I have been asked recently if the advent of women in positions of Orthodox rabbinic leadership will cause a denominational split of the Orthodox movement.
I think there may be a split in the making, but it won’t be solely because of the advancement of women’s roles within certain Orthodox communities. There are many differences between the Haredim and the Modern Orthodox – attitudes towards the conversion process, attempts to resolve the agunah issue, embracing secular education, just to name a few.
Not to mention a new policy in certain Haredi areas of Israel where women are now banished to sit at the back of the bus, lest men have immodest thoughts.
The point is, the Haredi and Modern Orthodox communities are already at odds on so many issues, and a formal split between the movements may be inevitable. And this may not be a bad thing.
It was not until 1818 that the Orthodox movement had to define itself in contradistinction to the newly formed Reform movement in Germany. Until then, there were religious Jews and secular Jews. However, when the Reform movement emerged (and about 70 years later, in 1886, with the appearance of the Conservative movement) Jews suddenly had a defined choice of how to practice their religion. Rather than alienate Jews who could not conform to the strictures of religious Judaism, alternative movements provided Jews with spiritual outlets. And, in turn, the Orthodox movement was able to define itself more clearly as well. Thus, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch introduced the revolutionary and valuable concept of Torah and Derech Eretz in 1840 as a polemic against the Reform movement on one side, and the more right wing isolationists on the other side.
A critique I often hear about the Modern Orthodox world is its supposed dearth of leaders and leadership. I actually think there are many leading voices within the Modern Orthodox community; however, some of those voices are often hushed in fear of retribution and ostracism from Haredi Jews. Thus, some leaders from the Modern Orthodox camp who may want to come out in support of women in spiritual leadership or a decentralized approach to conversions may be reticent to publicly voice opinions lest they alienate our brothers and sisters on the right.
But imagine how liberating it would be if some of our Modern Orthodox leaders were not fearful of the reaction to the right. Imagine if our leaders were able to embrace and teach Modern Orthodox ideals based on equality and spiritual growth, all while still grounded in a deep understanding of halakha. Then, Haredi and Modern Orthodox Jews can acknowledge our differences without trying to “save” the other from falling into the abyss of secularism or fanaticism. Those who ascribe to separatism will ride their buses, with men in front and women in the back without having to defend their ideals. And those who embrace modernity while remaining grounded in halakha will celebrate equality, and continue to ride their own bus, without looking over their right shoulders.
And just maybe we should affirmatively define and channel our Modern Orthodox values and practices into a proud and distinct movement – so that others don’t do it for us and banish us to the back of the bus.