web analytics
April 18, 2014 / 18 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance
InDepth
Sponsored Post
Spa 1.2 Combining Modern Living in Traditional Jerusalem

A unique and prestigious residential project in now being built in Mekor Haim Street in Jerusalem.



Home » InDepth » Op-Eds »

Missing the Point on Women’s Issues


Rabbi Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student

Share Button

The ongoing challenge of Orthodox Judaism is the delicate balancing act of maintaining traditional faith and religious practice while living in the modern world. Communities accomplish this differently, some with more tension than others. Occasionally, we sadly see some communities lose balance and either wall themselves off from the modern world in isolationism or deviate from traditional beliefs and practices.

We are currently witnessing the latter phenomenon among many of those who call themselves “Open Orthodox,” particularly regarding women’s participation in synagogue ceremony.

Predictably, traditionalists respond by arguing that halacha – Jewish law that binds us all – does not permit women to be called to the Torah or lead specific parts of synagogue prayer services. While a recent article in the journal Tradition and accompanying responsa published online conclusively demonstrate this, it is to some degree beside the point.

There are two main issues that underlie this entire discussion – meta-topics that transcend the technical laws of any specific ritual. The first is how and when religion changes. Or perhaps more important, who has the authority to introduce change? The second issue, which I wish to discuss here, is crucial to understanding the current debate: gender roles.

Traditional Jewish texts clearly discuss men and women as categories – as distinct groups – even though individual men and women vary. People are unique but their characteristics are described using helpful generalizations (see Moreh Nevuchim 3:32). The Orthodox worldview, as evidenced by the most prominent literature of the past two centuries, is that men and women have different roles in Judaism. Women are the private, home-centered individuals and men are the public individuals. Women naturally connect to God with less ritual while men require more.

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik believed that men and women were given different inherent natures as part of Creation. He is summarized by Rav Avraham Besdin (Man of Faith in the Modern World, pp. 84-85) as saying:

Two humans were created who differ from each other metaphysically, not only physiologically, even as they both partake of Divine qualities. This contradicts the perverse notion that Judaism regards woman as being inferior to man. It also cuts away another false notion that there is no distinction between them in terms of their spiritual personalities. Two sexes were formed not only for propagative purposes, but they constitute existential originals. They differ in their psychical natures.

This emerges, in particular, from the halachic roles allotted to men and women. The Oral Torah teaches us that women are exempt from time-bound positive commandments. Men are obligated in various communal activities while women are exempt. Many explain that women are charged with the religiosity of the home, with the all-important continuity of family tradition. While publicity-obsessed Western culture values only the public role, and therefore places the synagogue at the center of religion, Judaism traditionally values the home over the synagogue, the private over the public.

The current debate over women’s position in Judaism is mainly (but not solely) about gender roles. Some wish to reject the worldview distinguishing between gender roles, either because they believe it does not accurately represent the Torah or because times have changed. This second argument is often made by pointing out that women can reach great heights in the secular world, the implication being that we must change religious gender roles because secular gender roles have changed.

I find much truth in that statement because women’s public roles have expanded tremendously in the secular world – but I reject the conclusion that we should change our religious values based on secular trends. We regularly see around us women who are highly accomplished in their careers yet transmit Jewish values to their children and grandchildren in the traditional way. The first argument – that separate gender roles do not truly represent the Torah’s view – is, in my opinion, a false attempt at revisionism. I accept the writings of Rav Soloveitchik and other leading Orthodox thinkers of recent times.

Once we recognize this underlying premise, we can understand the practical attitudes on the different sides of the debate. Righteous women can and often have assumed additional religious practices. They are exceptions to the general rules. As long as they are not attempting to change worldviews, they will face little opposition. Of course, there may occasionally be technical religious impediments; men sometimes face those also. But as long as they – both men and women – remain within traditional worldviews, they have leeway for personal experimentation, to find their own places within the community utilizing their unique talents.

Today’s challenge is about changing the community’s worldview. Make no mistake; the rhetoric is explicit. The radicals wish to undo millennia of what they allege to be women’s oppression at the hands of the sages of the Talmud and their successors. As such, it is not just about the technical issues or about women wanting to fulfill extra commandments. It is about breaking down barriers, complete egalitarianism, changing gender roles.

The ordination of women as rabbis (or “maharats“) is about enabling women to adopt men’s roles, not about promoting the righteous and scholarly women of our generation (which is entirely unobjectionable). The calling of women to the Torah is also about gender equality, sameness. Even if technically allowed within halacha, which both prior examples have been shown not to be, they are certainly forbidden when done in order to change a Torah value.

There is much more to Judaism than simple halacha. We must not only follow the Torah’s laws but also its worldview, its hashkafa.

Share Button

About the Author: Rabbi Gil Student writes frequently on Jewish issues and serves as editor-in-chief of TorahMusings.com. Rabbi Student previously served as managing editor of OU Press and still maintains a connection to the publisher but did not work on this book in any way.


