Jan 6, 2014

Leah Bieler on Times of Israel: "tilting at Windmills" (on Women, Torah, and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel)

Tilting at windmills

Leah Bieler
Leah BielerLeah Bieler has an MA in Talmud and Rabbinics. She teaches Talmud to students of all ages and backgrounds. Leah spends the school year in Connecticut and summers in Jerusalem with her husband and four children. Sometimes she writes to get a break from them. The children, that is.[Less]
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Sometimes Modern Orthodox people make me giggle. I've been watching as what some might call the "progressive" side of Orthodoxy seems to discover for the first time that there are legitimate halakhic positions supporting women as leaders, teachers of talmud, even, possibly Torah readers. Also Rabbi-ish things. Passing Torahs over to the women's side of the mehitza, discussing the possibility of women wearing tallitot, even tefillin. It's adorable.

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But I jest. I don't find these things "cute". Mostly, I find them inspiring. I identify with them. When I was growing up, I was part of the fight to recognize these exact same halakhic issues. I circulated a petition at my Conservative school to allow girls to participate in davening, left the leadership of a shul in my 20′s because they insisted on being what we called "Torah Egalitarian" – nearly identical to the partnership minyans of today. I studied Talmud in graduate school even when a professor told me he was concerned that my course load was too much, "for a girl. What if you got sick?"

I'm not looking for immeasurable gratitude from anyone. I did all these things because I believed they were right. That they represented not a compromise, or a concession, but truly what Hashem wanted of us in our unique time and place. The fact that there's rarely an acknowledgement of the work done by Conservative women for the last 30 years to achieve exactly these goals….I get it. I get that by referencing our struggles, Orthodox proponents of these kind of changes risk sounding like they'rebecoming us.

So mostly, I bite my tongue and keep my comments to myself. I make the (sound) historical argument that religious communities are by their nature slow to change. That the pace of change, especially with regard to issues of gender, has been nothing short of mind-blowing over the last century. That it is completely understandable that religious people and institutions would move more slowly in response to this breakneck speed. In short, I make apologies.

But recently, I'm having trouble keeping my mouth shut.

That's because recently, there has been an uproar in the Modern Orthodox community over the revelations that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has been nullifying testimony from Rabbi Avi Weiss (and likely many other Modern Orthodox rabbis) about whether someone is Jewish and/or fit to be married. It seems that they are shocked, shocked I tell you, that the Chief Rabbinate would have the chutzpah to determine for us whom we chose as our spiritual leaders! Some are now advocating for the radical refiguring or even complete dissolution of the entire institution. But most are just asking for Rabbi Weiss to get back in.

Well, boys and girls, welcome to my world. How many times have I heard stories of friends who spent months and even longer attempting to prove to the Rabbanut that they were, in fact, Jewish. And how exactly does one do that when one's own rabbi's testimony is considered null and void? And when your parents were married by a Conservative rabbi with a Ketubah signed by other Conservative Jews? What about dear friends whose own fathers were Conservative rabbis and could not participate in the weddings of their own children? Or they could, but only with a (real) Orthodox rabbi presiding to assure that things were done properly. How infantilizing is that?

And where were you, my Modern Orthodox friends? Some of you admitted privately that all of this was wrong, but would never do so in a public forum, for fear that it would jeopardize your own position vis-a-vis the rabbinate. Others explained, a bit condescendingly, that we need to have one standard in Eretz Yisrael for determining who is qualified to bring this sort of testimony, and we always need to follow the strictest guidelines, l'chumrah. But what if the newest stricture dictates that to be recognized, rabbis must have long beards, give up their iPhones, or deny evolution? Only now that you find yourselves on the other side of the divide, you are suddenly clear about how corrupt an institution the Chief Rabbinate really is.

If you don't mind, I have a bit of advice. Don't spend your time, energy and political capital trying to get back in to an institution that doesn't wan't you as a member. The Chief Rabbinate isn't corrupt because it has dissed Rabbi Weiss. The Chief Rabbinate is corrupt because rabbis should not be instruments of the state. You won't fix it by granting specific rabbis (likely) tentative reprieves. And you won't stay insiders for long.

The chasm between who you are, and who the Charedi authorities represent is only growing by the day. To you, both you and they are expressions of Orthodox Judaism, albeit in different forms. To them, you are kofrim, pure and simple. You watch television, use the internet, go to movies, read novels, read philosophy, allow women positions of power in your communities, sometimes those women wear PANTS, your boys and girls study Talmud together, you participate in nearly all aspects of secular culture. And the difference between you and me, that I can sit by my husband while I daven, is so small it is hardly worth mentioning.

As I see it, there are really only two possibilities here. First, Modern Orthodoxy can continue tilting at windmills and crying and begging every time another rabbi's legitimacy is questioned. Or, all of us who are not satisfied with the status quo can continue to advocate for a different kind of religious authority, one that is expansive rather than exclusive, one that recognizes that there are many different paths that lead to holiness, when the power is in the hands of the divine and not the guy with the biggest, blackest hat.

Those of us in the Conservative world fell into this same trap for years. We would warn people who were about to marry that they should consider whether they might at some point be making aliyah. If that was a possibility, we would often counsel that they contemplate being married by an Orthodox rabbi. That way, if they went to Israel, issues of their status would be easy. No matter that in some cases that meant they would miss the opportunity to be married by a trusted friend or even a relative. How naïve that seems now. I look back and can see the folly in the fight. They're just not that into us. And we look silly for the trying. Those in the Modern Orthodox world who choose the Don Quixote role, well, you can see how that would make me giggle.

Read more: Tilting at windmills | Leah Bieler | Ops & Blogs | The Times of Israel http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/tilting-at-windmills/#ixzz2pdinPhWa 
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Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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