Treating Orthodox Women as Equals, Guest Post by Ronn Torossian

As the father of young daughters who are blessed to attend Modern Orthodox yeshivas in Manhattan, my girls are taught that their potential is unlimited. At home and at school, they are constantly reminded that they can do anything, and succeed at whatever they choose to do in life. As girls living in the year 2013, we tell them that there are no doors closed to them. Doesn’t every good Jewish parent teach their kids similar values?

Today, Jewish girls go to day school, then Jewish high school, and then universities. Indeed, women – in Jewish life and elsewhere – can do it all. They are able to learn, study, and (gasp) even master materials that many men cannot.  And once they get there, should they then rely upon men for guidance on Jewish issues? NO.

With all due respect, is a woman special because of who she is – or who she marries? A Rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) may indeed be a special woman – but shouldn’t we also have female Jewish communal leaders who are learned and well versed in Jewish issues? Shouldn’t Jewish role models be true Jewish spiritual advisers, whether they are men or women?

For these and many other reasons, I have been inspired after recently spending time with Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, the Orthodox institution which ordains women as spiritual leaders. The women who learn at Yeshivat Maharat study high level curriculum – and are ordained as leaders of Jewish law, spirituality, and Torah. For many years, while countless Orthodox women have learned Torah, there hasn’t been a path for them to follow to lead communities. How can our community be served when half of our community is being ignored?

How can anyone adequately serve the community without understanding both women and Jewish law?  Whether on issues of “taharas hamishpacha” (family purity), marriage counseling, bat mitzvahs, or simply understanding a women’s mind, shouldn’t female Jewish leaders who are learned and educated consult – and lead – on these issues? Shouldn’t female spiritual leaders help women? Can’t women spiritual leaders bring a perspective that men don’t see?

Many Orthodox Jewish leaders stand firm on this issue – and indeed form a silent consensus. Rabbi Bakshi-Doron, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel wrote, “women can be the gedolim (the greats) of the generation and serve as halakhic decisors.”  And supporters of this view continue to emerge.

It is high time, in 2013, that women are encouraged to stand on their own. Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, and other women were ordained prophets. Much as Halacha is constantly interpreted, nowhere in our written or oral law is it determined that leadership or moral authority is restricted for women. Spirituality is not exclusively in the domain of men.

Strong, smart, learned, and accomplished Jewish women leaders are necessary for the advancement of Am Israel (the nation of Israel). This is about the future of our people.

My mother, Penny Waga, was a single mother who raised us alone. She was indeed the toughest, strongest, most spiritual person I ever met. She was a member of a woman’s tefiillah (prayer) group and taught us we could do anything and everything. Those of us with mothers or daughters need to teach Jewish girls (and women) that they can do everything and anything.

Today, women are equal to men. At a recent graduation ceremony at the Ramaz Jewish school, the graduating women were reminded:  “As you walk, remember that you are not alone. Ruth, Rachel, and Abby. Know that as you march forward, we– all of us—this entire community, walks with you.” Indeed, more members of our community need to celebrate and support this great blessing for the Jewish people that is Yeshivat Maharat.

For more information on Yeshivat Maharat email info@yeshivatmaharat.org or call (718)796-0590.

Ronn Torossian is an entrepreneur, author, and philanthropist. He is a self-described Type A personality – who believes women and men are different – yet both holy, and both capable of leading.

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21 Responses to Treating Orthodox Women as Equals, Guest Post by Ronn Torossian

  1. Lisa says:

    Equals don’t have to do the same things. On the contrary, assuming that women have to do things appropriate for men in order to feel accomplished is treating women as inferiors.

    Only to people who see Judaism as shul-centered could this kind of egalitarianism possible seem justifiable.

    You ask How can anyone adequately serve the community without understanding both women and Jewish law?

    Apparently we’ve all been getting Judaism wrong for the past 3000+ years. Whatever would we do without the Post-Orthodox to fix things for us?

    You say Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, and other women were ordained prophets.

    Really? Who knew we had ordained prophets? Devorah, if you’ve actually read the texts you’re referring to, slammed Barak big time for not stepping up himself, and leaving it to a woman to lead the people. So I guess you’re willing to use Devorah as an example of female leadership while at the same time going against what she said about it herself. Interesting.

    You say Strong, smart, learned, and accomplished Jewish women leaders are necessary for the advancement of Am Israel (the nation of Israel).

    To which I say: “Duh.” Everyone knows that, and no one disputes it, and the fact that the Post-Orthodox like to frame the issue this way is highly offensive. There are strong, smart, learned and accomplished women leaders. They don’t feel any need for smicha, or closet smicha, or maharatishness, or whatever Post-Orthodox naarischkeit they come up with next.

    We Orthodox women will go on being strong, smart, learned and accomplished Jewish leaders long after the Post-Orthodox are nothing but a bad memory.

    • Atheodox Jew says:

      Lisa, you’re falling into the trap so many people get caught in with this, mischaracterizing women’s motivations.

      >> Equals don’t have to do the same things. On the contrary, assuming that women have to do things appropriate for men in order to feel accomplished is treating women as inferiors.

      The motivation here is not “sameness”, nor is it having one’s self-esteem tied up with doing the same things as others. Like in any free, non-oppressive society, the desire is for people to have “equal access”, “equal opportunity”, wherever it’s reasonably possible. Take a random example – dentistry. Not everyone wants to be a dentist, or is cut out to be a dentist. But if dentistry were a profession that women were “forbidden” to enter, I think people would rightly protest. Same thing here. Not all Jewish women want to become rabbis, but the fact that those talented women with the knowledge, skills and wherewithal to lead are prevented from doing so on the basis of gender is something that bothers many people. It may not bother *you*, but that’s you. It doesn’t mean that those who feel otherwise are petty or carrying around inferiority complexes. That kind of characterization is wrong, and its purpose is to delegitimize those who want to break the traditional taboo.

      Better to just say, “We understand and appreciate the l’shem shamayim motivations of these talented women, but we also believe that the need to maintain the tradition must win out.”

    • Menachem Lipkin says:

      Lisa makes another fatal assumption… that receiving ordination means becoming a shul Rabbi. Actually, the vast majority of men with ordination are NOT shul rabbis, but are teachers and lay people. These men get ordination simply as a recognition of mastery of a certain amount of halachic material. That women are “permitted” to learn what men do has already been established; first by the Chofetz Chaim in allowing Sara Schnerer to start the first Bet Yaakov and then by the Rav in encouraging women to learn Gemorah. There are now, especially in Israel, Batei Medrash filled with women learning. Imagine saying to a woman, “you are free to audit any classes at Harvard you’d like, but even if you master a discipline on the same level as the men you cannot have a degree.”

      And yes, some ordained women will assume roles in shuls. But to say that they shouldn’t, as is typically done, because they’ll do things they shouldn’t as a woman, is the height of condescension. Imagine telling an ordained man who’s a Kohen that we don’t trust you to be a shul rabbi because you might come to officiate at a grave side funeral! Utter nonsense.

      • Lisa says:

        Smicha is not a degree. It’s a conferral of authority that has implications that go far beyond simply teaching. A rav that can’t be an eid? Or do you want to change that, too? A rav who can’t count towards a minyan? Or do you want to change that, too?

      • Menachem Lipkin says:

        You’re right Smicha is not just a degree, it’s more like an MD. Same argument.

        Maybe it wouldn’t be practical for a woman to be THE Rav of a shul, but certainly an assistant Rabbi. On the other hand all of those examples of yours are red herrings and the answers are “so what”. Who cares if a Rav can’t be an eid or count for a minyan? If you’re familiar with the workings of an orthodox Shul it’s rarely a necessity for the Rabbi to be there for the minyan. In fact in several shuls I belonged to the Rav had a full time job in addition to being the Rabbi and often was not at weekday minyanim. Their man functions were: giving drashot, giving a shiur or two during the week, answering basic “mishna brurah” type questions, and acting as a social worker. Which one of those functions can’t a woman fulfill?

  2. ayhay@ayho.com says:

    Lisa how about answering family purity issues. Should a man handle that? Indeed no one says equals have to be equals at everything. Women are different than men. Shouldn’t women be allowed to be ordained in some format? Or maybe women should stay in kitchen only?

    • Lisa says:

      Yes, a man should handle that. Rabbinic authority. See, this is what a lot of you don’t understand. You think that rabbinic literature is a bunch of books on a shelf. That anyone who can master them is entitled to rule according to them. You’ve made Torah she’b’al peh into more Torah she’bichtav, and you don’t even realize it. Torah is a living thing, which is passed down from rav to talmid. It’s good to be able to master the written material, but it takes more than that to be a rav. Well… maybe not a YCT rav, but you know what I mean.

      Women can be yoatzot. Women cannot be dayanim or eidim. Women can be teachers. Women cannot be rabbis.

      You ask, “Shouldn’t women be allowed to be ordained in some format. Or maybe women should stay in kitchen only?” Aside from the pathetic false dichotomy — I mean, I don’t have smicha, and I don’t stay in the kitchen only — do you know what “ordination” is? It isn’t a freaking degree. How do you not understand that? It’s a conferral of authority. A specific type of authority. One that is designed for men to exercise.

      You know… you should really get out and meet some real Orthodox women. Not Fauxthodox women who are all feminism first and Judaism where the feminism allows, but real Orthodox women in real Orthodox communities, who haven’t swallowed the western egalitarian ethos of envy.

      And that’s what it is. Envy. The same thing that makes a person with a 42″ HDTV feel impoverished when he sees that a neighbor has a 50″ one. If men didn’t get smicha, feminists wouldn’t be agitating for women to get it. But the idea that there is a position that’s for men and not for women makes them feel like women are “less than”. I don’t feel “less than”. Particularly not here on this site.

      • Menachem Lipkin says:

        Why do you have to be so nasty and condescending? Can you make your points without rancor?

        You said “Women can be yoatzot.” Maybe you’re not old enough to remember when Dr. Deena Zimmerman was certified as the first Yoetzet. The “Lisas” of the world went ballistic. The Yated had a screed that completing trashed her. Now, the Lisas of the world, and Rabbis right to left have accepted Yoatzot and are happy to utilize their services.

        And, maybe, Lisa, you need to get out and meet some woman who are true Talmodot Chachamot(?) Who’ve learned in a real Yeshiva setting and have received the “mesorah” from Rabbis who have it.

        That you appreciate your role and don’t feel “less than” is great for you. In the 50’s many women were happy to be doting housewives waiting at the door with a pipe and slippers for their work weary husbands. But that didn’t work for everyone. Some women wanted more, not to be like men, but to reach their potential. It’s not fair of you to project your satisfaction with your station onto others and then deride them for not thinking and feeling like you.

      • Lisa, I found your comments last week and today to be exceptional. rabbi@yioc.org

  3. Arie Folger says:

    As a public service to readers it should be pointed out in what field Mr. Ronn Torossian is an entrepreneur. He is a high powered public relations guy, founder of the 5WPR agency. Astroturfing?

    • Reb Yid says:

      It’s called “pay to play.” If you’ve got the bucks, you can lobby a politician to change the law, or lobby the Jews to change how they practice their religion.

      • Yossi A says:

        Wrong Torossian is a longtime Rabbi Weiss supporter and on the board of Yeshivat Maharat. He’s on board of ZOA and other Yeshivas and a $ supporter.

  4. Rabbi Ilana Rosansky says:

    Kol ha-kavod ; y’yishar kochecha!!!
    Great piece!!

  5. yeehudi@aol.com says:

    Absolutely this article is right on by Ronn Torossian (although he should have said he’s an avi weiss confidant). Best quote was ”
    Strong, smart, learned, and accomplished Jewish women leaders are necessary for the advancement of Am Israel (the nation of Israel).”

    • Lisa says:

      Torossian didn’t mention his relationship with Weiss because he was engaging in rhetoric, rather than intellectual discourse. And “strong, smart, learned, and accomplished Jewish women leaders” exist. All over the place. And they don’t feel the need to have smicha. At least the Orthodox ones don’t.

      • Lisa, smicha is not a conferral of any authority. In many orthodox communities every yeshiva bochur gets a two-year smicha, as a prerequisite to marriage. And he certainly can’t be a rav. Please don’t elevate smicha to something it’s not. Basic smicha is conferred when you pass a test on the Shulchan Aruch. That’s all.

      • Sarah says:

        Dear Lisa, I don’t know you and you may be a perfectly nice person, but your comments come across as extremely rude and condescending. For your sake, I hope you didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. I certainly hope that’s not how you meant for them to come across. You may not realize that being righteous is not the same thing as being self-righteous.
        I am a female surgeon from a Sephardic family. Even though I am physiologically and sociologically different than my male counterparts, I managed to succeed in a predominately male-dominated field. In fact, I am a division chief in my department. I really enjoyed reading this article. I hope that women will continue to become more educated/learned in all areas and contribute to Judaism and society at large in whatever capacity that they can. I am not really sure if women receiving smicha is forbidden by the Torah as you claim. I am pretty sure however that putting others down and ridiculing them is.

  6. Here’s a dirty little secret: men and women aren’t equal. You can try to pretend they are. You can create all sorts of feel-good slogans. You can put boys in pink frilly clothes and girls in wife-beater undershirts and deny the physical and spiritual differences between them but that doesn’t change that they’re there.
    Women can’t use urinals. Men can’t have babies.
    How we each of us relate to God is another area. Men have a certain type of spirituality, women another. That’s not to say one’s better than the other no more than an apple is better than an orange but the difference, each with its own unique features and advantages are there.
    Articles like this, as inspiring as they are to some, go against these basic facts of reality. They assume that whatever men have is better than what women have so therefore the women must have it too in the name of equality. It’s a shallow way of looking at the vibrant differences that enhance us as a community and family and seeing only disparity and envy. In short, “I want my daughters to be rabbis because Fishel’s sons get to be”.
    No one is saying that women can’t learn at the highest levels but if they assume male roles and perform male functions then some of the uniqueness of their femininity will be lost.
    And please, don’t tell me that it’s an axiom that women are better at understand female issues in all cases. You’ve just insulted every male gynecologist out there if you do.

  7. Menachem Lipkin says:

    Garnel, using physiological differences is silly and specious. This is an issue of opportunity not physical ability. Regardless of whatever “spiritual” differences there may or may not be, there is no strong halahic basis for women not being recognized for their, fully permitted, achievements and abilities in Torah learning.

    As for the “uniqueness of their femininity” being lost, we’ve heard that argument for hundreds of years as women have fought for the most basic things we now take for granted. And, more often than not, they often bring their unique femininity to their new endeavors. Regardless, that’s not a strong argument for preventing them from opportunities.

    Finally, while it may not be axiomatic that women are better at understanding female issues, you’ve created a straw man by saying in “all cases”. Nobody says that. However, the success and popularity of Yoatzaot, just as one example, shows that there is something to the concept.

  8. Matisyahu says:

    The author makes the claim that “Much as Halacha is constantly interpreted, nowhere in our written or oral law is it determined that leadership or moral authority is restricted for women.” While I am sympathetic to his viewpoint, I’m not quite sure that this claim is wholly accurate. I’m fairly certain that there is a midrash halachah somewhere where Serarah is derived to be limited to men.

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