To the Editor:
Ruth R. Wisse’s article, “Women as Conservative Rabbis?” [October 1979], is a delight to read. More than any other analysis to date, it has exposed the sophistry of the report of the Commission for the Study of the Ordination of Women as Rabbis. As a concerned outsider, Mrs. Wisse has done the Conservative movement a great service, for with her objective eye she has shown the superficial reasoning which pervades the report. She has also done American Jewry a great service by showing just show deep the current malaise of Conservative Judaism really is, a fact which will no doubt be denied by many of its “official” spokesmen.
Mrs. Wisse shows that by taking the definition of the rabbinate out of the domain of Halakhah, the commission has made the role of the rabbi essentially meaningless by undermining any possible authority it might have in principle, let alone exercise in practice. For, as she has been so astute in pointing out, the report leaves “the impression of a meaningless body of tradition whose forms are adhered to when there is not a shrewd enough argument to break them down.” After such an undermining of tradition, how could anyone committed to that same tradition—male or female—aspire to such an amorphous and nebulous vocation? I think it is safe to say that in the halakhic system the question of authority precedes the question of rights. Today the most basic question halakhists must face is the erosion of the authority of the Law. Only after this question has been dealt with can a discussion of the rights of various individuals and groups be cogent.
The commission did not make available to Mrs. Wisse, or anyone else for that matter, the testimony of those who oppose the ordination of women as rabbis. I for one (I am vice chairman of the Committee for the Preservation of Tradition within the Rabbinical Assembly) pointed out that the rabbinate is halakhically constituted, viz., a rabbi is one appointed to adjudicate questions of Jewish law. The consensus of halakhic tradition is quite precise in determining just who may and who may not function in this essentially rabbinic role. (My testimony was published in Sh’ma, January 19, 1979.)
Sincere proponents of the ordination of women as rabbis should take little comfort from the commission’s report, which, as Mrs. Wisse clearly shows, does not take seriously enough the very context of a truly effective rabbinic role. We traditionalist Conservatives do, however, take great comfort from Mrs. Wisse’s article, for it expresses our deep reservations more lucidly than we ourselves have been able to do heretofore.
[Rabbi] David Novak
Congregation Beth El
To the Editor:
It is fortunate that Ruth R. Wisse, in “Women as Conservative Rabbis?,” presents the justifications for women’s ordination given in the commission report before she criticizes them; fortunate because this clues her readers in on Mrs. Wisse’s exaggerated and unfair reading of the report and its significance.
Mrs. Wisse complains that the commission did not engage in a full-blown discussion of the “conflicting trends and choices of modern feminism,” did not declare its final decision on such issues as whether biology influences ontology, or [whether] social conditioning [is] the only determinant of sex roles,” and finally, that the commission did not delineate the precise “boundaries of accommodation between traditional Judaism and contemporary feminism.” Yet this commission, a heterogeneous, part-time deliberative body of experts and laymen, whose responsibility it was to reach a consensus and write a report and recommendation concerning women rabbis in the Conservative movement, could not, and indeed should not have been expected to, write at length on such matters. It is entirely unrealistic to expect a panel such as this to reach definitive—or even tentative—conclusions on highly controversial issues at the frontiers of anthropology, sociology, and religious philosophy.
More important, however, debating and deciding such issues would have been at the very least unnecessary, and quite probably a hindance, to the task the commission had before it, which was to find a just and fair answer to the demands of many qualified women who wish to enter the Conservative rabbinate, an answer which could be defended within the halakhic system and which would not cause unnecessary divisiveness within an increasingly polarized Conservative movement. Clearly, the commission members realized, as do most judges, that attempting to tackle every relevant issue in a given dispute only makes its resolution more difficult, and undermines the unifying and consolidating force which a briefer decision might otherwise have. No doubt Mrs. Wisse also would have found fault with the Supreme Court’s relatively brief opinion in Brown v. Board of Education on the grounds that it too treated an issue vast in its implications without discoursing at length on each of them. If Mrs. Wisse really wishes exhaustive treatments of the broad, fundamental questions she raises, then she knows where to turn: to the recent proliferation of scholarly writing by religious and secular thinkers, and not to a document essentially political in its function.
