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We are living in strange times. More and more, it seems that it must be the pre-Messianic era, (as foretold in the dicta of the famous final Mishna in Sotah 49b regarding the end of days), when social norms will be overturned, all modes of behavior accepted heretofore will be discarded and vice versa, and we will be left only with our faith in our Father in Heaven to guide us.

Particularly lately, the news has gone from strange to stranger.

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For weeks the headlines have been dominated by the story of Bruce Jenner, former Olympic Champion, then peripheral player in the First Family of the Absurd (the Kardashians), who has now finally liberated his inner soul, by displaying him/herself on the front pages of fashion magazines as Ms. Caitlyn Jenner. The news media and liberal intelligentsia have been falling over themselves to sing the praises of his/her heroism and courage; (the same media that routinely disparages and minimizes the sacrifices of our brave soldiers in the Armed Forces who routinely perform real acts of heroism and courage, while being demonized by our cultural elites as brutes and savages). The upshot – one’s gender is what one wishes it to be, and woe to the “Hateful” person who might disagree.

One would think that is as strange as it gets. Not by a long shot.

We then hear from our fearless leader that he feels entitled to criticize Israel, and knows better than Israel what is good for Israel, as he is the closest thing to a Jew that has ever sat” in the White House and, thus, any implication that his opinions are not consistent with Jewish values and the good of Israel are ridiculous and hurtful. The upshot – one’s nationality is what one wishes it to be, and woe to the “Hurtful” person who might disagree.

But it gets stranger yet.

Just this week we were treated to the bizarre story of a former high ranking official of the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal. Apparently, although she was born to two white parents and grew up as a red haired, freckled teen, she has spent years disguising herself and telling everyone that she is really black, as she rose through the ranks of the NAACP. When challenged about this, she defended herself as really being a black person inside, as that is how she feels about herself. In fact, “Race as a construct has a fluid understanding. So I would say no, I have not lied about it.” The upshot – one’s race is what one wishes it to be, and woe to the “Hateful” person who might disagree.

So there you have it. Even heretofore immutable inborn factors regarding a person such as Gender, Nationality, and Race, are now matters of personal choice. It is no longer how I was born, but who I feel myself to be inside, that governs.

Gender, Nationality, and Race, are now matters of personal choice. It is no longer how I was born, but who I feel myself to be inside, that governs.

One might think that this ethic has only affected the non-Jewish world. (*) But surely in the Orthodox world – surely here they still cling to traditional mores and notions in matters of personal identity! No such luck.

Dr. Elana Sztokman writes this week in “The Forward”: The past two weeks have been historic for Jewish women. Orthodox women in both Israel and New York were ordained as clergy – although with a variety of titles from Maharat to Rabba to Rabbi, but effectively all as rabbis. While Yeshivat Maharat is now the veteran institution with five years of experience at this, Yeshivat Har’el appears more liberal in calling women “rabbi” or “rabba.” Israeli Orthodoxy thus effectively caught up with and then surpassed American Orthodoxy, creating a bizarre and beautiful historic twist in which organizations seem to racing against one another to demonstrate the greatest commitment to women’s advancement in religious Judaism.

And so we have arrived, in the Orthodox world, at a time when we have young women encouraged by certain Rabbis and Jewish leaders to be that which they are not, and cannot, be. A time that we are told that one’s identity is determined not by who I am, but whom I “feel” that I am or whom I wish to be. Rather than the classic ethos of thanking G-d by saying שעשני כרצונו (Who has fashioned me according to His Divine Will), and striving to develop that potential as fully as possible, the goal is now to become not how G-d made me, but as I wish to be.

This short essay cannot deal with all of the complicated arguments for and against the ordination of women as Rabbis. For an excellent discussion, please see here. My focus is only on the underlying desire that causes people to wish to be that which they are not, rather than fully deepening the limitless potential of the way that G-d created them.

