Commentary

Women must learn and lead: A Response to Chaim Saiman

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Editors’ Note: This article is part of a series on advanced Talmud study for women. See responses by Chaim Saiman and a rejoinder by Judah Goldberg.

Sharona Margolin Halickman

I read with interest Professor Chaim Saiman’s article “The Opaque Ceiling Hovering Over Women’s Torah Study,” but respectfully disagree with many of his points concerning the family structure, appropriate roles, and scalability of women’s leadership. Notwithstanding the OU statement (which he accurately describes), depending on the needs and hashkafah of the community, American Modern Orthodox women can and should be able to serve in positions of leadership at all levels.

Family Structure

Professor Saiman believes that our community has an issue with developing female halakhists since we are accustomed to a male-centric “Torah leadership family.” I disagree.

There are a variety of centrist synagogues in the United States, and each forms a different type of community. In Riverdale, NY alone, there are at least four synagogues which identify as Modern Orthodox; each serves a totally different population within the spectrum. The standard male-centric “Torah leadership family” that Professor Saiman describes still exists in some communities (usually those which lean to the right), but it has not existed in many more modern communities for over 20 years.

When I lived in the New York area, the communities that I was a part of never expected the rabbi’s family to have “more children than the surrounding norm,” understood that the rabbi’s wife had her own career and did not always have time for “various teaching and chesed projects,” and never expected that she would always be on call and play “hostess for those seeking physical and spiritual nourishment.”

I am not saying that the rebbetzins did not contribute to the synagogue community; they certainly did. However, while raising their own families and working full-time, they could not be expected to be on call to teach, counsel, and visit congregants in the hospital to the same extent as their husbands who were being paid to lead the community.

Indeed, the “complete package” that Professor Saiman describes no longer exists in communities in which the rabbi is not paid enough to afford his wife the opportunity not to work, nor in communities in which the rabbi’s wife has a career of her own that she wants to pursue independent of the synagogue.

With a male spiritual leader and role model already running a synagogue, the identity of the female spiritual leader’s husband – or whether she is married at all – should not be a consideration. Just as the female doctor’s husband has to deal with going to minyan while his wife is on call, so too does the female spiritual leader’s husband have to make arrangements if his wife needs to speak at a shiva minyan or conduct a Bat Mitzvah ceremony. If her husband is comfortable with her taking the position, women in some parts of our community need not be held back simply because in other communities, there is an expectation that the rabbi and the rebbetzin split the work.

Appropriate Roles for Women’s Leadership

Professor Saiman also presents the idea that “technical halakhic issues are at play: the male’s tefilah be-tzibur and Talmud Torah take precedence over that of the female, and we become uneasy when these baselines are inverted.” If a community has enough minyanim in place that the female spiritual leader’s husband can attend minyan as well then I don’t see a contradiction in the role. As far as women’s Talmud Torah is concerned, although her obligations may be different from those of a man, women are obligated to learn everything that applies to them – and, at the end of the day, almost every area of Torah and Halakhah applies to women in some way. With more learned women leading communities, more community members will feel comfortable asking questions. I remember a congregational rabbi saying that the only time of year that he is asked questions is during Pesach preparations. The rest of the year, the congregants are not connected enough to ask. With a female role model in place, another door would be open for women and men to ask questions that they may not have been comfortable asking the rabbi, as congregants of both genders may relate better to a female spiritual leader and may be intimidated by the rabbi.

According to Professor Saiman, the OU needs to draw guidelines in order to distinguish between “‘mainstream’ or ‘centrist’ Orthodoxy, from iterations to its left.” In my opinion, it is unfortunate that the OU is dictating these guidelines – which I find to be more hashkafic than halakhic – as some women who do not have a close connection with the rabbi may connect better with a female spiritual leader, thereby bringing more congregants closer to Judaism.

If a community already has a male spiritual leader (rabbi, cantor, etc.), there should be no reason to disqualify a woman from working at that synagogue in a spiritual role (excluding serving as a witness, leading the prayers, and being counted in a minyan).

