Sunday, October 18, 2015

Orthodox Jewish women, “leadership” and Myers-Briggs

by Julie Rosenzweig

The following is a brilliant article from a website called about the role of Jewish women in the 21st century. It was written by Julie Rosezweig who describes herself as “Jerusalemite, translator/mom”. It is a lengthy article but well worth the read. It follows in its entirety.

For a decade or so now, introversion — somewhat out of character — has been making a public case for itself. An acclaimed 2003 essay in The Atlantic sparked a legitimization process that has culminated in Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution. Those of us who hated class participation in school are feeling vindicated as major media outlets discuss the ways in which introverted students are unfairly penalized by it; an aversion to small talk is becoming a mark of distinction rather than of inadequacy; and the idea that one can be a leader without having an alpha personality is gaining currency.
Judaism has always valued quietness and non-pushy leadership. Sound bites to that effect can be found in Ethics of the Fathers:
“All my days have I grown up among the wise and I have not found anything better for a man than silence;”
“ One who runs away from honor will find honor chasing after him. One whochases after honor will find honor running away from him.”
 and in Psalms 45:14
“All the glory of a princess is within” (“Kol kevuda bat melech pnima”).
It’s easy enough to relate to the first two of the above quotes. However uncritically we accept prevailing assumptions about innate “leadership ability,” we tend to be pleased — after the fact — when some strong but silent type carries the day. The idea of quiet integrity — of leading by example rather than by virtue of personal charisma or will to power — isn’t really all that hard a sell. Hence the broad public resonance of Susan Cain’s initiative.

The third quote — the one about the princess, a stand-in for women as a group — may, by contrast, seem opaque or problematic to non-Jews or to non-Orthodox Jews, and may even have become something of a trigger to those who identify with “liberal” or “open” Orthodoxy — i.e., to Orthodox feminists.

It is a quote that gives expression to aspects of women’s nature that Orthodoxy takes for granted and proposes to accommodate (obviously, a fraught issue for those who object to the idea of “women’s nature”).

It is also a quote that is used to insist on women’s adherence to a stricter dress code than that which Orthodox Judaism mandates for men — a code that is sometimes spelled out in centimeters and illustrated via humiliating diagrams; it is a quote that is used to quell (or attempt to quell) some women’s sense of being left out at synagogue.

I have issues with Orthodox feminism in its current form; yet even I feel a little rankled when I hear kol kevuda bat melech pnima. There is a religious Israeli women’s magazine called Pnima (“Within”) which I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. I don’t like being told my place; no one does.

But I think Orthodox feminism has focused way too much on the extremes to which some segments of Orthodoxy take the reclusive-princess concept. I do think that it has much to learn from the first two quotes.In short, it could use a good dose of Quiet Rev.

As a movement, Orthodox feminism has advanced a number of admirable objectives, such as helping agunot (women “chained” to husbands who refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce), making synagogue more welcoming to women, and opening up to women the world of Talmud study, which had long been restricted to males.

Unfortunately, over time the movement has adopted an increasingly extroverted orientation. This is a problem, not in a “strident feminists get on my nerves” sense, but because a preoccupation with the visible public roles that Orthodox women might conceivably occupy is discrediting the movement, dumbing it down, making it uncomfortable for Jewish women who don’t fit a specific personality profile, and deflecting attention from actual women’s Torah scholarship (as opposed to the credential that qualifies one for a “leadership role”).

I will discuss below how Orthodox feminism’s attempt to extrovertize women’s role in the synagogue can make Orthodox women uncomfortable; I will then look at how women’s Torah/Talmud scholarship is being undermined by an unhealthy fixation on publicly-visible roles for those who pursue such scholarship.

The song-and-dance imperative

An enthusiastically-received essay that was featured by the Times of Israelabout a year ago paints — unwittingly — a troubling picture of what shul life under a highly extroverted Orthofem regime might look like.

The author describes a situation in which a Torah scroll has been passed to the women’s side of a liberal Orthodox synagogue so that the women can dance with it on Simchat Torah (an exclusively male custom until the advent of Orthodox feminism) — but most of the women present turn the offer down.

The essay’s author, acting as a kind of gabbait for the women of her shul, found this objectionable and undertook to persuade, cajole and bargain with the recalcitrant women. This despite acknowledging objective reasons why women might decline the privilege of holding the Torah scroll, such as its heaviness and the fear of dropping it — a fear that would be quite natural for those who have little or no experience handling the sacred object.

She was dissatisfied with — and rejected — a proposed solution in which women would simply dance around a table on which the Torah scroll had been placed. It was that important to her to see no individual woman refuse the role — a very public, attention-attracting role — of holding the Torah scroll in her arms and dancing with it in the synagogue setting.

Of course, there are reasons other than the weight of the Torah scroll why Orthodox women might prefer not to adopt or mimic this particular male custom. Some are reasons of personal temperament (an introverted woman might be perfectly happy standing on the sidelines, observing the action), while others have to do with Orthodox Judaism’s gender distinctions.

Orthodox Jewish men are expected to pray three times a day with a quorum, and to set times for Torah study within their work/life schedule. Women (though they are also expected to pray daily and though many also engage in serious Torah study) are exempt from these specifically time-bound commandments. They have other duties which are no less important.

But these duties (centered around the home and the care of young children) are not bound up with the Torah as a physical object, or with the synagogue/beit midrash as a physical place. In short: they are not publicduties. I would venture to guess that that is why many — perhaps most — Orthodox women feel uncomfortable taking on the shul-based song-and-dance aspects of Simchat Torah. It is not because they feel inferior, or that their duties and activities as Jewish women are less important or less worthy of celebration. It has to do with a sense of impropriety: those who are commanded in and who fulfill “public” mitzvot — who make the effort to attend synagogue services three times a day, every day, and who keep to a Torah study schedule, rain or shine, throughout the year — are entitled to celebrate publicly and physically with the object of their devotion.

It is often argued that today, when women are active in all secular spheres and able to distinguish themselves in prestigious occupations, it makes no sense to exclude them from active synagogue roles. Orthodox feminists maintain that such women are offended by this form of exclusion and that it alienates them from synagogue life.

However, this argument can easily be turned on its head. Women who are challenged and fulfilled professionally (in addition to their traditional home-based roles, which they are seldom willing to entirely relinquish) are unlikely to be seeking their intellectual/spiritual salvation in shul frameworks contrived for the sole purpose of enabling them to mimic men.

Orthodox feminists have made women’s ritual inclusion into a fetish. The childish, tit-for-tat idea that women must do whatever men do, and that theymust especially do the public things that men do, is insulting to Orthodox women who are happy with what they already do, and particularly objectionable to those women who neither seek nor find satisfaction in highly public roles.
I am not trying, here, to summarily condemn Simchat Torah dancing on the women’s side of the mechitza, with or without a Torah scroll. Those women who get a spiritual high from cradling the Torah scroll in their arms are fully entitled to the experience. Just don’t impose it on me, or judge me unfavorably for not participating.

I’m sure the author of the essay meant no harm. But there is a mindset that wounds without intending to do so — it wounds individuals by making incorrect assumptions about their desire for public attention, and it hurts society — including Orthodox Jewish society — by privileging the outward, the extroverted, over the inward and introverted.

Contrived “spiritual leadership”

Back in the 1990s, when the idea of women’s Talmud study was gaining traction, a Jerusalem-based institute called Nishmat developed a program to train and certify yoatzot halacha — female halachic “advisers” — in the sphere of taharat hamishpacha (Jewish family purity).

The candidates recruited for this program were the crème de la crème of erudite Orthodox Jewish womanhood at that time. These were women who already possessed impressive Torah-study backgrounds in areas where females had long been able to distinguish themselves. What the Nishmat program offered was an orderly framework in which women could study Talmud — a sphere of learning that had traditionally been restricted to men — and emerge with a credential.

In a 2013 Jewish Week article, the program’s co-founder, Rabbanit Chana Henkin, sets forth the program’s original rationale: that of creating “a new religious leadership role for Orthodox women,” one that would “meet a need.” Henkin portrays the pre-yoetzet world as one in which women lacked “a properly trained, rabbinically-sanctioned female address” for family-purity issues, and in which “women felt uncomfortable discussing intimate details of their lives with rabbis,” resulting in “improper observance and, often, personal suffering.”

