Halacha does not prohibit ordination of women. Those who love Judaism, who are proud of our tradition, who fear for its future, must censure these ideas.


Bringing about change by conservative methods means irrelevancy; talking about ‘200 years’ when the time is now is sheer effrontery. As one of the responses to the article said: The feminist religious revolution is happening, with you or without you. Let us hope that exaggerated timidity won’t bring in its wake further destruction.


Rabbi Chaya Rowen-Baker is the Rabbi of Masorti congregation "Ramot Zion", Jerusalem


פרסום ראשון: 05.07.09, 11:25
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