Mrs. Wisse’s criticism of the non-definitive character of the commission report is all the more remarkable in view of her own indirect and evasive discussion of the merits of the issue of women as rabbis. She admits that “the talmudic sages made not a single attempt to formulate a general principle governing the status of women” and goes on to state that the Halakhah‘s varying demands upon men and women can be “endlessly reinterpreted.” But then she adds obliquely that those demands “cannot be wholly eliminated without calling into question . . . the binding nature of the law itself,” and concludes with an ominous warning that
the Conservative movement as a whole may . . . find it increasingly difficult, when the distinctions between women and men have no known consequence or meaning, to maintain Judaism’s unyielding differentiations between wool and linen, between milk and meat, between Sabbath and week, between Israel and the Nations.
Perhaps because she knows better than directly to accuse the commission of heading down the path of Reform, Mrs. Wisse resorts to this sort of side-swipe. If anything is clear from the commission report, it is its firm commitment to maintain the vitality of halakhic Judaism, not to repudiate it or dilute it. Those who favor the full participation of women in the Conservative religious leadership do so out of a conviction that the uniqueness and beauty of Jewish life can be enhanced, and Sabbath and kashrut observance strengthened, by permitting capable women as well as men to lead us in these pursuits, rather than relegating the former to a position which does not accord—as it once did—with the social, political, and ethical norms of contemporary life.
All living legal systems must confront the frequently voiced, reactionary cry of those who fear that adaptation to new circumstances will enervate the core values which the legal system reveres. Justices Brandeis and Holmes answered those cries in the context of the need for a more flexible understanding of our Constitution. The rabbis of the Talmud answered similar cries centuries earlier emanating from Sadducee and Karaite circles in the context of the need for a more flexible understanding of divine law. It is that rabbinic tradition within which the advocates of women’s ordination seek to achieve their goal.
Mark B. Rotenberg
New York City
To the Editor:
Ruth R. Wisse regrets that the Commission for the Study of the Ordination of Women as Rabbis failed to examine the “conflicting trends and choices within modern feminism that would have a critical bearing on the question.” That was not the commission’s only failure. We also failed to examine faith and prayer in the modern world, the difficulties of the modern clergy, the modern crisis of authority, and several other modern things that would have a critical bearing on the question. Mrs. Wisse faults the commission for having written a short story instead of a novel. I signed on for a short story. The other members probably did, too.
Mrs. Wisse hints that some feminists are antinomian about sex and that many are Jews. She is right. Public Opinion (January/February 1979) reports that in answer to a questionnaire 75 per cent of Christian women opposed adultery, and only 48 per cent of Jewish women did. But what has that to do with women as rabbis? Most Jewish men do not observe the Sabbath and kashrut. Such men will not be admitted to the Jewish Theological Seminary. Neither will women who do not observe the Sabbath and kashrut. If the time has come for the Seminary to ask applicants whether they think the Seventh Commandment has been repealed, men as well as women applicants should be asked.
In the name of the tradition, Mrs. Wisse reproves the commission for thinking of the rabbinate not as a “religious vocation” but as a profession. “Religious vocation” is Christian. When Catholics use “religious” as a noun they mean monks and nuns, and when they say there has been a decline in vocations they mean fewer men want to become priests and women to become nuns. Protestant ministers have heard a call. Max Weber taught that Protestantism made a vocation, a calling, of work.
Jews knew of no special religious vocation, because all had heard the call to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. The only purpose of the European yeshivah was to help students advance in talmud Torah and virtue. The rabbinate was a profession, and to obtain a license to practice it—the so-called semikhah—you had to learn professional things, like how to determine whether an egg is kosher, not taught in the yeshivah. Similarly, in America the J.D. degree does not entitle you to practice law. For that you have to pass the bar examination.
A Christian clergyman is “reverend,” to be revered. He is called pastor—shepherd—or priest. Mrs. Wisse’s classical rabbi was called resh metivta, head of the yeshivah (in his case, something like “honorary professor of law”), and av bet din, presiding justice. Nor did religious authority depend on holding a rabbinical license. The greatest authority in modern times was the Gaon of Vilna, who had no semikhah and had not even studied long in a yeshivah.
Mrs. Wisse would have it that the commission’s recommendation excludes women from “the great lineage of the rabbinate.” Nothing in the recommendation excludes a woman, any more than a man, from the lineage of the Conservative rabbinate: to name only Seminary alumni, Boaz Cohen, Solomon Goldman, Milton Steinberg, and—yibbadelu lehayyim—Louis Finkelstein and Mordecai M. Kaplan.
