Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Rabbinette

In case you don't know it, I am a rabbi. Strange but true.

A number of years ago, I, realizing my own weakness in my understanding of Judaism, started looking for someone who would teach me what I needed to know to be a good and informed Jew. The program I found was part of a kollel, a religious learning program, and graduates are awarded rabbinic ordination. So I sort of stumbled into the title. It wasn't my goal -- the goal was simply to be better by knowing more stuff.

So I'm a rabbi. And amidst all the current hubbub about women rabbis, I have been trying to forge a position. Now, truth be told, I haven't read all the fancy position papers and responsa and articles in all the papers, and maybe that's why I'm struggling. Trying to make up my mind without knowing things is tough; but I've never let that stop me before, so why start now?

Here's the thing: I have no idea what a "rabbi" is or does so I can't figure out what all the fuss is about. And remember, I speak as someone considered a rabbi! So if I have no idea, odds are others have even less. What I'm going to present here is a collection of MY thoughts -- I represent no branch, institution or specific ideology other than the Congregation of Ignorance, of which I share the presidency with millions of others.

I was trying to figure out what a rabbi is and does because only then could I make an informed inference about the propriety of a woman's performing said function so I figured I would break down what I see rabbis do and ask for each thing, is it religiously OK for a woman to do that.

1. I studied a large collection of Jewish texts and sources on a variety of topics. Can a woman, according to Modern Orthodox Judaism, study what I studied? It seems that, yes, she can. I work in a school in which girls and boys study the same material.

2. I attended classes and discussions about aspects of Jewish law. Can a woman attend these classes? I think so. Even if the class were to be offered in a separate setting for a female audience, nothing in the content was secret or related to gender.

3. My ordination attests to my having passed a test about certain areas of Jewish law. Can a woman take a test? I don't know why a woman wouldn't be able to take a test.

4. Some rabbis teach classes in Jewish text or which review Jewish laws and ideas. Of course, some teachers of the same content are men who are NOT rabbis, just learned scholars, so it isn't specifically a function of a rabbi to teach texts. Can a woman teach texts? Many already do.

5. Some rabbis officiate at weddings. But, in fact, one does not need to be a rabbi to "officiate" a wedding. Very little is done by an officiant. The gender limitations related to saying prayers are not related to being ordained.

6. Leading a funeral? Same as #5. While a woman might be precluded from reciting certain prayers, it isn't about ordination.

7. In some synagogues, the rabbi leads services. But that isn't due to his having ordination. A layperson can lead services. If a woman cannot, it is because gender and leading prayers is a separate discussion. This is not about a rabbi.

8. Sometimes, a rabbi gives a sermon. But one need not be a rabbi to deliver a sermon. Is there a problem with a woman standing in front of a congregation at all? If so, that is a gender issue but not a rabbi one, as many who stand are not rabbis, and there are plenty of rabbis who never lead a congregation. Already young women in MO schools give speeches to all others on Torah topics and lead discussions. Can a woman be a synagogue president? The often cited problem of serarah, leading, has been discussed as it applies to Kosher supervision and being a shul president but that might not even be relevant! Is it immodest for a woman to be up on the bimah, talking? Is it wrong for a woman to make decisions which place her in a position of power over a man? Let's assume that to be the case -- not every rabbi is a congregational one, or one who supervises, or who makes eict and establishes law and practice for others. If one takes out any and all aspects of the position of rabbi which demand a public presence and persona, and boil "rabbi" down to a title reflecting learning, then all those objections go away.

9. Some rabbis visit the sick, or collect money for the poor. A woman can do that.

10. If I have a question of observance, sometimes I ask a rabbi and he reviews the literature and the sources and can explain an answer. However, this is often not done by a local rabbi -- instead, he asks a higher up rabbi (I recall the story of a co-worker who studied with his rabbi for 25 years before he was ordained. Afterwards, his instructing rabbi said "If I find out you ever tried to make a legal decision, I'll kill you.") Can a woman call a higher authority, explain a fact pattern and transmit the response to a lay person? I think so.

11. A rabbi sometimes looks up sources himself and points to texts which would answer a query. Can a woman read the same texts and refer the questioner to the source so he can learn it and apply it to his situation? I would think so. Already, women are approved as authorities in particular areas. Why would a woman be limited to certain areas of law? The books are the same for other topics.

12. A rabbi often establishes religious norms (in terms of liturgy or tradition) for his congregation. But a ritual committee can make decisions without a rabbi, simply aping the practices of other communities. If a rabbi is not necessary, then anyone on the committee, male or female is a viable voice.

The fact is, the title "rabbi" and the position of rabbi are not well defined these days. The proliferation of available texts and the incredible wealth of Torah law and writing on the internet, in religious schools and synagogue collections has empowered many more people to study and develop expertise so as to help others on the journey. Other than the title which proves that I passed a test, the position of rabbi, as it applies to me, is really vague.

So, again, I'm speaking out of ignorance here. Would someone please explain to me precisely what function which is exclusive to someone called "Rabbi" is not able to be carried out by a woman? Can the title as a reflection of learning be separated from (some or all of the facets of) the communal leadership role which seems to concern some people?

As a final note -- please do not take this as an approval, tacit or otherwise, of women being granted ordination under Jewish law. But it is likewise not a disapproval -- it is a cry for help in understanding the issue. I am too unlearned to have an opinion at this point.

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