Women and Leadership

I will always be proud of my Jewish identity. And I will always be proud to be a feminist. Respectfully, if it were not for the issues raised (and opportunities made available) by the second wave of the feminist movement I sincerely doubt that you would have your own web page. So, please, do not disparage feminism.

And, I am sorry, but “separate but equal” is no longer a convincing argument for me. As a Jew living in a post-Holocaust world, I believe it is essential that women, who, for example, have the talent to become rabbis find no discriminatory obstacles in their way. We need their spiritual and intellectual input in the Jewish community.

Marion Lipschultz

Kresel responds:

First, let me thank you for your voicing your dissent so politely. Unfortunately, that does not happen frequently on the Web.

Second, I would like to establish that I do agree with some points of feminism. I agree that women deserve equal pay for equal work, and that women should have equal opportunities to enter into secular careers like medicine, business, and law. However, for careers in religion, the issue of equal opportunity is not applicable.

That Jewish women are not allowed to bear the title of rabbi, be counted in a minyan, or put on tefillin, is not a matter of discrimination. These are mitzvohs – commandments from Hashem. The concept of
rights does not enter into the performance of mitzvohs. We don’t perform mitzvohs because it is our right to do so; we perform them as a matter of responsibility to Hashem‘s word. Hashem did not command women to do these mitzvohs, and it is our responsibility to serve Him in the way he has prescribed for us.

You said, “in a post-Holocaust world, . . .We need [women’s] spiritual and intellectual input in the Jewish community.” Why only in the post-Holocaust world? Why not for all time? Actually, women have exerted their influence on the Jewish community since the beginning of Judaism.

As we know, the first Jews were Avraham and Sarah. When Sarah perceived that Yishmael, Avraham’s son through Hagar, could have a spiritually destructive influence on her son Yitzchak (Isaac), she told Avraham to send Yishmael and his mother away. Avraham did not want to do it, but Hashem told him “Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her voice (Genesis 21:12).”

The word “voice” seems extraneous here. The verse could also have read, “Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her.” Why is the word “voice” added? The Torah commentator Rashi states that the word “voice” refers to prophecy and that this verse, “teaches us that Avraham was secondary to Sarah in prophecy.”

Sarah’s prophecy in the matter of Yitzchak and Yishmael was pivotal to the development of the Jewish people. She made certain that her son would have the purest of influences so that he would be worthy to become one of the spiritual foundations of our people. Similarly, our foremother Rivkah took center stage in determining that Yaakov, rather than Esav, received the blessing that established him as Yitzchak’s spiritual heir.

Jewish history is full of examples like this. Women have always made a tremendous impact on the Jewish people, and the primary way we do this is in our roles as mothers, for it allows us to shape the future generation. Devorah the Prophetess held the most public role of any Jewish woman in history, but when she described herself and her achievements, it was as a mother: “Security ceased, ceased in Israel, until I, Devorah, arose, I, a mother in Israel (Judges 5:7).” Modern psychologists and sociologists recognize that what occurs in family life impacts on society at large, so shouldn’t we as Jewish women also acknowledge the power of our role?

Of course, there are women who are blessed with natural leadership qualities which they want to use beyond their families. On that point, I would like to tell you a story. When I was in the beginning of the process of becoming Orthodox, I attended a beginners’ learning program. My madricha, which is a peer counselor, was an alumna of the program, further along in her process than I. Before she attended the
program, she had planned to become a Reform rabbi, but after learning more Torah and spending time in the Orthodox world, she decided to become Orthodox. After a year of intensive learning in two women’s seminaries, she was hired as a madricha. In that position, she taught and advised others in their growth as Jews. She said that she was doing everything she had ever dreamed she would do as a
rabbi. A woman with a gift for leadership can find her niche without violating Jewish law.

True talent always finds a way to manifest itself. That is why I disagree with your statement that I would not have a website without the feminist movement. I have a website because the sophisticated technology of this computer age allows anyone with access to a computer to have a website, regardless of gender, age, level of education or skill. Furthermore, I do not owe the feminist movement anything for my ability to write. That is a talent with which Hashem blessed me. And just as my madricha‘s talents caused her to gravitate to positions of leadership, my talent has led me to use my life’s circumstances to develop it.

Because I was born to a secular family after the second wave of feminism, I attended college. I may well owe my college education to feminism, and I used that education to perfect my writing skills, but had I been born into different circumstances and not attended college, my drive to write would have found another way to develop. The end result would have been the same; I would still be involved in writing.

In his book Endless Light, Rabbi David Aaron explains that it is incorrect to view talent as something that a person possesses. Rather, the talent “possesses” the person. Many artists report that when they are working, they become channels for some higher Source. Creativity flows through them, and the art in effect creates itself.

The higher Source is Hashem. Hashem blesses people with talents to express His will in a particular way. When talented people gratefully accept their special role, they understand that they were not given their talent merely to pursue wealth, fame, and status. These blessings sometimes accompany talent, but they
are actually external to its purpose. Its purpose is to allow Hashem‘s will to express itself.

A woman who is blessed with the ability to lead will inevitably find a way to implement it. If she recognizes that it is a gift from Hashem, she will also recognize that its use precludes following the boundaries of His Law. Furthermore, if she uses her gift to serve Hashem, she will not care about the status it brings her. Bearing the title “rabbi” will not make her more of a leader; her behavior as an example and guide for others will.

For this article, I would like to acknowledge the teachings of Rebbetzin Holly Pavlov, director of She’arim College of Jewish Studies for Women and author of Mirrors of Our Lives: Reflections of Women in Tanach.

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