Mrs. Wisse’s intemperate language is remarkable in a scholar. Not for her any shading in portraying “the reality of the contemporary congregational leader,” too abject for her to call him a rabbi. He “all too often has to court his parishioners”—an ecclesiastical word—“like an auditioning actor, opinion pollster, and offer direction with all the authority of a horse in harness.” I know some rabbis, too, and I do not recognize the pitiful creatures of her portrait.
If her nostalgia is odd in one whose field is Yiddish literature—Mendele does not encourage illusions about the goodness of the good old days and the good old ways—in a learned woman the nostalgia is doubly odd. The Gaon of Vilna thought that women should know not Bible but Bible tales, and not in Hebrew but in Yiddish. In this century, Rabbi Jacob David Wilowsky was a spiritual descendant of the Gaon so eminent as to be known by acronym—the Ridwas. His will, which he made public, contains this clause:
My dear and beloved sons, I do not need to urge you to give proper education to your sons, for I know that of your own accord you will educate them in Torah and piety. Yet I command you that you should command your sons, and they theirs, that they should be careful not to teach their daughters Torah, only jargon, so that they will be able to read [homilies good enough for women].
(“Jargon” was dismissive for “Yiddish.”)
I think I understand why Mrs. Wisse should disdain Conservative Judaism. For the herd of independent minds in the academy it would be disturbingly unconventional not to disdain something so “Middle American,” as she calls it. What I do not understand is why a woman intellectual should be beside herself with rage at a departure from the Ridwas’s tradition, which excludes women not only from the rabbinate but also from Torah itself, and intellect. Satmar agrees with the Ridwas. So does Mrs. Wisse when she prates of the “feminization of the rabbinate.”
White Plains, New York
To the Editor:
Ruth R. Wisse may have appropriate grounds for her scorn of the ambiguities of the Conservative movement’s report on the ordination of women as rabbis. But her own obliquely phrased conclusions conceal a position for which she apparently did not have the courage to argue—a stand against any change in Jewish life, a resistance to any “incursions of modernity.” For her, the Conservative movement’s choices are adaptation, which equals “weakening the religious way of life it was founded to conserve,” or tradition, which means giving up merely “immediate relevance to contemporary American society” (emphasis added). Assuming such problematic interpretations of both tradition and adaptation, she not only exposes inconsistencies in the rabbis’ argument, but insinuates a denunciation of women’s participation in Jewish religious life. That participation she labels “social androgyny,” “the feminization of the rabbinate,” anathema to her version of “traditional Judaism.” In her conclusion, Mrs. Wisse finally emerges as yet another apologist for the restricted role of women in Judaism, though on peculiar grounds. Apparently Judaism’s “ability to create an alternative model of virility, one which depended on intellectual and spiritual prowess rather than political and physical might,” is threatened by women rabbis—because Jewish men cannot feel themselves distinctively male if women too reveal “intellectual and spiritual prowess” in Jewish traditional terms? From such sophistry she rises (or descends) to the grand finale of that hoary cry—the fence around Torah; if one distinction is abandoned, all of Jewish life collapses. Fortunately, experience is demonstrating that the full participation of women in traditional Jewish religious observance, far from obliterating the differentiation between Israel and the Nations, can only serve to strengthen distinctively Jewish religious and communal life.
Judith A. Kates
To the Editor:
When Ruth R. Wisse undertook to dissect the statements of the Conservative community on the ordination of women as rabbis, I hoped she might have something else in mind; one might have asked the Conservative leaders to avow much more clearly their support for the full participation of women in Jewish life. Their vacillating tone is perhaps due to the kinds of criticisms they knew the Orthodox would level at them—ancient, oft-repeated arguments in an unresolved quarrel. But Mrs. Wisse turns out to be one of those unsympathetic critics who does not want to encourage, but attack, the Conservative tendency. She wants “tradition” as she interprets it to predominate; she wants to preserve the “unyielding differentiations between wool and linen, between milk and meat, between Sabbath and week, between Israel and the Nations”—and, of course, between men and women. Once those are gone, what would be left? she asks as if what Judaism has sustained over centuries rests wholly on these differences rigidly defined and as if all these differences are equal in importance. Without them would no history, prayer, theology be left to us? Mrs. Wisse seems to define Jewish tradition only by those distinctions which have caused it endless quarrelsome dispute, much of it fruitless and decadent. If the distinction between men and women is abandoned, she asks, how can women then be appropriate defenders of the rest of the distinctions which she finds indispensable?
What she cannot credit in her argument is the fact that we have survived as much by changing in the present as by clinging stubbornly to the past. If we had not always been adapting and using the strengths of history in that adaptation, surely we would not still be-here. At a time when women are assuming increasing responsibility in every sphere of secular life—in the economy, in politics, in education—it would be perilous to avoid shouldering greater responsibility in the religious world. Such neglect only encourages the kind of frustration that alienates people entirely from the Jewish community, an outcome that none of us will want to risk.
Judith B. Walzer
Ruth R. Wisse writes:
My thanks to Rabbi David Novak for his generous letter. Though pleased by his compliment, I regret if mine is indeed the most lucid critical report on the issue. My betters should be doing better.
Since Mark B. Rotenberg had previously declared himself wholly in favor of the commission report, and since Milton Himmelfarb is one of its several distinguished signatories, I am not surprised by their objections to my objections, though I certainly am by their tone. Mr. Rotenberg seems to accuse me of stealth and indirection; Mr. Himmelfarb, calling me intemperate, hones a personal edge to his letter which is disappointing in one who has long been my model of civilized debate.
Both letters begin on the same note: the commission report should not have been expected to deal with feminism or the question of women in Judaism because that was not its mandate. Mr. Himmelfarb thinks I called for a novel instead of a short story, and Mr. Rotenberg trots out a legal analogy from the “real courts” to show his stuff. Perhaps deliberately, they distort my criticism. I was not calling for something extraneous to the report, only for a rudimentary definition of its own terminology. In setting out “The Issue,” that is, the reasons for reexamining this subject, the report itself invokes “general feminist debates” and “general feminist issues,” about which it tells us, “there was plainly very little to discuss” (emphasis added). The language of the report draws attention to its own obfuscation, and to the unwillingness of the commission members to clarify their own premises. Would the commission have been prepared to argue for changes in Sabbath observance by invokng “general ideas about rest”?
Whatever its reluctance to say so the report argues for the elimination of any extra-biological distinctions between men and women in Judaism. Since traditional Judaism appears to hold very different views about the social ideals most fitting for men and women, the point is hardly extraneous.
I am touched by the firm convictions of those like Mr. Rotenberg who feel that women’s ordination will enhance “the uniqueness and beauty of Jewish life.” Unfortunately, I rather suspect the opposite. While it is always dashing to invoke “flexibility” against “reaction,” this rhetoric in modern times is not helpful. The vital impulse of the Conservative movement, lest we forget, lay in its challenge to infinite “flexibility.” Its very purpose in coming into organizational life was to conserve a tradition many Jews considered outworn and recalcitrant (“sexist” was not then in fashion), even at the risk of being accused of “reaction.” In terms of his own movement, Mr. Rotenberg’s idea of advancement might more easily be interpreted as retreat.
Mr. Himmelfarb has read into my article both more and less than it contains. If he finds a “hint” that some feminists are antinomian, he may as easily find a hint that some feminists are antidisestablishmentarian. I wrote nothing about feminists. Nevertheless, his point about adultery is interesting.
He accuses me further of caricaturing the rabbinate. But the gist of my paragraph was precisely the reverse—to caricature what the rabbi “all too often has to” become. I was, in effect, accusing the commission report of holding the rabbinate in too low an esteem, and I was accusing congregations of stifling rabbinic authority. I am happy to reiterate the point.
Based on my use of the word “vocation,” Mr. Himmelfarb lectures me on the differences between Judaism and Christianity (a subject on which I always read him with gratitude). I agree that the word is unfortunate, but less for etymological than for current semantic reasons. Since “vocation” can be a synonym for “profession,” it ought not to have been used as its antonym. The point of my criticism, however, survives the infelicity.
