The Rabba Controversy

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  My purpose in considering this subject is not, actually, to comment on the substantive issue itself. Nor is it to discuss the meta-halachic issue of the role of women within Torah Judaism, although this is a subject that has always interested me (as evidenced by my various writings on this topic, some of which can be found through the subject index of the Nishma On-Line Library under Women). Rather, it is the broad and fundamental meta-halachic issue -- although it is not truly voiced, articulated or described – that, I find, seems to underlie the whole debate and discussion that attracts my attention. It is the very concept of meta-Halacha, the gestalt view of the entire corpus of Torah, which seems to me to be at the heart of the issue. It is not simply that the various parties in this matter have different views on the essence, objective and, simply, gestalt of Torah. It is that they do not even seem to recognize that underlying their variant viewpoints is a fundamental variance in this concept. To be more succinct, it seems that people, under the banner of eilu v’eilu, can accept disagreements in specific and technical halachic practice. They have difficulty, though, in accepting disagreement in regard to the broad concepts and purpose of Torah. They view anyone in disagreement as not simply advancing a different view of the gestalt of Torah but as clearly being motivated by views outside of Torah – and, often, even knowing so.   

Perhaps an example would best illustrate what I mean. On the website Jewschool, there was a posting entitled “Rabba no more.” which dealt with the retraction, by Rabbi Avi Weiss, of his promotion of this title. The author of this post wrote the following:

I’ve met and studied with Rabba Hurwitz personally and she is a tremendous teacher. I have heard her cogent, halachic explanation of why it is okay for women to serve in a rabbinic capacity, and I wish her and her future students at Yechivat Mahara”t the best of luck, whatever their title may be.
Oh, wait. What’s that? Halachah doesn’t matter? The Jewish Star reports:
“Tznius isn’t a mode of dress. It includes the idea that women are demeaned and not honored when they’re put in the public eye and put on a pedestal. The position he [Weiss] has created violated the concept,” [Rabbi Avi] Shafran said. Whether the ordination violates a specific halacha (Torah law), is unimportant, he explained.
Right. So it violates some pre-modern sensibilities about where women belong (the kitchen, duh) therefore, halachah has become irrelevant. What is it that orthodoxy Jews are often claiming about Reform Judaism? That they ignore halachah and just do what feels good? Hmmm…


In truth, based on statements made on other posts by this same author, he would seem to be a Reform Jew and thus it would be difficult to take his words as reflections of normative Orthodox positions. Yet, within his words, we do see the problem that I am identifying. Rabbi Shafran, while even admitting that this action of ordaining women does not violate any specific halacha still, unequivocally, presents it clearly as a violation of a fundamental concept that could be identified as part of the gestalt of Torah, a principle of meta-Halacha. This, of course, in itself does not bother me. The development and commitment to meta-halachic positions is, in fact, an important part of the process of Torah. Rabbi Safran is correct in bringing principles of meta-Halacha into the debate. What bothers me, though, is that he doesn’t seem to assume that Rabbi Weiss may simply have a different meta-halachic position. As an Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Weiss surely also accepts the value of the concept of tznius. He, though, must be defining it in a different manner. The focus of the debate should, thus, be regarding the definition of tznius, not whether tznius should be observed or not.

It seems that within the realm of meta-Halacha people are less willing to accept variances. Rather than present an opponent in this realm as presenting a different understanding of the corpus of Torah thought, in our modern times, individuals are drawn more to defining opposing structures as outside of Torah. We find it very difficult to accept that another group within Torah has a different understanding of the purpose of Torah, of the meta-halachic principles of Torah. We are more open to accepting disagreement in the micro aspects of Torah, in the details of halachic behaviour but find it most disconcerting to find an alternative argument within Torah that presents a different and, even, conflicting gestalt.  

            Lest one think that this is only a problem in the more right-wing elements of Orthodoxy, the further language of this posting indicates that this limitation also applies to left-wing elements as well. Albeit that the author of this post seems to be a Reform Jew, his critique of Rabbi Safran reflects thoughts that I have also heard expressed within the world of Orthodoxy. Rabbi Safran is actually correctly indicating that beyond the micro realm of halachic details, there is the realm of meta­-halachic broad principles which must be approached with the same intensity and respect as micro details. Just like the author of this post, many even within Orthodoxy do not recognize this, further assuming that many of the broad principles that have “infiltrated” Orthodoxy have emerged from historical sociological settings. There is a viable realm of meta­-Halacha and it must be approached with the same reverence and acceptance as is any other halachic subject. It is just too easy to defend one’s position arguing that it is really the only true Torah position. It is much more difficult, yet ultimately very much worthwhile, to recognize and relate to the powerful variances even in broad Torah principles.

            So this is what I see in the present Rabba controversy. There are two opposing views not simply in regard to a particular detail of halachic practice or even in regard to the overall place of women within Torah but in regard to fundamental principles within the broad realm of the gestalt of Torah. Part of the problem is that, to a certain extent, neither side can state its position within a world of Torah debate thereby highlighting the depth within the variant issues. Simplistic overviews of Torah ideas without presenting the full complexity of a subject, as evidenced by the very possibility of differing positions, are presented. People seem to have substantive difficulty living with the existence of differing views on the gestalt of Torah. This renders a great problem in approaching a subject such as this one in a thoughtful manner. A machloket l’Shem Shomayim has a certain language. This language is lost in the debate over this issue.

            This is not to say that every presentation of a meta-halachic viewpoint that doesn’t violate a micro halachic detail is necessarily within the corpus of Torah. Part of our process of investigating and determining meta-halachic viewpoints must include a determination of whether a viewpoint is within the pale or not – and this cannot be based upon whether one likes a view or not. But even that process is transformed when one approaches an issue with the recognition of the possibility of divergence in the realm of meta­-Halacha or when one cannot even contemplate a variant perspective. The possibility of accepting variance opens one up to the domain of thought and the greater visions that can emerge with intellectual contemplation. As I have seen this debate unfold what bothers me so intensely is how much the essential issues that ultimately must be faced are ignored. The change in the status of women within the broader, secular world cannot be simply incorporated within Torah. On the other hand, it cannot be simply rejected. To apply the terms of Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz, there are certain presentations of the Torah which reflect “Torah-tolerated” views – and thus should be, eventually, changed within certain guidelines – and certain presentations which are “Torah-mandated” and must withstand any movement over time. The critical issue is determining which presentations are in which category. The most fundamental issue in regard to the rabba is, thus, essentially how we approach this very issue. This question of study, investigation and contemplation, however, is missing in the manoeuver to define Torah simplistically without an acceptance of a divergence which reflects the reality of this Divinely presented dialectic.

            Allow me an example of this. Notwithstanding this narrow issue of whether a woman can be a rabbinical persona, the reality is that women are occupying more and more positions with some level of authority within the general Orthodox community. For example, more and more women are giving shiurim, even within the more right-wing communities, and many of these classes, especially in the world of kiruv, are offered to mixed audiences. Do these maggidei shiur need some type of title just to mark them, either for the purposes of Torah respect or to indicate that they meet certain criteria? Can we be satisfied with the secular title of Dr. being the only term that indicates a woman’s scholarship? Rabbi Michael Broyde in a Jewish Press article and Rabbi Richard Wolpoe in a posting on the Nishmablog argue that women involved in Torah professions do need some title. The fact is that such a title is colloquially being used and applied every time a woman who is a maggid shiur (who fortunately also happens to be married to a rabbi) is introduced as a Rebbetzin. The title is used to garnish some respect for this woman as a teacher of Torah even though this term has no actual meaning in regard to Torah scholarship. The fact that this term is used in this manner, though, reflects the greater issue.

The sociological nature of the world has changed. Torah must respond to this change but as Torah. This will emerge from a dialectical encounter based upon the intellectual pursuit of Torah concepts. This can only emerge if and when we recognize that the realm of meta-Halacha must be reflective of this Torah debate. This cannot occur as long as neither protagonist in the debate can or will see the other side.   


Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

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