Women in Orthodoxy: The plot thickens

There are some tense debates going on right now within the Orthodox movement as it deals with the forces of modernity. Among them, perhaps the most contentious issue is whether Orthodoxy should allow women clergy.

The “traditional” camp, which is represented by mainstream Orthodox groups such as the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, says no. The “open” camp, a fledgling movement of more liberal Orthodox rabbis, says yes.

There are arguments on both sides. The letter of Jewish law does not specifically prohibit women clergy. But one of the hallmarks of Orthodoxy is a deep respect for tradition and continuity, to the point that tradition itself can take on a legal status.

The traditional view gives great emphasis to the “spirit” or the “ethos” of the law, while the open view looks for legal ways to thread the needle and make tradition more inclusive.

It’s a classic struggle, and I see value with both views.

If you go by mainstream trends, the open view looks like a slam dunk: How can you tell a woman that she cannot do what a man does? This egalitarian mindset has become so ingrained in our thinking that anything less can seem offensive.

This puts the traditionalists on the defensive. They can look like obstacles to progress, fighting one of modernity’s most cherished ideals– equal rights for women.

So, if we only look through a modern lens, it’s not a fair fight. Open wins in a landslide.

And yet, as much as my mind leans towards the open approach, I find myself having a special place in my heart for the maintenance of tradition.

Partly, it comes from conversations I’ve had over the years with Orthodox women who live happily in the traditionalist camp.

Let’s take one example of an Orthodox tradition that offends many non-Orthodox Jews—the physical barrier (mechitza) between men and women in synagogues. This feels like another slam dunk: Why separate men from women?

Here’s what one woman told me who moved from the Reform to the Orthodox camp: She prefers the separation because she can better connect with God. Sitting next to her beloved husband somewhat distracts her. Since synagogue time represents a fraction of the time they spend together, why not devote it solely to prayer and to God?

You can disagree with that sentiment, and yet still respect it.

Similarly, why would so many Orthodox women be OK with only men being officially part of the rabbinate?

Again, it’s because they see something sacred in the whole notion of separation. Shabbat, for example, is a sacred separation from the rest of the week; so is the home from the outside world and so is the bedroom from the rest of the home. The laws of family purity define a sacred separation to honor the moments of intimacy.

Maintaining this sanctity of separation helps bring harmony to these women’s lives. In a marriage, it means embracing different roles for men and women. Because the woman feels dignity and fulfillment within the roles that she has, she feels no inclination to appropriate the man’s roles. In her eyes, “different” doesn’t mean superior or inferior, it means holy and equal.

In other words, what may look like retrograde to you is sanctity to them. At least with the women I spoke to, they associate this sanctity of difference with peace in the home and holiness in their lives.

Still, it’s worth noting that Orthodoxy has not been immune from the forces of modernity. In recent years, Orthodox women have become more and more engaged in areas that traditionally have been more associated with men.

Even the recent statement by the Orthodox Union opposing female clergy noted “the important and fundamentally successful roles that women can and must play within our communal and synagogue structures, including as educators and scholars.”

But as is often the case with disagreements, it comes down to red lines. Traditionalists want to draw a red line at women clergy; the Open camp doesn’t feel this is necessary.

If no compromise is reached, Open Orthodox institutions, although still a small minority, may end up being excluded from Orthodox umbrella groups—something that would open a permanent breach in the Orthodox movement. I hope leaders on both sides will do the Jewish thing and struggle to find an acceptable compromise for the sake of heaven.

Rather than digging in, maybe each side can give a little. The Open camp can create a spiritual leadership role and a title for women that pushes the halachic envelope yet still falls short of the traditional clergy position, while the Tradition camp can tolerate this new position for the sake of communal harmony and broadening the Orthodox movement.

It would be like saying: “We agree to disagree on this one issue, but for the sake of a higher ideal, the traditional and open camps have both compromised a little and will remain in the same tent.” What a Kiddush Hashem that would be.

If we can all muster some empathy for the side we disagree with, maybe there’s hope.