From Behind the Veil of Tzniyut: Using Modesty to Block Women as Ritual Leaders– By Rabba Sara Hurwitz

American Jews, secular and religious alike, have been united in their rejection of Jewish extremists’ headline-grabbing attempts to keep young girls and women out of public spaces in Beit Shemesh, Israel on the grounds of religious modesty.

Observers, journalists and pundits have rationalized these actions to be little more than the misguided work of self-anointed Haredi Jews known as Sicarii. The Sicarii is a group much like ancient religious zealots bearing the same name, who drove Judaism to near destruction with their radicalism and uncompromising benightedness in 66 A.D.  These latter-day, rebels, who notoriously spit on a modestly dressed eight-year-old girl on her way to school, screamed epithets, and removed benches from public bus shelters, are indeed fundamentalists.

Their misdeeds, however, bring to light an extreme manifestation of a subtler, yet deeply rooted perception of tzniyut; it also reveals how the interpretation of religious modesty has cultivated an underlying resistance to and exclusion of women assuming ritual leadership roles in Jewish synagogue life in Israel and America.

Thankfully, most women are not spat on and harassed in public; however, female spiritual leaders are not welcome as bona fide members of Modern Orthodox rabbinic and professional networks.  Female scholars are not featured in scholarly journals, nor are they invited to speak on public, mainstream panels.  Currently, there are only two female heads of co-ed Orthodox Jewish day schools in America.  And, with some notable exceptions – notable because they are exceptions – women for the most part do not have roles in synagogue lay or religious leadership.

Far too often, tzniyut is cited as the reason for the imbalance.  In June 2010, after being graciously welcomed to speak at the Young Israel of Hewlett, Long Island, a rabbi in the Long Island community, who would likely never identify with the Sicarii, wrote an acerbic essay lamenting my very presence as an ordained Rabba, or spiritual leader: “Leading Torah scholars have condemned the appointment of a woman to a rabbinic position as ‘a breach of tzniyus [modesty]’ …because of the event, this coming Tisha B’Av, we will have something else to cry about.”

Modesty is the halakha or Jewish code of law, most readily summoned upon as the basis to exclude women from public leadership roles. Yet it is fairly typical for certain Modern Orthodox congregants to also be regular consumers of “immodest” television programs, films, and entertainment.  These individuals deal with women in the secular boardroom and courtroom, but they do not want women standing before a shul because, well, it’s immodest.

When taken to an extreme, it is considered a “breach of modesty” for women to appear on billboards or to travel with men; when walking outdoors in certain communities, it is deemed immodest for girls and women to wear clothing that does not cover their bodies from head to toe.

But should the same principle of tzniyut be invoked in Modern Orthodox communities as a way of preventing women from offering a few words of Torah from the pulpit, from announcing the time for mincha on Shabbat afternoon, from reciting Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, or from even holding a fully adorned Torah for a few precious moments?

In fact, Halakha does not support the eradication of women from public leadership and ritual life. The concept of tzniyut, with regard to women’s dress and conduct has its origins in Psalms (45:14), “The honor of the daughter of the king is within…” and therefore, there are those who suggest, women must remain hidden.

However, responding to a question about women assuming leadership positions in Israeli society, Rav Uziel, the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, wrote that women can and should become leaders in Israeli society, “…for all Israel are holy people, and her women are holy, and are not to be suspect of breach of modesty and morality.” (Responsa Piskei Uziel Siman 44).

What’s more, the concept of tzniyut, according to Derekh Eretz Zuta 7, teaches that
tzniyut extends beyond the way women dress. “A Torah scholar should be modest in eating and drinking…in his walking, in dress…” Modesty is a fundamental value.  But modesty is not limited to women. Men and women alike must strive to conduct themselves in a modest, humble manner.

Tzniyut, therefore, cannot be brandished as the reason that women cannot hold public leadership roles. Halakha should not be manipulated into a smokescreen shielding men and sidelining women who have the potential to enhance our community.  It’s imperative that the Modern Orthodox community come out from behind the veil of tzniyut, and actively seek out ways for women to not only be seen and heard, but to serve and to lead.

Advancing opportunities for vibrant women’s leadership is our goal at Yeshivat Maharat. By providing women with a vigorous spiritual and textual education, we are creating a path not only enabling women to be recognized as religious authorities, but to help combat religious gender inequality. Certain women, just like certain men, have the skills and aptitude for Torah study, and should be afforded the opportunity to serve the Jewish community as halakhic and spiritual leaders and role models. And yet, with a few exceptions, women are not encouraged to pursue authoritative positions of religious leadership. Yeshivat Maharat, is working to change the status quo.

In addition to Yeshivat Maharat, there are a few other enclaves emerging as inclusive and courageous supporters of women’s advancement into public religious leadership roles: Beit Hillel, which describes itself as “Tolerant Torani Leadership” is an Orthodox network of men and women that has just formed in Israel with the explicit mission of “promoting the status of women” as well as combating religious fundamentalism. In addition, a group of American Orthodox women recently came together to form a network with the  purpose of advancing women’s leadership in the Orthodox movement.  There are of course, individual rabbis and communities― the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale is one example― that have helped forged a path for women like myself to become full members of the clergy, despite tremendous criticism and political pressure.

Yeshivat Maharat is working to develop and train a cadre of knowledgeable, forthright women who have already begun to emerge as spiritual leaders. We are already witnessing the impact these talented women have begun to have on Jewish communities around the world. One of our second year students, Rori Picker Neiss, is an intern at Beit Chaverim, an Orthodox synagogue in Westport, CT.  When asked about her internship experience, she says: “Some people are interested in talking with me because I’m a woman; others want to learn Torah and Judaism not because I’m a woman, but because they want to discuss different perspectives. I love the fact that I’m not just viewed as a female presence, but as a member of the team.”

To think that the voices of our graduates may be muted because the community is unjustly afraid to grant them authority to serve Clal Yisrael is disheartening and frightening. I am so grateful that we live in a country in which women have equal access to many aspects of our society. And yet, under the guise of halakha, women are being stopped from asserting religious authority. It’s time for us to come out from behind the veil of tzniyut.

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14 Responses to From Behind the Veil of Tzniyut: Using Modesty to Block Women as Ritual Leaders– By Rabba Sara Hurwitz

  1. Dr. Peter Geidel says:

    I am grateful that there is a Yeshivat Maharat and rabbis such as yourself to show the world that tzniyut applies to men as well as women, and that rioting and throwing stones at women and girls is not a manifestation of Halakha. May more Orthodox leaders join this effort to allow women as well as men to participate in all aspects of life.

  2. miriam says:

    While I agree with all the sentiments, I just wanted to point out that there are many more women heads of school–at community day schools. Clearly the Rabba was referring to Orthodox schools. A minor point but I thought it should be made.

  3. David Meir says:

    Rabba Hurwitz,

    Thank you for your thoughtful article. I wholeheartedly agree that the popular notion of tzniyut is obsessively focused on women’s dress, rather than on the more holistic concept of modesty/humility in one’s thoughts, words and actions. What is less humble/tzenua than to profess one’s lifestyle/opinions to be God’s very will incarnate, thus justifying a free reign to dictate to others the kind of life/mode of dress they need to adopt if they wish to be in “good standing” before God?

    I also agree that “halacha” is a smokescreen. The primary modus operandi of the Haredi community is to maintain Haredi norms. Halacha is used not as a tool of clarification (which would in principle be open to wider public roles for women), but as a post-facto justification (to bolster/protect the Haredi status quo).

    My only critique of the article relates to your very first line.

    What characterizes “extremists” is not the attempt to keep young girls and women out of public spaces. Haredi society as a whole (American and Israeli, mainstream and extremist alike) favors gender separation to every practical extent possible, so that women are not mixed with/gazed upon/listened to by men. The notion of public roles for women in the Haredi world is a total non-starter. The only point where the mainstream differs from the extremists regards specific acts of violence, used as a means of “enforcing” compliance with Haredi norms. And the only difference between American and Israeli Haredi leadership is the willingness to condemn such violence. (Haredi leaders in Israel are also against the violence, but for political reasons they often fail to condemn it, for fear of bolstering the perceived “attack” on Torah.)

    As I commented to Rabbi Kanefsky on his recent article, I believe it is a terrible busha, an embarrassment and chilul Hashem, that religious Judaism continues to operate with institutionalized gender inequality. Yes, there’s Mars and Venus, there are differences between the sexes, and these should be appreciated, even cherished. But the differences among individuals of the same sex are *far* greater than those between the sexes. So the whole premise is a very weak basis upon which to dictate the “role” that is appropriate for a given individual.

    Add to that the fact that in modern, free, enlightened society, equal rights for women is taken as a moral axiom and a given in the law. Against this backdrop, Orthodoxy as it is currently conceptualized/practiced is hopelessly antiquated. What we really need is a revolution to refine and modernize Jewish law on par with what Chazal did in their time. Failing that however, we need more courageous and inspirational leaders like yourself to help pave the way.

    So chazak ve’ematz! Be strong and continue doing your thing. Hopefully the trail you’ve blazed will be widened by many more women who follow in your footsteps.

  4. Jon says:

    Given that the public discourse of the Jewish community takes the form of competing sermons, as evidenced by the above sermon, I’d say the last thing we need is to double the population of rabbis.