Accordingly, the women admitted to the Yoatzot Halacha program are expected, on graduation, to serve the Jewish community in very specific ways — as counselors fielding taharat hamishpacha questions via a hotline that Nishmat set up for the purpose; as knowledgeable go-betweens for women in need of rabbinical consultation; and as lecturers and advisers to women in their local communities.

To this day the Yoatzot Halacha program is Nishmat’s flagship endeavor, and the yoetzet halacha title is an esteemed one in modern Orthodox circles. I share that esteem, and in no way wish to belittle or disparage the program itself, or anyone involved with it.

What I would like to call attention to, however, is the discourse of “religious women’s leadership” of which the program is a part — a discourse that requires scrutiny.

One can hardly fault a framework for training women to meet actual needs on the ground. Nor is it unreasonable to expect, as the Yoatzot Halacha program does, that applicants will possess the skills necessary for the task in question— including interpersonal skills.

One can, however, wonder what would happen to an applicant who simply wished to study the subject matter but had no desire to serve the public via the channels marked out by the program. Would she be rejected? Does a desire to engage with Talmudic texts at a high level necessarily go hand in hand with an inclination for serving as an accessible, and even highly visible, public resource? Should it?
And is a commitment to visible public service such as prospective yoatzot are expected to demonstrate, demanded of men when they undertake advanced yeshiva studies?

The keyword that pops up continually as one peruses the websites of the various women’s advanced Torah study programs is leadership. Again and again we are told that the women who participate in these programs are chosen not just for their scholarly potential, but also for their “leadership ability.” Nishmat’s Yoatzot Halacha program requires it; Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Halachic Leadership program requires it; even Matan, which offers classes to less-Jewishly-educated women in addition to its elite Beit Midrash programs, and which tends to emphasize “enrichment” over “utility,” aspires to be a “breeding ground” for women “leaders.”

The preoccupation with “women’s leadership” reaches its apotheosis, of course, in the Maharat program at Yeshivat Maharat, whose avowed missionis to provide a “credentialed pathway” so that the Orthodox Jewish community can “attract the best and brightest [women] into the ranks of its leadership.” (Maharat is a Hebrew acronym for “female halachic spiritual Torah leader.”) The institution’s founders “sought to provide a path so that women could achieve positions of leadership within the Orthodox community that were on par with the rabbi.”

Now, introverts aren’t necessarily turned off by the word “leadership.” What might well deter them from a study program, though, is an admission requirement that they “aspire to serve as spiritual leaders.” For sure they would be repelled by an institution whose website proclaims such a requirement at the top of every page. (see logo above)

Would it be so terrible for a woman to simply be a dedicated learner, with no aspiration to be a dynamic spiritual leader? Couldn’t a dedicated learner grow, over time, into a different kind of leader — a strong but silent one? Couldn’t she even surprise everyone — including herself — by suddenly turning into a dynamic leader at some date far into the post-graduation future, under the right circumstances? Why jump the gun?

I’m sure that some men’s Torah study programs talk about leadership, building a “young leadership cadre,” etc., in their marketing material. But where men‘s learning is concerned, I believe that this really is just marketing, and not the essence.

In the male Torah world, no one thinks that a four-year quasi-academic program, however rigorous, qualifies one to be a “spiritual leader,” dynamic or otherwise. At most, it would qualify one to be a teacher, and provide one with a basis for further intellectual/spiritual growth. In fact, the very term “spiritual leader,” when applied to young women (or men) who have trained for the specific purpose of functioning in that capacity, is embarrassing.

Nor does the male Torah-scholarship trajectory involve demonstrating leadership potential in a simplistic, college-application-essay kind of way. No particular personality type is preferred. Though if anything, the intensive, single-minded effort needed to achieve profound Talmudic expertise would seem to favor those who shun the limelight — those with sitzfleisch.
Where does the “visible public role” approach — i.e., the extrovert approach — to advancing women’s Torah scholarship lead?

It leads to a devaluing of women’s Torah scholarship — as may be seen in the way that the yoetzet halacha role is being appropriated or co-opted by other frameworks that feature a “visible public resource” component similar to that of the yoetzet, but without the element of Talmud study.

One such framework is the NILI hotline, in which “trained kallah teachers” offer a family-purity “resource” to Orthodox women in the Chicago area that mimics the service offered by yoatzot halacha.
Kallah teachers — women who instruct soon-to-be brides on the basics of Jewish family purity — may be highly educated, Jewishly or otherwise, in their own right; but their training for the specific task of premarital instruction entails no rigorous textual component or quasi-academic credentialing process. 

In fact there is no standard curriculum for the training of kallah teachers. In past generations, women presumably learned family- purity praxis from their mothers, who may not even have been literate. Kallah teachers add value in terms of providing background on the laws and rituals of family purity; but their authority, such as it is, is not based on scholarly rigor. The role of “facilitating” family-purity questions for married women appears to be a new departure for kallah teachers, who are thus being set up as rivals to yoatzot halacha.

In Israel, the Puah Institute has created a course for would-be community-based “advisers” (they use the term yoatzot) on Jewish-family issues — a course that, in 28 weekly sessions, with no prerequisites, proposes to train women for a role that could easily be confused with that of the Nishmat-certified yoetzet halacha, who studies full-time for two years in order to obtain her credential, and has to demonstrate significant background in Jewish sources in order to be admitted to the program.

And in fact these disparate roles are becoming confounded in the public mind. A recent executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance,one whom the media look to as an authority on issues relating to Orthodox feminism, has publicly and indiscriminately lumped yoatzot halacha and kallah teachers together in a vicious diatribe against the Orthodox family-purity laws and practices. And a popular blogger on Orthodox Jewish women’s issues, Susan Shapiro, essentially equates the NILI service with that offered by yoatzot halacha, barely acknowledging any difference between the training undergone by the kallah teachers who staff NILI and that undergone by yoatzot.

Could a similar fate be in store for the female “clergy” who are being produced by Yeshivat Maharat? The Maharat program’s focus on training its students for pastoral counseling and community leadership could conceivably backfire. Graduates who go on to occupy such demanding synagogue positions asDirector of Programming, Education, and Community Engagement while also juggling family obligations may not be well-positioned to build credibility as halachic authorities.

Institutions do exist that take a less obviously utilitarian approach to women’s Torah scholarship. In Jerusalem, Beit Morasha has a program that “teaches halakha to women on an exact par in terms of quality and quantity to that which men are expected to achieve in order to pass the rabbinical ordination exams in Israel,” but without aspiring to create spiritual leaders by fiat (although it does incorporate the omnipresent word “leadership” into its name). According to the program’s director, Rabbanit Michal Tikochinsky, the program wasn’t meant to attract “women who were supposed to grow into leadership roles,” but rather women “who were already filling these kinds of positions.” By “these kinds of positions,” Rabbanit Tikochinsky means “women who serve in important teaching positions,” to whom female students should be able to turn when asking “halachic questions.”

Speaking more generally, Tikochinsky notes that “ “the instruction of Halacha by wise women is already an established fact,” and that women “instruct on simple questions and complicated questions, according to their training and strength.”

Here I am moved to ask: is a woman who instructs on simple questions as much a “leader” as one who instructs on complicated questions? Is a woman who issues halachic rulings a leader, but a yoetzet halacha, who merely “advises” other women and consults with ordained rabbis on issues requiring adjudication, not a leader but merely a “service provider?”

Where do you draw the line? Do we even know what we are talking about when we use the word “leader” and the term “leadership ability?”

I propose that we declare a moratorium on the use of the word leadership and its derivatives in connection with Orthodox women and their religious scholarship and employment opportunities. It is not a useful term. It disfavors certain personality profiles, and it contributes to a discourse of outwardness and show that may well be inimical to Jewish values.

What we can and should do is talk about women’s opportunities for distinction — in pure scholarship, in public service, and in spheres that straddle the two.


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  2. Please please lets no forget the pshat meaning of that famous verse in tehillim "All the pricess' luggage is stored away"!