The OU needs some ‘wom­ansplain­ing’

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - Front Page - Sara Horowitz

OPIN­ION: If the Ortho­dox Union is set on pro­tect­ing male power, that’s a ma­jor prob­lem.

What­ever in the world pos­sessed the Ortho­dox Union to is­sue a procla­ma­tion against women rab­bis? De­spite the open­ness of some Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ties to women as clergy, the OU de­clared it­self op­posed not merely to the Ortho­dox or­di­na­tion of fe­male rab­bis, but to women act­ing in any of a num­ber of ca­pac­i­ties in an Ortho­dox sy­n­a­gogue that the OU deems to be rab­bini­cal, even if the women go by “a rab­binic-type ti­tle.” The list in­cluded “de­liv­er­ing ser­mons from the pul­pit” – giv­ing ser­mons! I’m tempted to say the OU is slid­ing into the 13th cen­tury, ex­cept that would do a dis­ser­vice to the 13th cen­tury, which saw a flour­ish­ing of women’s roles in the Jewish com­mu­nity.

Per­haps it was the irony of the OU’S dik­tat, which went on to wel­come women’s rich con­tri­bu­tions to the com­mu­nity. Or per­haps it’s my own strong as­so­ci­a­tion of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, which is­sues kashrut cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, with food mat­ters. But it made me think back to an episode when I at­tended an Ortho­dox school as a girl. In our school, boys re­ceived ad­di­tional class hours, be­yond the reg­u­lar school sched­ule, to study Jewish texts. They re­mained one week­day even­ing and came in Sun­day morn­ings. One year, the girls in my grade de­cided the ar­range­ment wasn’t fair. We cir­cu­lated a pe­ti­tion, pre­sented it to the prin­ci­pal and made our de­mand: equal learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for girls and boys. The prin­ci­pal was amused. He told us how lucky we were, that the boys en­vied us our free time. He ex­plained (to­day we might say, “mansplained”) that we didn’t re­ally want what had we asked for. But the idea stuck, and we girls were un­will­ing to give up our de­mand. Fi­nally he con­ceded: girls, too, could come to school Sun­day morn­ings. He ar­ranged for a teacher.

Heady with vic­tory, we showed up at school Sun­day morn­ing. Wait­ing for us was a home­mak­ing teacher. While the boys learned Tal­mud, we would be cook­ing them break­fast. We would not get close to a sa­cred text – in­deed any text but a recipe. We were de­feated. More than that, we felt the in­sult that made light of our spir­i­tual thirst.

Since my school­days, there has been a grow­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion of women’s spir­i­tual as­pi­ra­tions and women’s ca­pac­ity to spir­i­tu­ally nourish their com­mu­ni­ties. A rich panoply of in­sti­tu­tions and teach­ers of­fers won­der­ful op­por­tu­ni­ties for women to en­gage se­ri­ously with Jewish texts. The dif­fer­ent Jewish de­nom­i­na­tions ap­proach women’s lead­er­ship roles within the pa­ram­e­ters of their re­spec­tive move­ments. Women who have com­mit­ted them­selves to rab­binic roles in Ortho­dox Ju­daism – and the in­sti­tu­tions that or­dain them – have done so with deep re­spect for Halachah. While some Ortho­dox rab­binic bod­ies may not agree with those in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Jewish law, it is not un­usual for there to be dis­agree­ments among Ortho­dox au­thor­i­ties about mat­ters of Halachah. Peo­ple gen­er­ally ac­cept the out­look of their com­mu­nity, and they grav­i­tate to­ward com­mu­ni­ties whose out­look speaks to them. And that makes the OU’S procla­ma­tion all the more out­ra­geous. Their pro­nounce­ment den­i­grates the women who have ded­i­cated them­selves to Jewish re­li­gious lead­er­ship and the com­mu­ni­ties that look up to them.

The en­ergy spent re­sist­ing the en­try of wise and com­mit­ted women into po­si­tions of re­li­gious au­thor­ity might be bet­ter har­nessed find­ing so­lu­tions to is­sues that plague the lives of re­li­gious women – such as re­leas­ing women from hus­bands who refuse to is­sue a get, a re­li­gious di­vorce, or deal­ing with do­mes­tic abuse.

It’s hard not to be­come cyn­i­cal about some of the de­ci­sions made by rab­binic bod­ies re­gard­ing women. Let me “wom­ansplain.” Is the OU sim­ply be­hav­ing like a guild, pro­tect­ing its share in the pro­fes­sion against in­ter­lop­ers who might claim their jobs? If it’s about pre­serv­ing power – turf wars sim­i­lar to the con­ver­sion bat­tles waged by the rab­binate in Is­rael – then trust will erode in the in­tegrity of their de­ci­sion-mak­ing ca­pac­ity more broadly. This, and not women as rab­bis, is the real threat.

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