  5. Josh says:

    Thank you for this post. As someone who lives in Riverdale and takes great pride in the Orthodox diversity we have here, I am always delighted to hear your perspective.

    I agree with you 100% that tzniyut has been co-opted by the broader Orthodox community as an excuse to hinder women’s assumption of religious leadership roles. But, as you note, Modern Orthodox Jews themselves are by and large quite amenable to women’s leadership — just not in the religious sphere. This shows that, at the very least, the sluggish hesitancy to allow women to step in as rabbis, roshei kehilla, poskot, yoatzot halakha, et al. has nothing to do with the old-fashioned male chauvinism of decades past (according to which a woman’s role was primarily confined to wife, mother, and caregiver), but rather with religious conservatism — a fear of departing from the traditionally-pbserved Jewish lifestyle.

    Even if we maintain that this conservatism is misplaced with regard to women’s religious leadership roles (given, as you say, the strong grounding in the mesora for women to assume such positions), we can nonetheless understand and empathize with it. The Modern Orthodox community, being as open minded and religiously adaptive as it is, has a need to draw lines in the sand to distinguish itself from the religious movements to its immediate left — i.e., the Union for Traditional Judaism and the Conservative movement. Indeed, even Rav Avi Weiss took great pains in his 1997 essay “Open Orthodoxy!” to explain why Modern Orthodoxy was irreconcilably different from Conservative Judaism (interestingly, he noted that one of the two movements’ irreconcilable differences was over the proper approach to women’s ordination, but that is neither here nor there). For the last half century, Modern Orthodoxy has reassured itself that its lifestyle is “orthodox” because, no matter how lax/lenient its members’ halakhic observance may be by comparison to their brothers and sisters to the right, it has nonetheless not adopted those wicked innovations of the Reform and Conservative movements: the tearing down of the mehitza, abolition of kosher laws like yayin nesekh, and — yes — women rabbis.

    To give women spiritual leaders legitimacy in the Modern Orthodox community, we need to do more than cite sources and make arguments about the congruence of halakha and egalitarianism. Innovations are not unheard of in Modern Orthodoxy: Rav Soloveitchik’s creation of the women’s Talmud study program at Stern College is evidence enough of that. But the community won’t accept innovations that are packaged and presented as such. They need to be led to believe that these innovations are simply traditional expressions in a modern context — not “briyot chadashot,” so to speak. The reason why Rav Soloveitchik succeeded in legitimizing women’s religious study was because the community knew that his first allegiance was to the tradition, and that his endorsement of a new practice was therefore simply an application of normative halakha to a new social and historical setting.

    In short, efforts to encourage women’s assumption of religious leadership roles cannot happen in a vacuum. The Modern Orthodox community is simply incapable of embracing a left-ward religious revolution without suffering a crisis over its orthodox identity. It can only feel comfortable accepting religious innovations when they emerge from a sense of total commitment and allegiance to the mesora. Some of our twentieth-century leaders were experts at introducing such innovations, Rav Soloveitchik preeminent among them. These leaders were so successful in reconfiguring the religious landscape because they followed the principles of evolutionary halakha, rather than revolutionary halakha. The leaders of the women’s religious leadership movement would do well to take a page out of the evolutionary halakha handbook (which has received the “haskama” of the Modern Orthodox community, so to speak) and, while continuing to encourage women to occupy public roles in the religious sphere, nevertheless take account of the sensitivities of the Modern Orthodox community — specifically its religious conservatism and concomitant unwillingness to absorb radical religious change.

  6. Holy says:

    In all due respect, I am curious as to why the only authoritative halachic source you quoted about this issue is a single Sephardic rabbi who “said so,” never wrote so and never proved so from authoritative sources? I feel like this article is a politically manipulative piece used to sway the masses into a more liberal viewpoint without knowing that they are being misguided.

  7. Yosef says:

    I would also like to ask why there was no mention of all the Rabbinic literature written about this topic over the last hundred years. Was it deliberate ommision or just a lack of knowledge of all these sources? If the latter I would be happy to direct you to them.

  8. [...] conversation is dominated by men. (I am guilty as charged.) I am pleased to see Rabba Sara Hurwitz adding her perspective. I pray that other women–students and graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, the Drisha Scholars [...]

  9. Yosef says:

    You invoked the passage in Psalms (45:14), “The honor of the daughter of the king is within…” Doesn’t the Talmud in Shavuot learn from this that it is preferable that a woman shouldn’t testify in court–indicating that indeed a woman should avoid drawing attention to herself?

  10. ridiculous says:

    I guess according to Yoni, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis violates halacha every time she speaks in public…

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