This movement gained momentum. In the end, traditional observance by European Jewry gave way to assimilation, intermarriage, and conversion to Christianity. By the advent of World War II, over 40 percent of German Jews had intermarried and many Christianized. Even in Poland, that bastion of traditional Jewish observance, two-thirds had ceased to keep the Shabbos.
What went wrong? Modernity is by its very definition relative – subject to the capriciousness of men and society. Any notion defined by modernity is fluid and can be changed according to time, place, and situation. Modernity itself is therefore useless in defining a standard of right conduct.
Judaism, a divine institution, operates in the sphere of eternity, which is, by definition, absolute. Absolutism transcends the vicissitudes of mortal whims, as it is forever valid.
This brings us to the timely issue of women rabbis. Jewish tradition, cognizant of the physiological, psychological, and spiritual makeup of human beings, distinguishes between men and women. It actually gives deferential status to women. According to many meforshim, women are exempt from certain mitzvos due to their exalted status. As John Gray famously wrote, “Men are from Mars and women are from Venus.”
While we may be two sides of the same coin, we are different. That’s how God designed things. As sefer Bereishis carefully explicates, a woman’s role is reflective of the fact that she is often the silent hero, working behind the scenes as the nurturer, sustainer, and catalyst.
A difference in roles is by no means a diminution in value. Whether it was in Egypt, Israel, Persia, or Syrian-Greek occupied Israel, throughout Jewish history women have heroically redeemed the Jewish people, albeit in a uniquely feminine manner. A recent Time magazine article suggested that feminism may have contributed to more sadness in women than happiness. When modernity supplants eternity – when innate, ontological strengths are skewed and distorted – it’s time for pregnant pause and introspection.
Judaism teaches that in every male-female encounter there is a unique dynamic at play, with potential for exploitation. This is precisely why safeguards apply, in order to maximize necessary propriety between genders. Studies suggest that irrespective of environment (even in academic and corporate milieus) men have a tendency of viewing women colleagues, superficially, as women.
Judaism’s tradition of modesty is meant to preempt potential disregard for a woman’s intelligence and spirituality. The shofetes Devorah was not your typical public functionary. Though she was ordained by God to judge her people, it was a pro tempore role and special guidelines were prescribed to safeguard her intrinsic femininity.
The prognosis for Reform and Conservative Jewry is bleak. A break with tradition is a failed experiment. Only Traditional Judaism – a.k.a. Orthodoxy – once deemed a relic of the past, is in upward swing. The secret to its success? Not capitulating or kowtowing to transitory ideas or ideals but rather harnessing modern knowledge and invention to complement religious experience.
Obscuring the divinely endowed roles of man and woman is tantamount to denying God’s Omniscience. As we stand at the precipice of a new threat to tradition, it is incumbent on us to reaffirm our fealty to the Omniscient Knowledge of our Creator.