On one level, I was overjoyed to read in the Jerusalem Post report (May 4, 2006) that a Jerusalem Orthodox rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky has ordained his woman student Aviva Ner-David as a rabbi saying that her "knowledge and mastery of Jewish law are remarkable."
This was a breakthrough that I awaited, but frankly never expected to see in my lifetime. I thought, as I read the news, that this marks the end to the male monopoly on the Orthodox rabbinate. The Reform movement had torn down this wall in the 70s. The Conservative movement had started routinely ordaining women in the 80s. And now, the Orthodox will be ordaining women.
In theory, I want to see this is a good development in the history of Judaism. With women rabbis, more talent can be unleashed into the ranks of religious leadership. With double the talent there can be double the learning and twice as much new theological insight, imagination and energy.
In theory, since the Orthodox rabbi is not a sacerdotal position, a woman should be able to fill it regardless of the patriarchal roots of the system. A woman can become an expert in Jewish law and practice and act in all capacities as a rabbi just like men have been doing for centuries.
But we don't live in a theoretical world. A real reading of the nature of contemporary Orthodoxy will lead one to conclude that it is a system run by men whose political and social power in society at large is marginalized. And yet these men do see themselves as guardians of a particularly important male-dominated world order of their own.
How do those who live by the worldview of the Orthodox rabbinate react to the ordination of an Orthodox woman? These are ten of the most likely responses.
- They see the growth of women's civil and familial rights as a threat to the historical male prerogatives.
- They use male bonding as the basis of rabbinic public organization.
- They see women's ordination as a feminization, a making womanly of the rabbinic estate.
- They experience the end of the all-male public body of the rabbinate as an admission of the vulnerability and perhaps of the impotence of the collective organization.
- But they extend the threat to more than just a challenge to the masculinity of the rabbi and flag bearer. They characterized it as a threat to the core beliefs of Judaism.
- They feel this woman's ordination is a humiliation to the Orthodox rabbinic system.
- They perceive the notion that a woman can be a rabbi as a foreign threat, imported first from Western feminist culture and most recently from heretical Conservative Judaism.
- They argue that this weakness of boundaries must be healed - the rabbis cannot allow penetration from the outside or the permeability of the borders of rabbinic life.
- They say that their religion must be purified of all feminization and alien contamination.
- Logically it follows that they will act with a vehemence or even violence to attack and defeat the forces antagonistic to their way of life.
To the existing Orthodox establishment this daring ordination stands out as a symptom of the disordered sexuality of the evil modern world where women try to take the roles that belong to men. The rabbis will invoke this danger and then will likely associate this act of ordination with other disorderly sexual confusions such as gay marriage. They may feel free then to predict that if they allow women to serve as rabbis that will open the door to next allow gays to follow suit.
Yet after all is said and done, Rabbis who preach the perfection of Kosher sex roles and condemn the perversion of treif disorder are speaking sense only to those colleagues in their boys' club who live by their concepts of the world.
So let's expect the onslaught of attacks by the rabbis against the new Orthodox woman rabbi. They will say that she is bad. The rabbi that ordained her is bad. The idea is bad. How low have people sunk? And so on and so on. Lo and behold, Judaism has withstood another crisis of faith and onslaught of challenge.