I want to be understood clearly. Of course, I do not mean to denigrate the striving of women to deepen their learning and Avodat Hashem, and see a world of difference between the spiritual motivations that underlie their striving and the disturbing thoughts that exercise the absurdities of Jenner and Dolezal and their ilk. I am NOT drawing a direct comparison. Having said that, I cannot help seeing it as unfortunate that these women strive to be not merely great Jewish women and students and teachers of Torah, but to be Rabbis and Dayanos(?), and although very different, it is nevertheless another example of people who wish to be something other than as they were created by the Almighty, who created us in our diverse roles, and determined for us who we are and what we are supposed to be doing in His world.

Rav Samson R. Hirsch spends much time in his commentary on Chapter 1 of Bereishis on the recurring theme of Le-mino, “according to its species.” He writes, “ We see, beginning from the simple plant, a law all-pervading and all-embracing, that of Le-mino, allowing each plant species to develop only within the limits set for it . . . this law governs the whole organic world . . . and underlies the strong prohibitions we find in the Torah against Kilayim, the intermixing of species . . . These mitzvos warn us to keep this law also as regards our own species, to impose the law G-d has given us upon our our own drives and energies, to realize in it all that we do and refrain from doing. . . Like all other living creatures, only within the confines of Divine law can we attain individual freedom and independence. The whole Torah is nothing but the Mitzvah of Le-mino that was given to the man of Israel . . . G-d needs in His world the blade of grass as well as the cedar, the ear of corn, as well as the grapes of the vine. He has given to each its own law, within which each is to live its own appointed life, without questioning why it is a blade of grass and not a cedar, an ear of corn, and not a vine. Each leaves the planning of the world to G-d, and is happy to make its own contribution to the whole. . . G-d’s purpose will be attained only if each will fulfill the mission and obey the law that G-d has assigned to him. Through the performance of duty he will make the contribution that is required of him for the common good. (See there for a beautiful connection with Parshas Chukas.)

It may surprise the reader of these lines, but I consider myself a feminist, and indeed consider the Torah in general as feminist. Of course, one must define one’s terms, to be properly understood. If feminism means that women should be treated with equal respect, given equal pay for equal work, celebrated for their knowledge and wisdom, and treated with dignity more than equal to the way men are treated – then I am firmly a feminist, and join with my sisters in decrying any and all manifestations of women being treated as “less than” in any way.

But if feminism means that men women ought to be one and the same, that they were brought into the world to fulfill the same roles, and are expected to perform the same activities and share equally in all roles in life when not limited by differences in biology, then I am decidedly not a feminist. The radical feminism of Betty Friedan and the Feminist movement of the sixties and seventies, although having achieved some important gains for women in the aforementioned areas of positive feminism, particularly in the workplace, has done great damage to society and caused untold misery for millions of young men and women who were convinced to pursue unnatural goals and face a world where men were prevented from being men and women could not truly be women. We need our women to be great women and our men to be great men, and not confused hybrids who strive for that which they are not.

In a recent article Orthodox “semicha” student Eryn London writes, “My reasons for wanting smicha and to be interacting on a halachic level have nothing to do with wanting to be a man . . . It has to do with the fact that I think that my voice (and of other women as well) should be heard in the Jewish conversation . . . There has to be a balance between both the feelings of being part of the community but also how Halacha is actualized.” While I sympathize with her feelings and agree that serious modern Orthodox women are far too often excluded from having a voice in Jewish communal affairs, that is not reason to ordain women as Rabbis. People ought not get semicha in order to “have their voice heard.” Rather, semicha is a holy undertaking to be a guardian of our traditions, one who is the bulwark to uphold the mesorah. If the purpose of getting semicha is to be able to transform the Mesorah and lead to a different type of Orthodoxy than exists now (which is the gist of most of the rest of her article), perhaps it would be better not to get semicha at all, whether a man or a woman. What should motivate a budding spiritual leader is not to the ability innovate or to have one’s voice heard, but rather to be a conduit to transmit, as selflessly as possible, what has been entrusted to us by the Mesorah, and to inspire loyalty to it.

The role of a Rabbi is about modeling what it is to be an Eved Hashem, a servant of G-d, who seeks to carry out the Master’s wishes, not to seek to project “one’s own voice” and to perform whatever service that one feels driven to offer.

The role of a Rabbi is about modeling what it is to be an Eved Hashem, a servant of G-d, who seeks to carry out the Master’s wishes, not to seek to project “one’s own voice” and to perform whatever service that one feels driven to offer.

As a friend of mine put it, there is a major difference between getting a PhD and an MD. A PhD seeks to break new ground, to think of novel ideas, to develop new paradigms that were never considered before. As an MD, however, one innovates only most rarely. The goal is to preserve the patient’s health, allowing the natural innate powers of the body to heal itself and expunge outside influences that have invaded the system, thus causing sickness and poor health. The role of a rabbi is like that of being a physician, watching over people’s spiritual health, helping them to appreciate and see the beauty of our 3,500 year old Mesorah. It is about modeling what it is to be an Eved Hashem, a servant of G-d, who seeks to carry out the Master’s wishes, not to seek to project “one’s own voice” and to perform whatever service that one feels driven to offer. It is about fulfilling a mission. It is not about my personal spiritual fulfillment or even my connection with Hashem. It was and is about bringing the world to its fulfillment, creating a home for Hashem here on this earth and raising this world up to him. What one brings to the profession is enthusiasm, knowledge, ideology, and commitment; innovation is limited to finding new ways to inspire adherence to ancient wisdom, not to change Halachic norms.

I am all for celebrating the advancement of women’s learning and of their contribution to our society. Let us be thrilled that women in our time – freed by technology from the burdensome domestic chores of tour grandmothers – can engage in far more learning and scholarly pursuits, and have much to share of their special perspective on Torah and life. I believe firmly that women today can be not only great mothers and wives, but great contributors to our discourse on Torah and all the great issues of the day.As a Rabbi who has benefited greatly from the Torah taught by Nechama Leibowitz z”l, and has learned much from some of the great women Torah teachers of our day Tibodlu l’chaim such as Rebbetzins Faige Twerski, Tzippora Heller, Leah Kohn, Shira Smiles and Esther Wein. I have nothing but the greatest respect – not only for their vast knowledge – but also for the sensitive insights that they contribute, specifically with their feminine viewpoint. As an attorney, I have nothing but the highest regard for the female attorneys, judges, and fellow law students I have come to know who are fully adept at complicated legal reasoning and possess knowledge of the law on par, or greater, than any of their male counterparts. Clearly there are many individuals of either gender that posses great intellectual gifts, and society benefits greatly if they are put to good use.

I think that I understand, as much as a male can, that it must be frustrating for some women who might wish to function as Rabbanim and Dayanim to be told that the Halacha and Mesorah precludes this, for reasons that I cannot go into in this essay. As Avdei Hashem, it behooves all of us, men and women, to follow Rav Hirsch’s words quoted above, that “G-d’s purpose will be attained only if each will fulfill the mission and obey the law that G-d has assigned to him” or her. There is no question that women have an enormously important role to play in our society. But as Great Women; not in taking on male roles.


*Here is a snippet of what is happening in the non-Orthodox Jewish world.   Just the other day, the Canadian Jewish National Fund canceled an invitation for Gov. Mike Huckabee – as wonderful and loyal a friend of Israel as any – to speak at their annual dinner, claiming that he “spread degrading hatefulness towards and about transgender people.” His sin? Saying in a speech to a Christian audience that “there’s something inherently wrong about forcing little children to be a part of this social experiment,” in which one might object to having one’s young daughter greeted in the Ladies room by a forty-two year old man who feels more like a woman than a man,” and furthermore wondering what High School might have been like had the same rules applied in the locker room when he was growing up. Perhaps they will invite another pro-Israel speaker to replace him. Perhaps they will invite a leading liberal intellectual who is too brilliant to be pro-Israel. But at least he won’t question the propriety of celebrating trans-gender people.

But this does not surprise me. After all, for so much for the non-Orthodox Jewish world, Liberalism and Judaism are one and the same, and thus a sin against Liberal doctrine is a sin against Judaism.

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Rabbi Yehuda L Oppenheimer, formerly a Rav at Young Israel of Forest Hills and in Oregon, now lives in Lavon Israel and seeks to promote Jewish unity and mutual appreciation among all sectors of our people. He blogs at libibamizrach.blogspot.com

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