Given the recent proclamation of the RCA on the topic of female Rabbis, I thought I would share some of my thoughts on the matter. I should first suggest, of course, that you read the actual statement from the RCA, (I also recommend reading this,) but in short, the RCA is not in favor of any formal title for women conveying any sense of Rabbinic authority.
Now, I’ve written on the topic of women and Judaism before, and I, however biased, very much suggest you read that as well; but there are some new points I would like to make, as well as some old points I would like to reiterate.
The truth is that much of this discussion boils down to comfort levels. Given our current social climate — religious and otherwise — we are simply not comfortable with the idea of women Rabbis. I would aver that even the most progressive amongst us must feel at least the slightest bit odd in their positions as female Rabbis. It’s just not common. Thus, by definition, strange.
But this is not an argument. It is just a statement of reality. This is very much the sort of thing that could change with time. What we are used to now might very well be something that we are no longer used to in the future, and vice versa, and so on and so forth.
I bring this up simply to make the very simple point that many people are instantly turned off to the idea of female Rabbis just from the sound of it. I don’t think this can much be helped, though, other than to realize that it is a real phenomena, and, as such, must be revealed as being nothing other than a feeling, and not in any way an argument against (or for) anything.
Any real discussion of changes to Jewish tradition (which, without question, the ordination of females to the Rabbinate would be) must be based in Halacha. If you want to get up at a podium and speak about how you feel things ought to be, that is fine. I don’t much care to hear you, most probably, but to each his or her own. Do whatever you want.
But if one wants to actually propose, much less institute, any real change, the argument must be based not on feelings and emotions, but on facts and law. It’s just that simple. Feelings do not dictate Jewish law. Feelings are not a good reason to alter/change/add to thousands of years of tradition. We have ways and systems to do these things, and it must be done through logic, and law. I don’t much care how you feel.
As such, the way I see it at least, the whole discussion of female Rabbis comes down to one Halachic concept, best expressed in a single Halachic term: Srara. Or, loosely translated, “Public Office/Influence”. This is a real Halachic concept found in the Gemara, and it has real Halachic implications. In short, (and this is, of course, a gross oversimplification) it essentially dictates that women should not, for whatever reason, hold any (significant) public office.
Does this really still apply today? And if so, does it apply in the same way as it did in the times of the Gemara? It is a Rabbinic enactment, after all, so why can we not do away with it? What even really is the exact original law anyway?
Well, these are all good questions. Unfortunately, such major questions — as overturning a Talmudic concept — must be left to the major players. And that is neither me nor you.
Yes, srara has been limited, or altered, or shifted throughout the ages. Different Halachic authorities have different views as to exactly how it applies (and I need not go into all the different opinions). But that is just the thing. This is a discussion for the Halachic authorities. It is not for the likes of myself to say.
The simple fact of the matter is that to render any major Halachic decision — and certainly something of the magnitude of overturning thousands of years of tradition and doing away with a Talmudic concept — one must have an utter and total command of the total mass of Jewish law and literature. And there are, indeed, a number of great men alive today that do possess such a level of knowledge. And not a single one of them supports female Rabbis.
Again, not a single Halachic authority has advocated at any level for female induction to the Rabbinate. For better or for worse (depending on your perspective here) this is a heavy, heavy fact of reality that we must face. As such, anyone truly committed to Halacha, and the Halachic system, must, essentially, bow his or her head in reverence to the decisors of the law. Like it or not, a student in high school that is vaguely interested in one day perhaps becoming a doctor is not going to sit in on a world class brain surgeon and start bossing the man around. That would be utterly preposterous.
Maybe you really don’t agree with the authorities! Maybe you cannot possibly see where they are coming from! I hear you. I do. But such is the system. Deference to authorities is the law (and further, it is, at the very least, the most intelligent course of action in such a scenario). Such is the way things work all over the globe, and such is the way things work in our sacred religion. Perhaps they see something you or I do not. Or perhaps they don’t. But it really doesn’t matter, at the end of the day. The system is the system. And not a single expert of said system condones, at any level, female Rabbis. That speaks volumes.
But here’s the thing. (And here is also where perhaps I get a touch radical…)
Anyone can be an expert on something, in theory. Get learning. You want to be that expert? Well, make it happen. Start studying. You wish there was an expert alive today that condoned female Rabbis? Well, go ahead and be that person.
Man or women. Male or female.
But as it stands, there isn’t a single woman on earth with a level of knowledge commensurate with that possessed by the great male Sages of our time. The thing is, though, that there could be. There’s no reason for there not to be. And I’m all for it happening. But there need be no title, either. It is utterly irrelevant.
When such a day comes, this all might be a very different discussion. But as it stands, when things are out of my league when it comes to issues of Jewish law (which this is — as it is indeed both a matter of law, and one that is out of my league), or anything for that matter, I defer to the experts.