Those who argue for women’s ordination delight in pointing out that the Gaon of Vilna had no semikhah, that Rabbi Isaac Elkhanan did not lead services, and that the Lubavitcher rebbe does not make a practice of signing divorce writs. The case for women as rabbis is made negatively, by showing what men never did as rabbis anyway, and don’t necessarily do today. But for all the varieties of meaning in the term “rabbi,” from the Middle Ages onward the Jews do seem to have had religious authorities who assumed or were assigned responsibility for the ritual, legal, social, and occasionally even political leadership of the community. These roles grew out of the obligations binding on Jewish men and women, but more particularly on men. Despite the relative weakness of these roles today, the rabbis are still the best potential religious leaders of Diaspora Jewry. Arguing for women as rabbis by conceding the limitations and finiteness of the role, the commission report is trying to accommodate a rapidly changing social scene by sacrificing the authentic vision of the Conservative movement and the potential authority of its rabbinate. I suggest that this supreme pragmatism is not likely to inspire.
Mr. Himmelfarb’s crescendo conclusion leaves me nostalgic, all right—for the balanced thinker he used to be. Distortions on the basis of selective evidence, so fashionable nowadays, can be made by one and all. My own version of the recent Jewish past differs somewhat from his version of holy truth. I myself am the descendant of two matriarchies, one of which carries its founder’s proud name. My paternal great-grandmother founded the family business in which my generation (after due migration) is still employed. My maternal grandmother, daughter of a wealthy property owner (her mother), ran a large publishing house and raised ten children. My understanding of the Jewish reality is that women, all duly pious, were accorded all the power, while men were relegated to the synagogue for their creative diversion. So much for the poor Ridwas’s petulant will: he was only trying to get even, nebach.
Finally, I could argue with Mr. Himmelfarb as to which of us “disdains.” It would not have occurred to me that “Middle America,” my adored heartland, would be a more pejorative term than “intellectual.” And if the weeks spent poring over the commission report and its ancillary materials are a sign of disdain for Conservative Judaism, I should like to know what constitutes respect. Strangest of all is Mr. Himmelfarb’s idea of my “rage.” The Satmar and I are actually more surprised than angry by his discovery of our elective affinities. I had tried to keep this budding ideological alliance under wraps, but apparently nothing can escape the eye of a truly discriminating observer!
To Judith A. Kates and Judith B. Walzer, my fellow members of the academy (the “herd” which Mr. Himmelfarb may be surprised to find stampeding in his direction rather than mine), I have been a disappointment. They had hoped I would put forth their ideas, whereas I have only been true to mine. I found the commission report favoring the ordination of women as rabbis to be weak and unconvincing; they agree, but because it does not go far enough. I suggested that traditional Judaism may yet have valuable things to say on the subject of men and women. They are satisfied that it does not. Of course, the question of tradition is only relevant to those who consider themselves bound by it. I raised it within the context of the article because of the emphasis it is accorded by the Conservative movement itself. From the nature of their remarks, I am not sure Miss Kates and Mrs. Walzer are addressing the same problem, namely, the process of adaptation within a traditionalist movement.
If I believed, as Mrs. Walzer does, that “frustration” with “rigid” Judaism alienates people from the Jewish community, I might take her argument more seriously. She may have been right in 1880, but she has the facts backward today. Those alienated from Judaism are those whose Judaism is already indistinguishable from current fashion. If all the many phases of Judaism’s adaptation have demonstrably not enhanced it, how can one still argue for reform on those grounds? It would be more honest to say that despite the fact that it will weaken Judaism, women should be admitted to the rabbinate. At least this formulation could be supported by some historical evidence.
Miss Kates claims that I am actually arguing (if I had but the courage to admit it) for the whole fence around Torah, against any changes in Jewish life. Alas, with all the courage I lack, I could not live up to her accusation. There are changes in Judaism I would support, some of them regarding the status of women. But in each case I would want to calculate the probable damages against the anticipated benefits (a) to the whole cloth of Judaism; (b) to Jewish men and women. I am not convinced that Judaism will be improved by making its religious responsibilities equally binding on men and women (a precondition for the ordination of women as rabbis). That there are many women today who reach out for those responsibilities I well know. That some assume them voluntarily, and often passionately, I also know. But the decision to make them binding on all women can only, in the long run, weaken their importance altogether.
Since the proposed change affects the structure of Judaism and Jewish life more profoundly than any yet introduced by the Conservative movement, and since 150 years of adaptation have shown some of the losses as well as the gains Judaism can incur by such changes, a conservative posture on this issue seems to me altogether arguable within a conservative movement.