Everyone loves a juicy headline. Usually that happens when something unusual occurs and highlighted if someone is squirming in the story. When a Chabad rabbi converses with a young woman preparing to become an Orthodox rabbi — that is unusual. If she asks him on record what his opinion of women becoming Orthodox rabbis, someone is going to squirm — either him, her, or both.
This happened in the recent podcast I had with a young woman studying to become a female Orthodox rabbi. Here is an outline of my response. It’s built on two principles.
The first is that Torah education of girls and women must be on the highest level. Sadly, it’s not. In traditional schools, where girls and boys are educated separately, the girls’ Torah education is softened and intellectually dumbed down, compared to boys their age.
In institutions where girls and boys are taught in the same classroom, the problem is different. While girls are taught in a way that does not degrade their intelligence and ability to learn Torah, the overall level of Torah knowledge in these institutions is subpar. I know this intimately for a variety of reasons, including that many of their graduates are our students in college and become our close friends.
The second principle is the value of tradition in Judaism. Unlike the common understanding of tradition as a euphemism for blindly following the past, protecting it from reason and the changes in society, it is in fact a cornerstone of Judaism.
It’s undeniable that belief in G-d, observing the commandments, and Torah study are key building blocks in the structure of Judaism. Tradition as well falls into that category. But not because it provides the ignorant an answer to every question, as it so famously does for Tevya in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. Rather, it breeds within us one of the most critical character traits that Judaism seeks to develop within each Jew, humility. And humility is critical in our relationship towards the other; both the upper-case Other, G-d, and the lowercase other, humans.
Observing tradition develops humility and respect towards what came before us, its contribution to what we have today, and empowers us as we move forward into an evolving future.
The need to educate women on the highest level and the value of tradition are the two elements in my response to her question, “Peretz, what are your thoughts on women becoming Orthodox rabbis?” To understand how these two elements are combined, listen to Part Two of our conversation.