Monday, April 23, 2012

Hamas Chief Cool With Women Rabbis

One of the most common questions I get from Orthodox Jews is how I can defend the Conservative movement's decision (from 1983) to ordain women as rabbis. I was too young to be a part of the debate concerning women's ordination in the late 70s and early 80s, but from what I've read it was a very tense time at the Jewish Theological Seminary where students and faculty were split on the issue.

It has now been close to thirty years since women began studying for ordination in Conservative Judaism. Within the Conservative movement, women rabbis have become commonplace and it is no longer an issue for the majority of Conservative congregations. The conversation has shifted from a halachic nature (Can a woman serve as a rabbi according to Jewish law?) to a more social nature (Are women rabbis treated fairly in the rabbinate?).

Truthfully, I never understood how women rabbis are problematic from a Jewish legal standpoint since there's no problem with women serving as teachers, which is the main function of a rabbi. However, in the Orthodox world, the issue of women rabbis is still in its infancy with a minority of liberal Orthodox leaders like Rabbi Avi Weiss advocating for female rabbinic ordination. The first woman to be ordained by Rabbi Weiss, Rabba Sara Hurwitz, has been successful in her rabbinate but is far from being accepted by most Orthodox Jews.

Over the weekend, I read of support for women rabbis from a most unlikely source. In fact, I did a double take when I read the Jewish Daily Forward's title for this article: "Hamas Chief on 'Noble' Women Rabbis". Did the leader of Hamas, a known terrorist organization, really come out in favor of the ordination of women as rabbis and call women rabbis "noble"?

It turns out that the Jewish Daily Forward sent the husband ("Rebbetzman"?) of Rabbi Diane Cohler-Esses to Egypt to interview Hamas chief Mousa Abu Marzook over the course of two days before Passover earlier this month. This could have been a great story (Dayenu!) if it were only about a Jewish journalist in Egypt meeting face-to-face with the ruler of a foreign oppressor and trying to get out of Egypt before the holiday commemorating freedom from Egyptian bondage.

But the story gets much better. Journalist Larry Cohler-Esses is married to Rabbi Diane Cohler-Esses, a Conservative rabbi who was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1995 and is the first woman from the Syrian Jewish community to become a rabbi (and the first and only person (male or female) from her community to become a non-Orthodox rabbi. She had to give her husband permission to fly to Egypt in the days before Passover to interview the Hamas leader. He was concerned about leaving home during the week of Passover preparation. She flippantly told her husband that he wasn't much help anyway so he should go to Egypt.

In Egypt, during the two-day interview the two men discussed Passover in the 21st century:

Abu Marzook could not believe I was leaving Cairo so fast, or understand why I'd end up divorced if I didn’t. I explained about the Seder, and about Passover, when the Jews had to…well, leave Egypt really fast. He said, "But that was 4,000 years ago when the Pharaoh was trying to kill the Jews. No one’s trying to kill you now."

"Actually," I said, “kind of, you guys are." And we were off on what ended up being a five-and-a-half hour discussion over those two days.

Surprisingly, what Mousa Abu Marzook was most fascinated with was his interviewer's rabbi wife. When Cohler-Esses told the Hamas leader that his wife is a rabbi, Abu Marzook was astounded and asked, "There are women rabbis?" he asked.

Cohler-Esses explained to Abu Marzook that about one-half of all rabbinic students in the liberal American seminaries are actually women. He then explained his wife's personal struggle in becoming a rabbi because of her roots in the Syrian Jewish community. The Hamas leader, whose Muslim religious beliefs treat women as second-class citizens, seemed dumbfounded that she hasn't been accepted by her community. "She's done nothing wrong," he said. "What she’s done is noble."

Obviously, the issue of women rabbis was only a side conversation in a long and serious interview by Cohler-Esses, who took a small dose of criticism by some for even meeting with a member of Hamas. But this story is amazing. Who would have ever thought that the most vocal proponent of women's rabbinical ordination in the Orthodox movement might just be the leader of Hamas?


Michael said...

