Friday, November 13, 2015

Jacob and the RCA / Parshat Toldot 5776

The Rabbinical Council of America, the formal rabbinic body of modern Orthodoxy, voted recently passed a resolution in response to the wonderful success of Yeshivat Maharat, as it prepares to ordain three more women as rabbis and thereby (in the yeshivah’s words) “changing the communal landscape by actualizing the potential of Orthodox women as rabbinic leaders.” You can read the RCA’s resolution here. It starts out just as you might expect: “The flowering of Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women in recent decades stands as a significant achievement.” It then devolves into a prohibition against ordaining women (regardless of title conferred), hiring women as rabbis, and allowing women to use the title “Rabbi.” Here we are in the 21st Century in a free, modern country fighting the ancient battle of men who want to control the show and relegate women to the back of the shul.
Some people don’t get it until they experience it. In this week’s parashah, Toldot, Jacob behaves unconscionably: he cheats his brother out of the birthright and conspires with his mother to deceive his father into giving him Esau’s blessing. Torah does not provide so much as a hint that Jacob comprehends the gravity of what he has done. Jacob evinces not a hint of empathy, compassion, or remorse. The only thing that registers with him is that he is personally endangered by Esau’s resentment. He runs off to Paddan-aram to save himself and find a wife. Jacob wakes up to the pain he has caused his brother and father only when he is on the receiving end of cheating and deception at the hands of his father-in-law, Laban. Some people only get it when they experience it themselves.
With that in mind, I’m considering the recent discussion about the RCA’s draconian pronouncement about the evils of woman participating visibly or wielding authority in Jewish religious life and specifically, Jerome Chanes’ piece about what it’s like to sit behind a mechitzah—something that he experienced recently. He tells us, “…I was more than just uncomfortable. I was not in control of my devotions. Someone else was. I felt marginalized. I was miserable.” Now he gets it. And getting it led him to ponder why there is still—in the 21st century!—a mechitzah. I don’t want to condemn Chanes in particular, especially because I don’t know him and do appreciate the piece he wrote, but I have to wonder why so few people can envision the pain and degradation of “the back of the bus” or the “back of the shul” until they are physically relegated to a place of invisibility. Some people don’t get it until they experience it. How sad that this is what it takes.
The RCA’s recent pronouncement has the effect of doubling down on protecting the privileged prerogatives of men in their corner of Jewish life. How sad and pathetic that the need of some men to hold the reins of power and authority, and not share it with women, eclipses what today is common decency, equity, and compassion. These same men would likely support egalitarian standards for doctors, lawyers, teachers, and social workers. In the world of the synagogue and the Jewish community, however, they revert to a medieval mindset. I suppose I should take some comfort in knowing that the vote was close and that the president of the RCA, Rabbi Shalom Baum, voted against the resolution. Baum is quoted as saying that he believes that most of the current officers and roshei yeshivah feel that the resolution is both unnecessary and poorly timed. Just what does that mean? Is it unnecessary because the RCA is already on record as saying women are unfit to be rabbis or even counted in a minyan? Is it poorly timed because it’s bad PR?
One thing is clear: the resolution is evidence that educated, talented, capable, savvy women are very threatening to the members of the RCA. It was only last year that Yeshiva University’s rabbinic school threatened to withhold ordination from a student who hosted a partnership minyan. Even more recently, Rabbi Mordechai Willig of Yeshiva University said, in a d’var Torah, that it was a mistake to allow women to study Talmud and called for a reevaluation of women’s study opportunities in the Orthodox world for fear that such studies would poison their pretty little heads with egalitarian ideas. Willig and those like him are running scared. And it’s not the liberal Jewish world they are running from most immediately. It’s Rabbi Avi Weiss, who fonded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat, and who ordained rabbi Sara Hurwitz as the first Orthodox rabbi. Hurwitz is now the dean of Yeshivat Maharat. Kol ha-kavod to Rabbis Weiss and Hurwitz. May they go from strength to strength.
Returning for a moment to our ancestor, Jacob: It should not have been necessary for Jacob to experience the pain he caused his brother and father to understand the gravity of his acts. It should not be necessary for men to sit behind a mechitzah to understand how marginalizing, degrading and (to be perfectly honest) utterly ridiculous it is in the 21st century. After all, do we need to experience poverty, homelessness, hunger, war, sexual violence, and terrorism to know what they do to people’s bodies, minds, and souls—and care? Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlov taught that the Shefa (the divine flow through the universe that animates and fuels all life) is compassion. Rebbe Nachman taught us to think of God this way because he knew that empathy and compassion do not come naturally to everyone; we need to cultivate them in ourselves, and practice them in our lives.
It’s time to dip our cup into the stream and drink abundantly. L’chaim. Shabbat shalom.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman