Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Great Jewish Women: Maharats, Ivanka . . . or Rebbetzins?

Something special happened to me last week – I experienced what it means to “go viral”.

As measured by “hits” on this blog, some of my essays have proven more popular, and some less, in ways I could not have predicted.   But nothing prepared me for the reaction to my recent essay The Miracle that is Ivanka Trump, which received close to 20,000 hits in a few days.   Not much perhaps, compared to some popular sites, but an enormous reaction for me.   I sought to understand, why; hence today’s essay.

I believe there were two major reasons. (1) Because of the celebrity of Ivanka Trump, and my statement drawing a relationship between her and Queen Esther, and (2) Because it touched on the role of prominent women in the Orthodox world in general.  Let’s take them one at a time.

Ivanka Trump and Queen Esther
The week after publication, I learned that in the Queens Jewish Link, where I regularly publish, my fellow columnist Warren S. Hecht, took me to task on several grounds.   He claimed that my essay, in celebrating “the miracle” of Ivanka was guilty of glorifying intermarriage, albeit with a proper conversion; that I insulted Jewish women of the past 2,400 years by saying that in the intervening time there had not been anyone as great as Queen Esther, and that I had made her into a “tzadekes (righteous woman) for the ages”.  I was quite surprised by this reaction; mainly surprised that an astute reader could so totally misread what I wrote.

I never suggested that Ivanka is a Tzadekes, (at least any more than any person who makes the heroic choice to become a Righteous Convert – גר צדק), by any stretch.  She clearly is aware that others adhere to higher levels of observance and modesty – and she herself adhered to those standards when visiting in more rigorously observant communities – but has chosen to follow the more permissive view of her community.  Clearly some of the "hetterim" she and Jared received are debatable (although I am impressed that they asked a "shyla" for Rabbinical guidance).   She herself has been quoted as saying that Jared & I are “pretty obervant, more than some, less than others.” There was and is, of course, no attempt to compare her observance to that of Queen Esther, one of the great צדקניות (Righteous Women) of all time.

Rather, the main points of my essay were: (a) It is a miracle that a person so close to power identifies proudly as an Orthodox Jew, and (for the most part) does so with dignity and grace that brings credit to us and is thus a Kiddush Hashem, even if she is not in competition to win the Tzadekes award, (b) As far as I can tell, she is the Jewish person, and certainly woman, closest to great power since Queen Esther.  In fact, the only observant men that were even close to that level of access to political power since Queen Esther were perhaps Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi and Don Isaac Abarbanel; she is closer yet.  That is something to be immensely grateful for, and (c) We need to stop the sniping and casting aspersions on her conversion and being guilty of causing pain to a convert.  I referred to the fact that she has become an Orthodox Jew as “a miracle”.  Perhaps this was a little over the top, or perhaps, in the Megillas Esther mode of Hidden Miracles, it was accurate.   Either way, this is what I meant, as I think most readers understood.

Once a person passes through the vetting of a qualified Beis Din they are to be accepted with nothing less than love and open arms
(Parenthetically, I was troubled by the implication that there is something wrong with marrying a convert who has undertaken a proper commitment to Judaism.  Heaven Forbid!  Contrary to what some people think, it is a great mitzvah to accept and welcome Gerim, and they are some of our best and finest people.  Of course, Mr. Hecht is correct that conversion in anticipation of marriage raises a very grave possibility that the conversion is being done primarily for an ulterior motive.   In the past, and in some communities today, this raises an insurmountable barrier to conversion; the candidate would be told "If we accept you, you must marry someone else".  In our communities it is more on a case by case basis. A responsible Bet Din will have the conversion candidate undergo a long and arduous process to make sure that they are fully aware of what they are undertaking and do so with informed consent, and disqualify those who are insincere or whose ulterior motives outweigh their sincere independent desire to live as an observant Jew.  But once a person passes through the vetting of a qualified Beis Din, they are to be accepted with nothing less than love and open arms).

Having said that, I suspect that a reason my essay went viral was due to Ivanka’s glamor and celebrity, and that people were interested to hear that – in contrast to some of the sniping out there – there are Orthodox Rabbis who are appreciative of Ivanka and what she represents, and who look forward to her and Jared playing an important role in bringing our values to the President and being a positive influence.

Already this past week there have been several instances of it.  One prominent example was that several commentators have noted that “It is not a coincidence that Trump controversies come while [the] Kushners observe Shabbat”, or that President Trump tends to get into trouble between sundown on Friday and nightfall on Saturday .  That is perhaps not the type of “Kiddush Hashem” that we are used to hearing about, but I believe it is one that brings honor to Torah and those who follow it, hence a Kiddush HaShem.  It is not at all unimaginable that the moment will come when the words of Mordechai (Esther 4:14) will ring in their ears, 
וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ אִם לְעֵת כָּזֹאת הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת 
"Who knows if  for this moment that you came to royalty".

The Role of Prominent Women in Orthodoxy
This is a huge topic; one that goes far beyond the space I have here.  Ivanka’s celebrity and prominence are a unique case, but there are even larger issues that are brewing in the Modern Orthodox world (and more quietly in some parts of the more “yeshivish” world) in trying to define the appropriate role of women in Jewish communal leadership.  The Maharat controversy is far from over, as Open Orthodox adherents and their counterparts in Israel continue to ordain women as orthodox clergy with a variety of titles, much to the chagrin of Rabbonim, Poskim, and the majority of traditional minded communities around the world, particularly in the United States.
One large unsettled area in this dispute was the lack of clarity regarding the position of the Orthodox Union, the largest umbrella of Orthodox congregations in the United States and Canada.  On the one hand, the Rabbinical Council of America (of which I am on my second term on the Executive Council), which is closely associated with the Orthodox Union has clearly and unanimously resolved that “RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not (1) Ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; (2) Hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution; or (3) Allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a [female] teacher of Limudei Kodesh in an Orthodox institution”.  On the other hand, a growing number of Orthodox Union shuls have, in fact, hired Maharats and other female clergy persons, with no protest from the Orthodox Union leadership.

In major news this week . . . a blue ribbon panel commissioned by the Orthodox Union has rendered a unanimous opinion of the notion of female rabbis

In major news this week, two papers were published that put this issue to rest.  A blue-ribbon panel of very well-respected Rabbonim and Poskim in the Modern Orthodox Community,  including several Roshei Yeshivat, have met for several months, and came out with clear statements about the issues.

The first was a responsum from the panel, which sought to answer two questions:

  1. Is it halakhically acceptable for a synagogue to employ a woman in a clergy function?
  2. What is the broadest spectrum of professional roles within a synagogue that may be performed by a woman?

In a seventeen page learned and sensitive answer, the panel went through the Halachic literature and process, and unanimously ruled that awoman should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position”. 

In a parallel document, the lay leadership of the OU eloquently described the “way forward”, whereby “It is essential that the voices of individuals who are yirei shamayim and committed to Torah values, both men and women, are heard in communal discussion and leadership. Accordingly, the Orthodox Union commits to explore and identify approaches by which the concerns identified herein, and other challenges and opportunities, can be discussed and studied.”  
Furthermore, it announced the forthcoming Department of Women’s Initiatives, and in every way possible and consistent with our mesorah “to encourage women’s involvement in all appropriate areas of leadership and participation within member synagogues”.
Of course, the responses have already started pouring in from the opposition, particularly from the so-called Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and its supporters.  Much more will yet be heard about this.

In the context of this essay, however, I will close with the thought that it is so important that everyone, women and men, strive to find the right place to use the G-d given talents and resources which they were gifted with, for the betterment of Kvod Shomayim and Klal Yisrael.  Whether it is as a Rabbi, or whether it is in the incredibly important role of a traditional Rebbetzin; whether it is as a lay leader, or whether it is as a loyal and dedicated private individual; whether it is as a person who has been given an incredible place to influence the high and mighty or whether it is one who can help a child learn and smile or simply make a suffering person’s day brighter, we all should strive to make the maximum contribution to the greater good as who we are, while appreciating the special contributions that others are uniquely qualified to make – even Ivanka.


nikmatdam ~ humble servant said...

i.e. moshe parry... what say u... can an orth jewish woman serve in the role and capacity as the president of the ou...? that is the question of questions as to whether the "women's sensitivity initiative" is worth the paper it's printed on...

YLO said...

I don't understand the comment. The question posed to the Rabbonim was not whether a woman can serve as president of a Jewish organization (my guess is they would rule she can), but rather whether she can be a Rabbi