Making Sure Judaism is Fair -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

One of the tenets of Morethodoxy as I see it is finding as many and as wide a range of opportunities as possible within halacha for all Jews to engage in Judaism and connect to God.   In the case of women this means finding greater room for women’s leadership, women’s learning, women’s expression, and women’s teaching within Orthodoxy.  My collogue Rabbi Kanefsky has written that not finding enough room for women’s voices makes orthodoxy not only less palatable but less inspiring .

I would like to go a bit farther.  I think it’s important we have women’s voices expressed in Jewish leadership, Jewish teaching and in guiding the Jewish people because women have a unique voice. Over half of the human population is female.  Isn’t it possible that if we only hear the voice of men in Torah and in leadership that perhaps we are missing something very basic?  Perhaps the way that Devorah led the Jewish people was not the same as the way Moses led the Jewish People?  Maybe both voices are essential in order to have a complete whole.

If such an approach requires leniencies then those are the places that leniency is appropriate.  As my colleague Barry Gelman has written and as I have written leniency can be a very important halachic factor and indeed a stronger one than strictness.   Indeed, often stricture creates leniencies we have not intended.

Another reason that it is important we make room for women in Jewish leadership is that it is just not fair to say to 50% of the population, your talents cannot be used for holiness in every way.  In fact, we find this argument of “It is not fair” in the Torah itself.  “It is not fair” is a valid concern that was addressed by the highest levels of Jewish leadership.

When the Jewish people are told of the mitzvah of Passover some come to Moses and say “We are impure. Our relative has passed away and we have had to bury them, and so cannot bring the Passover offering.  It is not fair!  Why should we miss out?”  Moses doesn’t know what to do when “it is not fair” is in conflict with the law that God has given.   So Moses turns to God and God responds –Let’s find a way; let’s make a second Passover for them.

Later on in the Torah when the Torah tells us that sons inherit the land of their fathers the daughters of Tzelofchod come to Moses, and they say “it is not fair.”  Our father had no sons.  Why should we have less?  Why should the land of our father go to someone else?  Again Moses is not sure what to do when the claim of “it is not fair” is in conflict with God’s law.  Moses turns to God and God says, “The daughters of Tzelofchod have spoken well.” Let the daughters of Tzlofchod inherit him.

What an amazing Torah.  What religion of the ancient world held the concerns of the individual on such a high footing as to take seriously the claim, “it is not fair,” only the Torah which teaches that all humans are made in the image of God.

We are not Moses, but as the rabbis tell us the leaders of each generation must see themselves as Moses in his.  What do we do when the honor of Heaven is at stake?  If we will not get a direct answer from God as Moses did, it is our obligation to utilize halacha and sevarah to find it in the Torah.  Indeed, the Talmud asks why it is that minority opinions are preserved in the Mishna if the law is not in accordance with them.  The answer is that perhaps a court in the future will need that opinion to rely upon and it will be able to utilize it.

Let us take the approach not of closing the doors but opening them.  Let us use our minds to create greater honor of Heaven, not to make the life of Jews comfortable, not to fall into the trap that we are all so afraid of, of becoming a more liberal and permissive movement, but to tweak Judaism so that it can be more open to creating greater fear and love of Heaven.  Maybe the liberal movements such as Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism went wrong in our eyes, but maybe their mistake was not in making more room for people to serve God, maybe it was in losing the passion and commitment among their masses to Torah and Mitzvot.  Let us make room for people within learning, teaching and leading the torah world, let us make more room for the glory of God, but let’s do it without making the mistakes that others have made.

7 Responses to Making Sure Judaism is Fair -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

  1. AMS says:

    “Maybe the liberal movements such as Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism went wrong in our eyes, but maybe their mistake was not in making more room for people to serve God, maybe it was in losing the passion and commitment among their masses to Torah and Mitzvot.”

    While I agree with this statement and the premise of the overall article I think the main difference between the liberal movements and Orthodoxy is the idea of comandedness. When taking away the principle that we were commanded by G-d to perform all of the mitzvot, passion and commitment to mitzvot will be lost. In order to have a vibrant Modern/Open Orthodoxy that is inclusive to all, walking that line of where comandedness begins and ends has to be dealt with.

    I look forward to hearing other’s comments about this issue… Shabbat Shalom

    • Hyim Shafner says:

      Conservative Judaism I think would say it subscribes to the idea of comandedness but just feels if the Rabbis of the Talmud lived today they would think we have stultified the halachic process. Reform Judaism on the other hand does not think Jews are commanded. Maybe I should have said Conservative in the above quote and not included Reform. I of course believe we are commanded to keep Halacha.

      I think the Conservative notion that Halacha is in the hands of people is true, especially when its about finding ways within halacha to make Judaism more inspiring, on the other hand I think conservative Judaism failed to retain deep Torah and Mitzvot and a passionate commitment to them.

  2. Gedalia Walls says:

    As I recall, Devorah asked Barak to lead the army because it was not a woman’s role to do so. Is it possible that there may be leadership roles available for each person, but different forms of leadership? If you want to have women as rabbis (or whatever you want to call them) and shul presidents, just say it and stop beating around the bush. Understand that your interpretation of the halacha will be different than others and that you will have to stand behind your decision to do so. What I don’t understand is the prioritization of this decision- when the liberal movements of Judaism (Reform, etc.) challenge the basic beliefs of Judaism, why is the battlefield on the right and not on the left? Why not set up leadership to counter the lack of knowledge in what we believe that is so fundamental to our people and our existence? Isn’t fighting for more people believing that Torah was given by Hashem at Sinai more important than who gets to give the dvar Torah this Shabbes?

    • Hyim Shafner says:

      I strongly agree that we should fight with all our might to counter the lack of knowledge among the Jewish people. The question is how. I do not believe we will successfully engage the Jewish people in Torah by fighting. I also think that its about much more than dogmatic beliefs, like Torah MiSaini. Its going to happen by Orthodox Jews acting in a way toward the rest of the Jewish People in which our voice can be heard instead of the rest of the Jewish world dismissing us as crazy.

  3. I enjoyed this post, it came at a time when my community is exploring its boundaries in these areas. Thank you. One thing which has been on my mind when comparing the different voices of the different movements is the idea of “Kedusha”, holiness. This comes up for me on two levels. One, the boundaries which allow for sexual tension to be set aside when standing before God, and two, the watering down of the God focused experience of Awe at the core of Torah when choosing a path focused on progressiveness and ideology. These pitfalls are very present in our world, despite our professed “comandedness”. These are the elements I would take care not to lose while “making more room for the glory of God”.

    • Hyim Shafner says:

      I agree kiddusha is central to being “mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh”. But I don’t think that kidusha and openness have to be in conflict. The chesed that comes with openness may actually be something that helps to achieve kiddusha. Openness and the attitude of chesed that is its underpinning, brings respect for the other, often creating the boundaries that are needed to retain kiddusha without rigid boundaries. Despite the Rashi that says kiddusha is the result of greater “sexual” boundaries. Indeed greater sexual boundaries can come not only from building walls but from building respect for the other. This ironically comes from making more room for the other, seeing them as fully made in the image of God, from the chesed of openness.

  4. Naamah says:

    Thank you for this. I came upon this posting after just finishing a post of my own mulling over the issue of women’s participation in Orthodox leadership and religious life. As a person who underwent a conversion through the Conservative movement and has been thinking about pursuing an Orthodox conversion, the issue of women’s role in Judaism has been quite central in my considerations. Your observation that the problem with the liberal movements “was in losing the passion and commitment among their masses to Torah and Mitzvot” is apt; it is exactly this that I have found troubling.

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