Scalability

Professor Saiman points out that if a woman decides to study Torah for a few years and then chooses another career, “she will be seen as as disappointment to those who invested dearly in her education.” I am surprised to hear that the “community” would be more disappointed in her than in a male in the same situation. When I studied at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School, I was part of a fellowship of men (mostly rabbinical students) and women called the Block Program. The agreement was that we were obligated to teach in a Jewish day school in the United States for two years. After that, we were free to do whatever we wanted. Twenty years later, some graduates are still teaching Judaic studies in the USA and some have moved on, but nobody is looking over his or her shoulder.

Professor Saiman mentions that there are “quasi-rabbinic jobs that lie between Rosh Yeshiva and front-line mashgiah. But it is harder to see what opportunities are offered to the parallel group of learned women.” Most synagogue rabbis in the United States are not gedolei ha-dor (Torah giants). I know some YU RIETS graduates received semikhah by studying the “mesorah” of notes, passed down from one group of students to the next. Despite these men being “less than perfect” students, they are leading prominent synagogues across the USA. Why is it not worth training women, even if only a small percentage can be top leaders? Instead of resigning ourselves to the fact that we can’t see this happening, why don’t our communities open up more leadership roles on different levels for women? We already see this happening with JLIC programs on college campuses, in which both the husband and wife are paid to run programming for the students, and scholar-in-residence programs at which synagogues open their doors to a male or female scholar for a Shabbat to teach and deliver a sermon for the entire community on Shabbat morning. Similarly, there is no halakhic barrier for an Orthodox woman to be trained as a chaplain or to serve as a Mashgihah Ruhanit in a school.

Conclusion

Twenty years ago, I was the first Orthodox woman to work as a Madrikhah Ruhanit (Spiritual Mentor) at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. The position fulfilled a need, as there are many areas of synagogue leadership in which women can excel and serve both male and female congregants in ways that male leaders can’t, as not everyone is comfortable approaching the rabbi and men and women have different styles of leadership. Doesn’t it make more sense to have a woman who is specifically hired for the job work at the shul, rather than a rebbetzin who is pulled in simply because her husband is a rabbi?

There are numerous brides, converts, Bat Mitzvah students, and community members who would not have had a clergy member to whom to turn to discuss personal matters if I had not been there.

How did the community feel about me receiving the position without being married to a rabbi? They did not have a problem with the fact that my husband Josh was an accountant. Josh contributed to the spirituality of the community and was loved by the congregants. He often led the service in the main sanctuary and in the learning service, and together we welcomed over 1,800 guests to our home for Shabbat and holiday meals. After our oldest son was born, Josh attended an early minyan at a different synagogue so that I would be able to be at the synagogue on time on Shabbat morning, where I often gave an introduction to the Torah reading, helped women find their place in the women’s section, and delivered the sermon. When you are living in a community with a number of synagogues there are more possibilities. Josh didn’t have to skip services due to my role at the synagogue, and the same ought to be true for many others as well.

Professor Saiman’s description therefore did not match the reality 20 years ago, and it is certainly not the reality today, as many women hold leadership roles in Orthodox synagogues throughout the USA. When the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Lincoln Square Synagogue announced the “Congregational Internships” for women, everyone was nervous how it would turn out. We were interviewed in a variety of newspapers, from the New York Times to the Jewish Week. When they saw that we were religious women following Halakhah the media backed off. Today you can find Yeshiva University GPATS (Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Studies for Women) students and graduates serving as interns, and no one thinks twice.

Although I disagree with many of the points that Professor Saiman presents in much of his analysis, I do agree with his comment that “the set of seriously learned women who are respected within their communities is considerably larger in Israel than in the US. This provides a ready base of talent and support from which more advanced programs can develop.” As I have lived in Israel for the past fourteen years and serve as a member of Beit Hillel, an organization which believes that it is imperative to include women in public religious leadership roles, I agree that “in Israel, religious leadership is less connected to synagogue life” and Israelis are not at all concerned about what restrictions the OU tries to impose upon the community. May Israel serve as a light to the nations in the area of women’s learning and leadership.

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Sharona Margolin Halickman
Sharona Margolin Halickman is the Founder and Director of Torat Reva Yerushalayim (www.toratreva.org), a non-profit organization based in Jerusalem which provides Torah study groups for Israelis of all ages and backgrounds. She was the first Madricha Ruchanit at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Sharona lives in Jerusalem, with her husband, Josh and her children, Dov, Moshe, and Yehuda.