R’ Jason,

I want to say in advance of my comment that my intent is not to be critical of the idea of women becoming rabbis, as this is not the appropriate forum for that discussion, but I’d like to comment on your phrase “’Truthfully, I never understood how women rabbis are problematic from a Jewish legal standpoint” from another angle.

While I may be being a bit picky here about word choice, the way statements are phrased often times gives off a certain impression, which you may or may not intend. In order to properly argue with someone, you need to understand them. For example, when Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai argued, they never say “I don’t understand how you have an issue with this”. They say “I hold this way because X. You are wrong because of Y.”

If you want to say “I don’t believe that the Orthodox view is correct” or “I think that their view is good for their culture but is inapplicable to the Conservative world because” then you are saying that there is a difference of opinion.

“I never understood how women rabbis are problematic” means one of two things. It could mean that you are trying to completely belittle the other side of the argument in an attempt to show their total lack of legitimacy, or it means you are lacking in understanding of where they are coming from. In the former case, you are going for the emotional rather than intellectual angle, which works well with those who feel strongly about the issue, but may backfire with those who actually want a reasoned argument. In the latter case, you show that you are not well-equipped to make an argument, as you don’t even know where the other side is coming from. In either case, it is unbecoming as the statement is not even necessary for the article. Remove that sentence and start the paragraph with “In the Orthodox world…” and nothing is lost except the fact that you are always ready to take a shot against people you don’t understand.

Bill said...

@Michael--saying, "I never understood. . ." is not nearly as nefarious as you labor for 4 paragraphs to make it out to be. Yes, it is a rejection of one side in what is indeed a difference of opinion but I see no reason to conclude that R. Miller actually "doesn't understand" that which he is rejecting, even if you insist on taking the rhetorical devie excessively and absurdly literally. Rather, R. Miller--like R. Weiss--is clearly familiar with the arguments of those who insist women cannot and must not become rabbis but simply finds these arguments unpursuasive. Really it's not such a terrible thing for him to say. If you want to listen to someone "take shots against people he doesn't understand" look up anything R. Shafran has ever said about non-Orthodox Judaism. This gentle comment from R. Miller will reads like a loving embrace in comparison.

@R. Miller--seems to me the Hamas dude's attitudes toward the role and treatment of women in his own version of society would be far more interesting, and relevant, than any pontification on their role in ours.

Michael said...

While you see no reason to believe that he “actually doesn’t understand”, I feel that the use of the word “understand” combined with the leading “truthfully” in that sentence is a very good reason to believe it. However, I did say in my earlier post “the way statements are phrased often times gives off a certain impression, WHICH YOU MAY OR MAY NOT INTEND”. If that was not enough, let me say clearly that I acknowledge that it is possible that R’ Jason does indeed understand yet reject the opposing viewpoint. Hopefully my “labored” post will be a message to R’ Jason and to all readers of the importance of being careful with word choice when expressing one’s opinions.

Regarding your comment about R’ Shafran, he appears to me to state his thoughts clearly and he usually speaks to the intellect, rather than the emotion, of his reader. Whether or not one agrees with him or cares for his style, I don’t get the feeling that he is lacking in understanding of the opposing viewpoint. I certainly have not read all of his work, though, and am open to being shown how he shows (explicitly or not) a lack of understanding. Please post a link.

By the way, I do admit that, after understanding the other side in order to make a reasoned argument, he does “take shots” . But that is his job. Orthodox Judaism believes that non-Orthodox movements are not a legitimate expression of Judaism. (This is NOT to imply anything about the pedigree of individual non-Orthodox Jews, who are still Jewish, even if not practicing it properly.) Therefore, an Orthodox Jew who says XYZ from Conservative or Reform is bunk is merely standing by his beliefs. He may be persuasive or not, and he may base his commentary on intellect, halacha, hashkafa, culture, or just emotions, but it is to be expected.

The liberal streams believe (correct me if I am wrong) that they are ALSO a legitimate expression of Judaism, not to the exclusion of those who follow the path of the Orthodox. A Conservative rabbi who belittles an Orthodox stance, whether based on halachic, haskafic, or cultural reasons, is delegitimizing what he is supposed to believe is another legitimate expression of Judaism. Where is the “loving embrace” in that?