The Orthodox community, here and in Israel, has been confronted in recent days with important issues, forcing its leaders to grapple with significant issues touching on the very definition of Orthodoxy.
For example, after Rabbi Avi Weiss, religious leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, recognized a woman as an equal member of his rabbinic staff, Orthodox groups mobilized to express their feelings on this startling development. (Until now, 33-year-old Sara Hurwitz was dubbed HIR’s “maharat.” She is now to be called “rabba.”)
Sadly, the reaction to this announcement has been somewhat extreme and – at a time in world history when religious extremism presents a clear and present danger – unhelpful.
Over the past decade or so, women in all denominations, including Orthodoxy, have been performing functions that might be described as rabbinic – receiving advanced degrees in Torah education and counseling other women on personal matters. Whether they should be called “rabbis,” however, clearly remains a difficult issue.
But difficulties call for discussion, not excommunication. That is why it is hard to understand the fury of Agudath Israel’s Council of Rabbinic Sages, which declared that HIR may no longer be considered Orthodox. Or the statement by the Rabbinical Council of America that it is considering expelling Weiss from the organization.
At a time when Jews are losing members to assimilation and apathy, it behooves our leaders to take stock of the situation on the ground and assess their priorities.
On Feb. 19, the Jerusalem Post reported that haredi groups in Israel are trying to popularize “personal mechitzas,” portable nylon device serves that will serve as shields against in-flight movies and fellow passengers. Since the article appeared in February, this office tried to learn if it was a Purim shpiel. Apparently, it was not.
The issue of ordaining women is worthy of attention and study; putting nylon bags around one’s head is not.
It is often said that Israel, as a nation, needs to do a better job of public relations. Right now, it would appear that those who champion strict religious observance need to sell themselves more effectively as well. Cursing the Women of the Wall, relegating women to the backs of buses, putting literal blinders on their members – this is not the way to do it.