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

Leave a comment (Select your commenting platform)

5 Responses to “Missing the Point on Women’s Issues”

  1. Azi Graber says:

    nonsense, if maharats ordination and aliyot for women is within halacha it is not outside of the torah's "woldview". Its certainly outside your worldview, but that doesnt matter to halacha or to the women who want ordination and aliyot

  2. Ch Hoffman says:

    In Saudi Arabia, women are forbidden to drive cars

    In Israel, women drive those big trucks that haul around the howitzers

    Different societies assign different roles to women. But if Jewish women were to be kept as "different" as the writer would wish, then he should blame those rebbes of the early 20th century for starting women's education in Torah. Once they knew what was in the siddur and chumash, it was no longer possible to tell them that all of this is just "for the boys"

  3. Lisa Kamins says:

    well said. the the article is is really well said and well done.

  4. Dan Friedman says:

    Excellent! Contradicts and refutes today's piece by another rabbi quoting Rav Soloveitchik.

  5. Sara Conway says:

    Well written. I find it so sad that women are willing to forgo their own unique and valuable spiritual path to emulate the spiritual paths of men. The home as always been the mainstay of the Jewish tradition for both men and women. Jewish women have always been highly cherished in the Jewish Tradition as both intellectual and spiritual beings- it is only when we think the grass is greener on the other side that we forget that.

Comments are closed.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Loading Facebook Comments ...
Loading Disqus Comments ...
Current Top Story
Flyers ordered Jews to appear at a designated location in Ukraine, in Sept., 1941. The next day, the Jews lined up at the Babi Yar Ravine.
‘Jews Must Register’ Flyer in Ukraine an Echo of Babi Yar
Latest Indepth Stories
Haredim riot after draft-dodger is arrested.

The reporter simply reports the news, but it is greater to be inspired to better the situation.

Bitton-041814

The Big Bang theory marked the scientific community’s first sense of the universe having a beginning.

MK Moshe-Feiglin

Freeing convicted murderers returns the status of Jewish existence to something less than sanctified.

Dov Shurin

“The bigger they are the harder they fall” describes what God had in mind for Olmert.

We, soldiers of the IDF, who stand guard over the people and the land, fulfill the hopes of the millions of Jewish people across the generations who sought freedom.

How much is the human mind able to grasp of the Divine?

Jews have brought the baggage of the galut (exile) mentality to the modern state of Israel.

The Haggadah is an instruction manual on how to survive as strangers in strange lands.

It’s finally happened. New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan reported on her blog that “many readers…wrote to object to an [April 2] article…on the breakdown in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians,” claiming “[they] found the headline misleading and the article itself lacking in context.” Ms. Sullivan provided one such letter, quoted the […]

Nor did it seem relevant that according to widely circulated media reports, Rev. Sharpton was caught on an FBI surveillance video discussing possible drug sales with an FBI agent.

Jewish soldiers in the Polish forces often encountered anti-Semitic prejudice.

When the state was established, gedolim went to Ben-Gurion and asked him not to draft women and, later, yeshiva bachrim.

Perhaps worse than all the above is the acute lack of unity among Jews

At our seder we emulate the way it was celebrated in Temple times, as if the Temple still stood.

More Articles from Rabbi Gil Student
Rabbi Gil Student

Traditional Jewish texts clearly discuss men and women as categories – as distinct groups – even though individual men and women vary.

Limmud NY

There must be an Orthodox presence and an Orthodox refusal to attend Limmud NY.

I am from the generation that never saw or heard the Rav but lived in his shadow, feeling his recently departed presence in his students’ lectures. My poverty in this sense pales in comparison to that of the next generation, who have only a distant notion of who this great man was and his sprawling impact.

The Internet is a medium that has made its way in its short existence all the way to the center of contemporary life. Many of our daily tasks are now tied to it, and will be more so in the future.

In light of all the attention that the recent Internet Asifa garnered, we thought it wise to offer this analysis on the subject by Rabbi Gil Student, founder of TorahMusings.com and former managing editor of OU Publications.

Israel is a Jewish country – but can it continue to be so when Judaism threatens to destroy the state?

The unfair longstanding attacks on Israel’s legitimacy are a permanent stain on the international community. For over 60 years, Israel has valiantly grown under hostile conditions while fighting lies and half-truths in the international arena. Israel suffers doubly, however, when its very essence, its Jewish character, supports its opponents’ narrative.

There are two types of people in the world – those who are inspired by Mussar and those who are turned off by it.

Mussar is a school of study that teaches religious self-improvement. Traditional Mussar, as practiced in many yeshivas to this day, has a rabbi exhorting his listeners, often yelling at them, to be more careful in their actions and attitudes. This is frequently accompanied with a Torah insight and maybe even a good parable. But it can be scary: fire, brimstone, judgment day – all the horrible implications of religious failure, in graphic detail.

Patience is something we sometimes have too little of, but when it comes to history it is often a trait we need in abundance.

    Latest Poll

    Now that Kerry's "Peace Talks" are apparently over, are you...?







    View Results

    Loading ... Loading ...

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/missing-the-point-on-womens-issues/2014/02/21/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: