A Sikh and a Jew Walk Into an Airport….

November 11, 2013

by Rachel Kohl Finegold

Last week, I participated in an interfaith panel of Jews and Sikhs at the Le Mood Festival. For those who have been to a Limmud conferences in the States, picture Le Mood as the Montreal (read: hipper, slightly “euro”) version.

Some of our U.S. readers may not be aware of a troubling bill which has been proposed here in Quebec. The Charter of Quebec Values would prohibit any government employee from wearing a religious garment or conspicuous religious symbol. The intention is to maintain a clear separation between religion and state, symbolized by the secularism and neutrality of public sector workers. The reality is that this bill would prohibit employees in diverse settings such as daycares, hospitals, and universities from wearing a kippah, hijab, turban, large cross, or any other overtly religious article of clothing. Here in Quebec, where so many social services are funded by the government, it’s hard NOT to be a government worker. This bill would force employees to either remove their religious clothing, or lose their job. [I should note that this bill will likely not become law, but obviously even its existence as a bill is disturbing.]

When I moved to Montreal three months ago, I was shocked to learn that a law like this could even be proposed in the 21st century, where religious expression should be recognized as a basic human right. I have learned that it is predominantly the secular Quebecois population, who live in parts of Quebec that are far from the cosmopolitan city of Montreal, that support this bill. Religious groups around the Montreal area have mobilized around letter-writing campaigns, media appearances, and protests, hoping to educate government officials as to how this bill would negatively impact their daily lives. Diverse religious communities have united in this fight.

Hence, the interfaith panel. Entitled “Holy Hair,” the program explored the ways that Judaism and Sikhism deal with hair. Besides the discussions around how the proposed Charter of Values has caused much upset in our two communities, we spent time comparing the turban worn by Sikh men, and the kippah. Beyond that, when I discovered that Sikh men not only cover their head, but also never cut their hair or beard, I could hear echoes of our own tradition where men refrain from shaving their beards (or use only an electric razor) as well as the tradition of the Nazir, who refrains from cutting hair as a show of devotion to God.

We also compared the daily experience of a Sikh man who wears a turban to an Orthodox woman who covers her hair. As someone who covers her hair all the time, but often does so with a hat, I may go undetected by those who are unaware that my hat is a religious head covering. A Sikh turban, however, is overtly religious. Not only does this mean that we would be treated differently under the proposed Charter of Values. It also means I can “pass” in my everyday life. I walk down the street relatively undetected as a religious individual. Not so a turban-wearing Sikh.

There was one experience which we had in common: the airport head patdown. Whenever I go through security at the airport, I am told, “Ma’am, please remove your hat.” I explain that this is a religious head covering and that I cannot remove it. I am then told to step aside, and that I need to be subject to a “pat down”. We’ve all been there at one time or another, randomly selected for a full-body pat down. I am in the “pat down zone” every time I am in the airport, but just for my head. As I step aside, a female TSA employee dons a pair of gloves, and proceeds to pat my head and every part of my hat, including the brim (if there is one), to ensure that there is no contraband. Hey, I can’t blame them – if explosives have already been hidden in shoes and underwear, why not in a hat?

As I related this experience to our audience at Le Mood, the Sikh sitting near me immediately identified with it. Yes, he, too, was regularly subjected to the turban pat down. I then learned that in Sikh culture, the head is holy. So a turban pat down is actually quite disturbing to a Sikh, and even feels invasive. The first time it happened to this individual, he felt violated, as if someone had touched an intimate and holy part of himself. I found this fascinating. Did I feel that way when getting my own hat patted? Not really. But once I thought about it, yes, it did feel like a violation of my personal space to be asked to remove an article of clothing that I would only remove in the privacy of my own home. For others, removing one’s hat might be like removing one’s jacket. But for me, my hat is a basic covering like my shirt or skirt, which one would never dare ask anyone to remove in public, even at airport security.

My Sikh colleague sensitized me to my own tzniut. He had such a deep connection to his head and its covering, that he felt a dimension of shame or violation when a stranger touched that place. I learned that I have a similar gut reaction when asked to remove my hat. I also learned that the Sikh community has educated TSA employees with regards to this cultural sensitivity of the head. These days, a Sikh may don the gloves himself, rub his hands along his own turban, and then remove the gloves for inspection, which is sufficient to detect any explosive device or dangerous weapon. What an incredible show of tolerance and respect, without compromising anyone’s safety!

I have found myself far from home here in Quebec in many ways, politically and otherwise. But I have also found kindred spirits in my fellow religionists. We have much in common in the political arena, out on the street, and even in the airport.


What Threatens the World and the Rabbinate? by Rav Yoel Bin Nun

July 4, 2013

What threatens the Torah world and the rabbinate? It is not the “draft decree” into the IDF, nor the “equality of burden” proposal, nor even budget cuts or the elections for the Chief Rabbinate. All these things do not threaten the Torah world or the rabbinate in any way.

If the elite members of the hareidi yeshivot will serve in some form or arrangement, their Torah world will only grow and deepen. This will be especially the case with those who are talented, especially with the Talmidei Chachamim amongst them.

During my service in the IDF, both during my initial service and during reserve duty, I was forced, by circumstances, to engage in in depth study of sugyot (areas of Talmud) and halakhot that by and large are not generally studied, such as Hilkhot Eiruvin as I was obligated to construct an eiruv by myself in the field during training missions, on more than one occasion, and of course to check the eiruv every Friday. In addition, I learned many laws of Kashrut and Shabbat in depth during my service in the IDF, because that is where one is confronted by many unusual circumstances. It is impossible to study daf yomi or the pristine sugyah in the standard tractate that is learned in the yeshiva. In the IDF one learns to live by the Torah in all situations, even in difficult circumstances, and on Shabbat one cannot simply call one’s posek.

If I had my druthers, I would test all of the bnei yeshiva in the country in Hilkhot Eiruvin and the like in order to demonstrate to the rashei yeshivot that it precisely the most talented and capable students who should serve in the IDF.

In the quota of those exempt from service in the army, if implemented, I would only include those whose religious commitment is weak and who may end up abandoning Torah observance during their service-as they are the ones who will not be asking the questions in Hilkhot Eiruvin.

In such a scenario, the quota of exemption would become a sign of shame, and the service in the IDF a symbol of pride for the Torah world (even that which is not Zionist). This is what is correct from a Torah and halachic perspective.

In passing, it should be pointed out that the members of the tribe of Levi in the desert also had a quota, and it is explicit in the book of Numbers. He who relies on the words of Maimonides (at the conclusion of the laws of Shemitah and Yovel) and compares yeshiva students to the Levites, cannot be opposed to a quota that limits the amount of who is exempt.

 

The Threat of the Agunot

What truly threatens the Torah world and the rabbinate?

The women- just the women. And it is not the women who may be joining the body that elects the Chief Rabbis of the State of Israel. It is the women who are suffering, the women who are abused and crying, the women who are agunot and are refused a get. It is they that threaten the Torah world, with the potential of leading to its utter destruction, God forbid.

Why?

As the Talmud teaches (Ketuvot 2b-3a) “Because of the meek (tznuot) women and because of the uninhibited (perutzot) women [the rabbis were lenient and accepted the validity of a get that was not technically valid].”

In the world of truth that Hazal inhabited one gave a get immediately. One did not wait a month or a year. A man could return and marry the women he divorced and so there was no reason to postpone the giving of the get. Only for a Kohen who was prohibited from marrying his divorced wife, would they write a special type of get (get mekushar) in order to postpone the effectuation of the divorce in case he might have second thoughts. This also lasted a far shorter time than the quickest get procedure in today’s rabbinical courts.

It is enough simply to look at the statistics provided by the rabbinical courts themselves. In Israel, there are currently 200 women who have not received a get after a rabbinical ruling that the husband must give a get. It is known, of course, that such a ruling is not given immediately and has only come after many months, years of deliberations in the rabbinical courts. There are also 200 men whose wives refuse to receive a get for various reasons. However, these men can live with other women and even sire children who are halachically kosher. If we examine the numbers of women who have not received a get from a recalcitrant husband, whose cases are being stretched out in the rabbinical courts, and who have not yet received a ruling, the numbers reach into the many thousands.

What happens to the women who are agunot, whose beloved of youth has abandoned them, and in many cases already lives with another woman?

The “meek (tznuot)” amongst them weep, and their tears reach the heavenly throne because the gates to accept “those who are oppressed” and the gates to accept “tears” are never closed (Bava Metziah 59b) And when a tear fell from the eyes of the wife of Rav Rachumi, who was expecting his return on Erev Yom Kippur, and he was immersed in his Torah learning and di not return to his home as was his yearly habit, Rav Rachumi died (Ketuvot 62b).

The “uninhibited (perutzot)” amongst them say, what can I do if the rabbis and judges do not pay attention to me, and allow the man to make demands and conditions for giving the get. In such a case, I have no choice and I will also find myself a man to live with, for I cannot carry such a heavy burden, the burden of raising children and my own personal burden, all alone. And then, God forbid, there is adultery, and it becomes viewed as justified, because it is done out of sense of “no options” available, viewed by many men and women as something akin to an oness – a situation in which one is coerced into a violation, so much so that many lawyers and rabbinical advocates admit that such a reality can often spur the rabbinical court to move with a bit more alacrity to resolve the situation.

What did Hazal , in the rabbinical court of truth state?

“Whoever betroths a woman, betroths on the (condition) of the acquiescence of the rabbis” (Gitin 33a). They found ways to uproot the kiddushin (betrothal) and the nissuin (marriage), if there was no other path available such as in the case that a man sent his wife a divorce via an agent and then canceled the agency in the middle of the mission.. Now all rabbis in the world, all of us, teach grooms to recite the formula “According to the laws of Moses and Israel” under the bridal canopy. “Israel” is a reference to the rabbis who stand under the canopy with the grooms and brides. However, we do not stand with the women when they find themselves in their difficult hour, when they request a get.

It is clear, that in the court of truth of Torah, the burden falls squarely on the shoulders of the rabbis and their disciples, and the adultery of the women who wait months and years, all alone is the responsibility of the rabbis before God.

The tears of the meek women also will determine the judgment, and may possibly bring a destruction of the Torah world and the rabbinate. It is impossible to know which is more serious—adultery caused by a sense of having no option or the tears of the women refused gittin, who will never be able to live with a man without a kosher get.

 

The Responsibility of the Rabbis

If the rashei yeshivot, rabbis, rabbinical court judges and poskim, thought that they would stand before the heavenly court and be held accountable both for the adultery and the tears of pain, and that their entire Torah would, God forbid, be tuned against them as an agent of prosecution, if they understood that the Master of the Universe stands: “By a wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in his hand” (Amos 7:7 see Bava Metziah 59a), that is that there is no protective wall, and everything  is breached, they would immediately come together- Lithuanians and Hasidim, Sefaradim and Ashkenazim, Zionists and Hareidim, Moderates and Zealots in order to make decisions- not as to who will sit on the chair of Rav Kook, the founder of the Chief Rabbinate of Eretz Yisrael, buit rather on the question as to what the Chief Rabbis and all the rabbinical courts should do to save themselves from the guilt of adultery and the tears of the women that rest on their shoulders.

However, those who grab hold of the Torah do not truly believe that the Master of the Universe stands upon “the wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in His hand”. They shut their eyes and do not see the adultery that they cause to the “uninhibited” women and do not hear the cries of the “meek” women who have not received gittin at the hands of recalcitrant husbands.

They only hear the threat of women being included in the body that will elect the Chuief Rabbis, and will soon quote for us what Rav Kook wrote about women being elected or having the vote, without understanding the full import of the position of Rav Kook and his son Rav Tzvi Yehuda on this serious question.

For many years, rabbis and dayanim have told me that it is only permitted to teach Tanakh based upon the midrashim of the sages. Listen carefully to what the rabbis stated about the destruction of Shiloh together with the Tabernacle that exited in Shiloh.

In the book of Samuel 1 (Ch 2:22) it states: “Eli was very old and heard all that his sons were doing to all of Israel, and that which they would sleep with all the women who would congregate by the Tent of Meeting”.

Rashi and Radak interpreted the text according to its plain sense and then cite a midrash of Hazal (as is my practice as well in teaching). However, most rabbis in our day only teach this according to the words of hazal. And this is what it states in the Talmud (Shabbat 55b). “Whoever states that the children of Eli sinned is mistaken…rather because they tarried and did not bring the sacrifices of the women who had given birth (in a timely fashion) thus causing them not to be allowed to be with their husbands, The Torah considers it as if they slept with these women.”

It is a clear kal vachomer (a fortiori argument). If the Talmud considered the sons of Eli who prevented women from engaging in procreation for a number of nights (until they paid up the terumah that the sons of Eli demanded –see Samuel 1:2:12-16) as having slept with these women, (of having committed a grave offense)-and thus it explained the words of the prophecy, what will be the judgment of the rabbis and dayanim who postpone and prevent the giving of gittin for months and years. According to the sages this can be considered similar to the actions of the sons of Eli, as they harm the women who congregate at the doors of the rabbinical courts begging to receive a get according to halacha.

It is for these actions and inactions that the Torah world and the rabbinate may, God forbid, be destroyed just as the Tabernacle at Shiloh was eradicated.

 

Rav Yoel Bin Nun is the former rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Kibbutz Hadati and a founding faculty member of Michlelet Herzog of Yeshivat Har Etzion, and a faculty member at Yeshivat Har Etzion and other Torah institutions. He is a pioneer of the modern day study of Tanakh in the Religious-Zionist world in Israel and beyond and a leading thinker, activist and educator in the Torah world. This essay originally appeared in Hebrew in the June 20th edition of Makor Rishon. The essay was translated into English by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot.


Orthodox Women Rabbis: A Response to the Blogosphere and a Hope for the Future

June 25, 2013

Orthodox Women Rabbis: A Response to the Blogosphere and a Vision for the Future

By Rabbi David Wolkenfeld

Rabbi David Wolkenfeld is the incoming rabbi at Congregation Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel in Lakeview, Chicago. For five years, he and his wife Sara directed the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Princeton University.

 

I.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer, a rabbinic coordinator at OU Kashrut, has recently published an online essay, “What Part of Mesorah Do You Not Understand”  reacting to an op-ed in the New York Jewish Week written by Zelda Stern and Elana Sztokman celebrating the first graduating class of Yeshivat Maharat.  Rav Gordimer makes two central arguments opposing women rabbis; the first is an assertion that women rabbis offend Orthodoxy’s “traditional communal norms.” The second is that women rabbis are fundamentally forbidden by halakhah itself for three reasons that Rav Hershel Shachter explained in a 2011 essay  published in the journal Hakirah. However, Rav Schachter’s halakhic arguments are unconvincing and an argument based on “traditional communal norms” is more subtle than Rav Gordimer admits.

Rav Shachter has a stellar reputation for the sharpness of his lomdus, and for independent and creative analysis of halakhic topics. In designing an eruv for Princeton University I relied upon some of Rav Shachter’s leniencies in Hilkhot Eiruvin without hesitation – placing my community’s shemirat Shabbat into his hands. Unfortunately, the three arguments that Rav Shachter presents in opposition to women rabbis are weak, perhaps reflecting his well-documented and idiosyncratic antipathy towards Jewish feminism.

 

II.

The first argument that Rav Schachter presents in opposition to women rabbis is that women rabbis violate “serarah” a prohibition found in the midrash halakhah and codified by Rambam, that it is forbidden to appoint women to any position of authority within the Jewish community. There are several responses to this argument:

Rav Schachter presents the halakhic prohibition of women exercising serarh using the words, “the Tanna’im understood the pasuk in Chumash as implying that women may not be appointed to the position of King” as though it were a well attested and universally accepted halakhic position. In fact, this halakhah is found nowhere in the Talmud, is mentioned by Rambam alone among the rishonim, and is not codified by the Shulhan Arukh (Rav Soloveitchik’s hiddush in Hilhot Shechitah notwithstanding). As an added element of irony, the entire profession of the rabbinate is entirely illegitimate according to Rambam, who categorically forbids earning a salary for teaching Torah. Since the entire Orthodox rabbinate rejects Rambam’s position on whether rabbis and Torah teachers can be paid for their work. How can we present Rambam’s purported opposition to women rabbis as though it were the only halakhic voice? Rav Aaron Lichtenstein shlita, has written about the need for rabbis to present halakhah in all of its complexity and nuance. And to not ignore that complexity, even in the interest of a seemingly compelling short-term polemical or policy interest.

Furthermore, Orthodox women do in fact exercise serarah in significant ways including serving as members of legislatures and the judiciary in Israel and elsewhere, serving as principals of Jewish day schools, and supervising staff in professional contexts. The onus is on Rav Schachter to explain why these well accepted and common ways that Orthodox women exercise leadership are different from serving as a rabbi, especially in a modern context where a rabbi is hired by a board, works cooperatively together with congregational lay-leadership, and serves only so long as the congregation retains his services Finally, this argument against women rabbis does not apply in situations where a rabbi does not exercise serarah such as an assistant rabbi, a chaplain, or a teacher in a day school.

 

III.

The second argument that Rav Shachter presents in opposition to women rabbis is rooted in Rav Schachter’s theory of tzniut. According to this theory, one I remember hearing in person from Rav Schachter fifteen years ago, tzniut is an absolute preference for being private and, at least initially as a way to imitate God’s own hiddenness, tzniut applies equally to men and women. However, since someone has to compromise on the value of tzniut for the sake of a community that needs public leadership, it is better, according to Rav Schachter, that men take on public roles so that women can maximize their tzniut.

This argument constructs a theory of tzniut that, however plausible it may be, is entirely irrelevant to the way that contemporary Orthodox Jews live. Do men with prominent communal positions experience their public leadership as though it were a painful but necessary sacrifice? Is it even true that contemporary Orthodox women refrain from speaking in public or serving the community in a visible and public way?

Orthodox women are scholars and teachers who lecture before crowds of hundreds. They are prominent in the professions and shape the world in all of the ways that men do. Women Torah scholars give lectures each year at the annual convention of the Rabbinic Council of America. Rav Schachter’s theory of tzniut is incompatible with the choices that pious Orthodox Jews, men and women, make each day.

 

IV.

Rav Schachter’s final argument is the most interesting one. Citing Rabbi Dr. Saul Liberman, Rav Schachter explains that the original “Biblical” semikhah implied the eligibility to sit on the Sanhedrin as a dayan. Since women are disqualified from being dayannim, so too they cannot be rabbis since contemporary rabbis serve as a sort of “imitation” or “carryover” to the original form and function of Biblical semikhah.

R. Lieberman’s concern can be overcome with a simple “heker” – a distinguishing feature that makes it easier to separate between two things with different halakhic statuses. Male rabbanim are indeed receiving an imitation semikhah that is a carryover to the original Biblical semikhah, whereas women who serve in positions of spiritual leadership can be given another title to make clear that they are not eligible to serve as dayyanim (or to perform any other ritual role that halakhah limits to men). Indeed, R. Lieberman was opposed to the Conservative Movement ordaining women with the title “rabbi” – but Orthodox women have gravitated towards uniquely female titles (yo’etzet, maharat, hakhamah, rabbah etc.) that do not carry any of the connotations that concerned R. Lieberman.

V.

The most significant barrier to Orthodox women serving as clergy is not purely halakhic but concerns what Rav Gordimer called “traditional communal norms.” This is, presumably, what the RCA had in mind when it referenced the “mesorah” in its public statement condemning Yeshivat Maharat’s graduation. Rav Gidon Rothstein’s criticism of Yeshivat Maharat was based on that same idea. Indeed, being part of Orthodoxy, even its liberal wing, like being part of any family, means respecting the sensitivities and concerns of other members of the broader Orthodox community. Rav Gordimer is undoubtedly correct that most Orthodox Jews remain instinctively uncomfortable with women rabbis. But there are several crucial caveats that cannot be overlooked.

-Over the past fifteen years diverse Orthodox communities have grown increasingly comfortable with women performing rabbinic functions in schools and congregations. Merely avoiding the title “rabbi” seems to be sufficient in many cases to overcome Orthodox discomfort with women clergy.

-Sometimes “traditional communal norms” coalesce in opposition to phantom threats. The Hassidic movement as it spread in Eastern Europe introduced halakhic innovations, liturgical changes, and promulgated an ideology that was reasonably interpreted as undermining the value of Torah study. In turn, many of the greatest rabbinic minds of Europe devoted tremendous energy towards a futile effort to eradicate the movement. And yet, no one today can question the halakhic faithfulness of Hassidim and their communities. Ha-Po’el HaMizrahi, the Mizrahi Workers Party, is another interesting historical example of a fringe group of activists, with little or no support from the rabbinic establishment, who broke off from the Mizrahi, and then established the crucial institutions for Religious Zionism to thrive in Israel (such as B’nai Akiva and the religious moshavim and kibbutzim), leading to the original Mizrahi being eventually absorbed into the one-time splinter group.

-Traditional communal norms can change very rapidly. One does not need to consider the acceptance of rabbinic sermons in the vernacular; congregational singing during tefilot, or clean-shaven men, for there has been a perceptible shift in the Orthodox community about this very issue during the four years that Yeshivat Maharat has been training students. The controversy over women’s ordination swept through the American Orthodox community four years ago with a strength that seems to have surprised Rav Avi Weiss.  In contrast, the first graduation ceremony at Yeshivat Maharat was received with excitement and enthusiasm by hundreds of spectators, bolstered by the news that there were more Orthodox communities seeking to employ graduates than there were graduates of the program seeking positions.

 

VI.

The graduation of Yeshivat Maharat’s first class comes in the context of a several programs, some ensconced in the heart of Orthodoxy, others occupying places at its periphery, that are working to open the doors of the beit midrash to women as students and teachers of Torah. These schools have different educational visions, different halakhic orientations, espouse different religious worldviews, and are promoting different visions of leadership. I consider myself very fortunate to have had students from several of these institutions as my teachers and colleagues. Contemplating the diversity of responses to the need for women’s Torah scholarship and religious leadership fills me with optimism for the future of Orthodoxy.

From my vantage point as a supportive spectator, I have deep respect for the determination on the part of Yeshivat Maharat to professionalize their model of women’s religious leadership and link the systematic and supervised study of halakhah to a title. Those unique contributions of Yeshivat Maharat to the movement of women’s Torah education deserve emulation.

The mainstream Orthodox community has created opportunities for women to achieve formidable accomplishments as Torah scholars and has created entry-level positions where those women can use their scholarship and passion for Judaism to the benefit of Klal Yisrael. The examples closest to my heart are the women who, together with their rabbi-husbands, direct the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus programs at sixteen North American universities. These women (a group that included my wife) teach shiurim, provide Jewish mentorship, offer halakhic guidance, and serve as resources for students, faculty, and others on campus who are seeking Torah knowledge or religious support.  But, without a title, their Torah scholarship is not acknowledged and the reliability of their religious guidance is un-credentialed. The many women who have served as interns at Orthodox congregations are another revealing example. For what profession and for which positions are these women interning? When moving beyond entry-level positions, Orthodox women have difficulty competing with ordained rabbis for jobs that they are fully qualified to perform. Orthodox women face this employment discrimination even outside the Orthodox community where professionals have degrees attesting to their training and religious guidance and “Judaic gravitas” is provided by rabbis.

The lack of a defined career path for Orthodox women to serve in positions of spiritual leadership and Jewish education, the lack of a broadly accepted title to honor their commitment and scholarly achievements is both a disgrace to the Torah that women study, and is complicit in a catastrophic waste of talent that the Orthodox community cannot afford. With so many models of Orthodox women’s leadership and so many programs educating and training women, it is too soon to predict what the landscape will look like when the dust settles in ten or twenty years. But all of those on the front-lines have my respect. The Orthodox community, and Klal Yisrael as a whole, needs them to succeed.


Frum Bridalplasty? On Shidduch Dating and Bean Counting – by Rabbi Zev Farber

March 30, 2012

There has been much talk about Yitta Halberstam’s Jewish Press article about the crisis of shidduch dating. That such a crisis exists is nothing new, as psychologist Michael J. Salamon makes eminently clear. What is new about Halberstam’s article is the suggestion that women would get more dates if they made themselves more attractive through make-up or even surgery.

There has been an outpouring of indignation towards Halberstam’s suggestion; most recently, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote a strong reply (more aptly, a rebuke), arguing that we need to teach men to look below the surface rather than teach women to redo theirs. Although I am in overall agreement with Boteach about the importance of combating the objectification of women plaguing our society (both frum and secular), as I wrote about in an earlier post, I am afraid that he misses a core problem with Halberstam’s piece – and the world of shidduch dating that it represents. Speaking as an outsider who has never shidduch dated, I will offer my tentative thoughts.

I believe that the problem lies not in frum-women’s looks or in frum-men’s shallowness, but in the system of shidduch dating itself and the yeshivish world’s approach to interaction between the sexes. To explain: The core idea behind shidduch dating is that since men and women in the yeshivish world do not meet or socialize in any informal way, they require some assistance in meeting potential partners when they decide that they want to get married. In some cases people are set up by friends or family who know of a suitable member of the opposite sex, but the number of possibilities offered in this pool of potential mates is rather slim. Hence, many people use a shadchan or shadchanit (matchmaker) to get dates.

Here is the rub: How does one explain to one’s shadchan what it is one is looking for? When a shadchan (or anyone else for that matter) asks a man what it is he is looking for in a potential mate, the man will inevitably begin to make a check-list. Let’s assume that the list does not, in fact, begin with looks but with the intangibles: the man may say he wants a woman who is kind, intelligent and with a good sense of humor. This is not much of a help for narrowing down options; my guess is that there are not a lot of self-described “mean, dense and humorless” women for the shadchanit to cross off her list. These personality traits are too intangible.

Looks, on the other hand, can be quantified. A man can say that he wants a woman who is young, thin, blond and busty. Now we have the potential for a checklist: age can be specified, bodies have weight, hair and eyes have color, dresses have sizes. Since the man has never met any of these women and cannot possibly meet all of them, he does the shadchan a favor by being specific and designing his dream girl on paper.

This check-listing has been perfected over the years. Now many men automatically fill in requests for 19-year-old women, even if the men themselves are 30, and size 2 for preferred dress size, even if the men themselves are less than “fit.” Most men, of course, have no idea about women’s dress sizes; nevertheless, most young men do have mothers and said mothers can help their sons weed out the undesirables. Some checklists have even become “sophisticated” enough to include the potential bride’s mother’s dress size – a sort of insurance policy for the future.

This commoditization is very disturbing and the practical question of what to do about it inspired Halberstam’s controversial piece. Halberstam believes that there is nothing to do about this commoditization; it is just the way men are. Hence, for a woman to succeed in the shidduch dating world, Halberstam claims, she needs to be as physically attractive as possible. This means make-up and nice clothing in the best of cases, and Botox®, tummy tucks and plastic surgery in the more difficult ones. To this, Boteach responds that the men can be changed. What is needed, Boteach claims, is to teach the frum men to stop commoditizing the women. “Tell the Yeshiva students that the Torah they are learning is supposed to actually change their hearts,” he writes.

Let me offer an alternative analysis. Of course, Halberstam is right that dating is primarily about attraction. And, of course, Boteach is right that the commoditization of women in the frum world reflects the basest form of disrespect towards women. But here is where I disagree: unlike Halberstam, I don’t think that this bizarre check-listing phenomenon is the natural way men – frum or secular – relate to women. And unlike Boteach, I don’t think this commoditization is the fault of frum men simply giving in to misogynistic impulses. Put another way: I do not think that frum men are more looks-focused than men in general; this check-list mentality is unnatural, even for them. In my opinion, the checklist mentality is actually the (virtually) inevitable consequence of the shidduch-dating system and results from a fundamental misunderstanding of attraction.

It is true that attraction is extraordinarily tied to looks, perhaps even more so for men than women. What is not true is that a person’s looks can be objectively quantified with some sort of “attractiveness quotient.” What attracts people to each other is often hard to discern; even for the couple themselves it may be mostly subconscious. There are physical characteristics; there is body language; there is rapport; there are personality traits.

Each person is an amalgamation of traits and each person is attracted to a certain overall blend of traits in a potential mate. I would venture to guess that most people could not actually articulate what it is about a person that attracts them such that this person would be distinguishable from hundreds of others that seem to fit that description, but don’t actually attract them. A person’s conscious mind is just the tip of the iceberg and a person’s subconscious is little understood – even by him- or herself.

By attempting to select dates for a man based on a checklist of criteria provided by him, the shidduch system forces the man to quantify the unquantifiable. Inevitably, the process of quantifying commoditizes that which one is quantifying, in this case women. It is my belief that if these same men had get-togethers with women from their community, and the two groups were able to meet each other and get to know each other, the men and women who were attracted to one another would begin to gravitate towards each other and nature would take its course.

To take Halberstam’s vignette as an illustration: She speaks about a get-together she attended with single young women and the mothers of single young men. Halberstam was shocked that these girls were not dressed-to-kill to impress the mothers. Didn’t they know that looks mattered? My guess is that of course they knew, and if the get-together had included the young men they would have dressed differently. What they did not know was how to be attractive to said young men’s mothers. I assume the young women intuited, as most of us do, that attracting a mate requires the mate to be there. Since inevitably the mother will not find the girl “attractive,” the most she can do is to compare her feature by feature with her son’s checklist. It is an unfair test and an irrelevant one, since the checklist is most probably wrong and artificial.

Sadly, this checklist culture feeds on itself. The lists get more and more specific and the women become only the sum of their parts. As Boteach says correctly – and this cannot be emphasized enough – such a culture leads to women developing depression and eating disorders, with a significant percentage dying, literally, from anorexia or bulimia.

To be fair, Halberstam is not only speaking from the place of a concerned elder. In the article, Halberstam describes her own memories of feeling dissatisfied with her looks when she was younger to such an extent that she took “some cosmetic steps that changed [her] life: a diet, hair-straightening, and most significant of all: a ‘nose job’.”  She writes that doing so gave her “newfound confidence.” I am sorry she had confidence issues when she was younger and I believe that she had every right to diet, change her hair and even her nose if she felt a yearning to do so. These are personal decisions and they may very well have been the right ones for her, considering the emotional issues she describes that were eroding her self-esteem.

However, if a woman is not suffering confidence issues, it would seem to me to be more than a little ethically problematic to cause her to suffer them by telling her that she will never get married without an hourglass figure and a button nose. To quote Boteach: “I have never even heard it suggested by the most superficial relationship expert that we should take young women for plastic surgery in order to attract a husband.” The reason Boteach has never heard this suggested is because it is false. It is the commoditizing tendency of shidduch dating that creates the twisted impression of its truth.  Even the horrifically commoditizing reality TV show Bridalplasty begins with the premise that all twelve women competing for the plastic surgery are already getting married regardless. Can it really be that the world of yeshivish men has dropped to even below the standards of the basest of reality TV shows? I cannot believe that. It is not the men; it is the shidduch system.

In short, I agree that there is a crisis in the shidduch-dating world and that the commoditization of women has reached such an extreme that one kind-hearted frum plastic surgeon is now offering pro bono plastic surgery for Orthodox Jewish singles. For my part, I do not believe the crisis can be solved either by surgically creating a race of frum Barbie-dolls or by telling men that only inner beauty counts and not attraction. The crisis is caused by shidduch dating itself and the culture of check-listing endemic to it. Men and women will be attracted to each other for a mix of physical, emotional and intellectual reasons. What they need most is the opportunity to meet and sort it out on their own. Perhaps a new model of frum dating is in order.

Zev Farber, Atlanta


When not to act piously –by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

February 9, 2012

Recently I came a across a passage in the Misilat Yisharim (Path of the Just) by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lutzato, that seems so prescient of the times we are living in now as Jews with all our infighting and outfighting and acting out on the right and left.  If we keep in the forefront of our minds the following words of the Misilat Yisharim I think it will help to guide us as to what actions will be for the greater good of the Jewish people, the glory of God and to be a light unto the nations, and which actions, in contrast, are detrimental to those noble ends.

“…Though one should run to do mitzvoth (commandments)…there are times when they can lead to quarrel, such that the mitzvah and the name of Heaven will desecrated instead of sanctified.  In such cases certainly the Chasid (pious person) is obligated to put aside the commandment and not to run after it.

Though we are obligated to perform the mitzvoth with all their details and not to be afraid or ashamed, even so mitzvoth require great discernment, for this statement was said only about absolute obligations; but any added piety that if a person performs it the public will mock them for it, should not be performed; as the prophet says: “Walk humbly with your God.”

Thus a person who wishes to be pious must weigh all their deeds with attention to what their deeds’ repercussions will be according to the time, place and culture in which one is living.  If not acting will cause greater sanctification of God’s name, we must hold back and not act.  All acts must be judged according to their repercussions not according to whether the act itself seems good.  These things can only be discerned by one who has an understanding heart and common sense; for it is impossible to codify the details of this which are infinite….This should be our vision of the path which shall bring true light and faith, to do what is straight in the eyes of God.”

-Chapter 21: On the Balancing of Chasidut (Piety)


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

February 7, 2012

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.


Desexualizing Public Space – by Rabbi Zev Farber

February 3, 2012

Introduction

The story is told (b. Taanit 24a) that Rabbi Yossi son of Rabbi Avin left his teacher, Rabbi Yossi of Yoqrat, in order to study with Rav Ashi. As leaving one teacher for another was an unusual thing to do, Rav Ashi asked him why he did so. Rabbi Yossi son of Rabbi Avin responded: “A man who has no compassion even for his own son and daughter – how could he have any for me?” The Talmud explains:

[Rabbi Yossi of Yoqrat] had a beautiful daughter. One day, he saw a certain man making a hole in a palm-leaf fence and peeping at her. He said to him: “What are you doing?” He responded: “Master, if I have not merited marrying her, will I not at least merit looking at her?” [Rabbi Yossi of Yoqrat] said to her: “My daughter, you are disturbing [God’s] creations, return to your dust, and let men not stumble on your account.”

The story of Rabbi Yossi of Yoqrat and his daughter is particularly chilling. A normal father would have been angry at the man for peeping at his daughter; instead Rabbi Yossi of Yoqrat blames the innocent girl for being attractive. Although the Talmud uses the story of Rabbi Yossi of Yoqrat as an example of cruel and unjust behavior, more than a millennium later this type of thinking has returned to the surface.

Rabbi Dov Linzer and Male Responsibility

It would be redundant for me to excoriate the behavior of the Sikrikim in Beit Shemesh, as many others have already condemned them for spitting on little girls and roughing up opponents. One of the best of such rebukes was by my own teacher, Rabbi Dov Linzer, in a New York Times op-ed, Lechery, Immodesty and the Talmud. However, Rabbi Linzer’s response diverges from many other condemnations of the Sikrikim with a radically different focus for Jewish laws regarding tzniut (modesty).

The basic idea behind tzniut – and I use the term to refer to modesty in the sexual arena rather than humility – is to desexualize public space and interactions between men and women. Rabbi Linzer argues that according to his reading of Jewish law, the Talmud “places the responsibility for controlling men’s licentious thoughts about women squarely on the men.”

Professor Shaul Magid’s Critique

Although the article was well-received by many, a number of critiques have been launched and I would like to focus on Professor Shaul Magid’s critique in Religion Dispatches. Although he applauds Rabbi Linzer’s “anti-misogynist” attitude, Professor Magid suggests that Rabbi Linzer’s position “is actually in conflict with key authoritative texts of the traditions,” and supports this claim with a number of examples.[1]

Magid challenges Linzer: “To instantiate your reading of the Talmud would require you to act decisively to abolish all the legal mandates that objectify women’s bodies and put the onus on the men to take full control of their libido and desire.” In my opinion, Professor Magid pushes his case too far.

A Reframing of the Conversation

Rabbi Linzer’s op-ed paints with a broad brush and was surely not meant as a full articulation of Jewish law. To clarify matters somewhat, I would like to offer my own reframing of Rabbi Linzer’s position.[2] Jewish law wishes interactions between men and women in the public sphere (i.e. non-marital interactions) to be de-sexualized. If men feel aroused as a part of their normal interactions with women it is the responsibility of the men to control this. The Talmud is aware that it is difficult to predict what may stimulate a man’s sexual thoughts. This fact motivates statements like that of Rav Sheshet (b. Berakhot 24a), for example, that staring at a woman’s little finger can be like staring at her fully unclothed. As Rabbi Linzer aptly points out, this is not a requirement for women to wear gloves, but a requirement for men to note when their minds are wandering in the wrong direction and fix it.

However, the above paradigm applies to ordinary interactions, i.e. interactions that are not meant to be sexual. I do not think that Rabbi Linzer’s claim that women are not responsible for men’s lewd thoughts applies to situations where women may actually be sexualizing the atmosphere on their own. Men also have a right to ask for desexualized public space. Even secular law is aware of this fact, which is why there are statutes against public indecency. The question becomes: What kind of behavior sexualizes the atmosphere? It is with regard to this question that, I feel, Professor Magid and Rabbi Linzer are speaking at cross purposes.

Tzniut as Sociologically Determined

By its very nature, what sexualizes a given environment is sociologically determined. Although there is no discussion in the Talmud about “laws of tzniut,” the Talmud does list certain behaviors as “provocative” in the context of divorce and fault.[3] A terrific example is found in the Tosefta (t. Ketubot 7:6).

If [a woman’s husband] makes a vow that she must allow any man to taste her cooking, or that she must fill up and then pour out garbage, or that she should tell random men intimate details about her life with him – she may leave and [her husband] must make the ketubah payment, since he has not behaved with her in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel (dat Moshe ve-Yisrael).

Similarly if [a man’s wife] goes out with her hair exposed, she goes out with her clothing in tatters, she behaves arrogantly with her slaves, maidservants or the neighborhood women, she goes out to weave in the public marketplace, she washes or is washed in the bathhouse in the company of random men – [if he decides to divorce her] she leaves without her ketubah payment, since she has not behaved with him in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel (dat Moshe ve-Yisrael).

The text deals with one type of fault that violates a marriage: humiliating one’s partner through his or her behavior. The list of a wife’s inappropriate behavior is clearly not meant to be exhaustive or objectively determined. I believe this applies to other iterations of this list as well.[4] In Talmudic times, a woman going out with her hair exposed or tattered clothing would have been sexualizing the environment around her with her public display, which is why a husband can call such behavior “fault.”

Halakha may be timeless but society changes; what may have been considered sexualizing behavior in one society may be considered harmless in a different society. Thus, a modest woman living in Saudi Arabia may not feel comfortable wearing a polo shirt in public, whereas a modest woman living in a Western society would. Furthermore, if a man from this same Western society were to complain that he finds women in polo-shirts erotic, we would have every right to tell him that this is his problem; it is he who is sexualizing the environment.

Context Specific Modesty

In fact, modesty can be context specific within the same society. A woman who wears an ordinary bathing suit to the beach is not sexualizing her environment; this is how women on the beach dress. However, if this same woman were to wear the same bathing suit to the office or the supermarket she would absolutely be sexualizing the environment. What constitutes innocuous behavior versus erotic behavior is extremely context specific and the question is where to place the bar.

Speaking for myself, it seems to me that telling modern religious girls and women that they may not wear regular T-shirts or regular-fit shorts because their knees and elbows sexualize the environment is misguided.[5] In fact, I believe making such rules accomplishes the opposite; the rule actually sexualizes the woman more. By telling young teenage girls that they are being provocative even when they aren’t trying to be, we may unwittingly make them feel sexualized even during their normal interactions with men – exactly the opposite of what halakha is trying to accomplish.

A Conflict in Values

The challenge for modern religious men and women is that we live in a culture where a “modest amount” of sexualizing of the environment is not considered problematic. Although most of us live in societies where public nudity or sexual expression is prohibited, Western society does condone a certain amount of conscious public sexual display, especially in dress.

Consequently, not all clothing worn in our society is, in fact, appropriate for religious women. Plunging necklines, skin-tight outfits or dresses with thigh-high slits are designed to sexualize the environment to some degree. This may be considered appropriate in secular society but not for modest Jewish women. Although it goes unmentioned in his op-ed, I trust Rabbi Linzer would agree with this point, which is why I believe Professor Magid’s challenge goes too far. Of course halakha still has what to say about women’s, as well as men’s, public comportment.

The Need for Tolerance

Undoubtedly, we live in complex societies wherein people of different religious beliefs and values must get along. Even if halakha forbids certain types of dress, the religious man has no right to attempt to force this “dress code” on anyone else, and certainly not to use violence and other scare tactics. Just as the Talmud rejected R. Yossi of Yoqrat’s warped perception, we reject our own modern manifestations of it. This is self-evident and axiomatic. It has been agreed upon by the vast majority of religious Jews who have commented on the recent abhorrent behavior in Beit Shemesh, and need not be belabored here.

Conclusion

The important contribution of Rabbi Linzer’s piece – and my own – is to encourage our community to consider how the burden of desexualizing the environment has fallen completely upon the shoulders of women over the years. This burden has contributed to the disempowerment of women in the religious Jewish world and, ironically, has sexualized them even more. When women are held liable for every male sexual fantasy, they inevitably become nothing more than sex objects. This is the ultimate violation of tzniut and is not the fault of Talmudic law, but of the skewed perception of it in our times.


[1] Unfortunately, some of Professor Magid’s illustrations are not fully accurate. For example, he states that “Jewish law permits a mehitza that would enable the womento see the men-just not the other way around. The reason: to prevent the men from being distracted by women during prayer.” This is a tenuous claim. The requirement for meḥitza that in synagogues is never mentioned in the Talmud or early sources, and when it does finally receive mention in twentieth century rabbinic literature, its purpose is hotly contested. Professor Magid’s description of the rule and purpose of meḥitza reflects only one view, and not even the most prominent one. For an interesting analysis of the institution of meḥitza and its place in modern day Orthodox rhetoric, see Rabbi Alan J. Yuter, “Mehizah, Midrash and Modernity; a Study in Religious Rhetoric,” Judaism 28.1 (1979): 147-159.

[2] To see Rabbi Linzer’s own articulation of his position in different words, see his blog post on tzniut. See also R. Aryeh Klapper’s excellent article on tzniut in Text and Texture for a distinct but related take.

[3] There is also a discussion in the context of reciting the Shema (b. Berakhot 24a).

[4] Like the list in b. Berakhot 24a of what is considered indecent (ervah); Professor Magid is certainly correct that most if not all Talmudic passages have more than one possible interpretation. There are those who believe that these lists are not societally determined but timeless. A technical discussion of these and related sources taking into account all the various traditional interpretations must be saved for a different venue.

[5] To clarify, I am not discussing whether religious schools should have dress codes and if so what they should be. Furthermore, I will refrain from discussing hair covering for married women in this piece, as the subject is complicated. See Rabbi Michael J. Broyde’s most recent iteration of his position on hair-covering in Hirhurim for one perspective on this.

Rabbi Zev Farber, Atlanta