Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Rabbi's Elephant

Many people have already viewed  "The Rabbi's Daughter", a moving film that offers the viewer a glimpse of the lives of three young women whose fathers are prominent Orthodox Rabbis but who themselves are no longer religiously observant. The movie is powerful and should not be missed. One cannot help but feel empathy for the estranged daughters who struggle to remain connected with and win acceptance from their families as well as for the parents who must be profoundly disappointed in their children's choices yet continue to love and support them.

Commentary on the video has astutely observed that the Rabbinic fathers are cast in a rather positive light as sensitive and caring parents. Others have pointed out that at least two of the three daughters featured in the film have strong artistic, even "hippie-like" tendencies, and that these qualities may have made any attempt to fit them into the Orthodox mold an even greater challenge.

However, no one has yet addressed the most obvious and most troubling issue of all, the elephant sitting smugly in the corner of the room: All three children showcased in the movie are daughters, not sons.

These young women are expected to dress a certain way and to behave a certain way. The external measures of conformity for Orthodox women are very strict. A woman's irreligiosity is palpable and perceivable - all she needs to do is wear pants or short sleeves, for example, and anyone who sees her will immediately conclude that she has left the Orthodox fold.

Were any of these daughters not a daughter but a son, he could conceal his ideological departure from the belief system of his family with little more than a baseball cap. Men who leave Orthodoxy can hide it with minimal effort and probably do, keeping their changes of heart to themselves.

But there is another, more significant aspect to this disturbing picture. After all, a "rabbi's son" is held to higher standards and experiences communal pressure just like a "rabbi's daughter"; however, for the son, there are benefits as well - he is held in high esteem as well!

The son may decide to follow in his father's footsteps and become a rabbi, teacher or community leader. He can pursue Torah learning opportunities of the highest caliber, attend the best yeshivot and perhaps one day inherit his father's position. There is a place for a rabbi's son in the Orthodox community.

The male offspring of a rabbi experience more than just the pressure, restrictions and standards that their female counterparts endure. Expectations of greatness are formed, hopes are hoped and dreams are dreamt for the rabbi's son and what he may become.

Not so for the rabbi's daughter. She is not held up on any pedestal, except insofar as marriage prospects are concerned. She is not hailed as a scholar or a prodigy. Her position in the rabbi's family doesn't prepare her for or lead her down any clear career path. For obvious reasons, she would be discouraged from and even condemned for  considering anything remotely similar to the career path of her father.

This, I believe, is the crux of the problem. Where is the rabbi's daughter to go? What place is there for her in the Orthodox world? Beyond the responsibilities, the pressure, and the stress of growing up with the label "rabbi's daughter" permanently emblazoned upon her identity, what does she have to show for it, where does it leave her?

It is particularly ironic that the same week "The Rabbi's Daughter" is making waves on the Internet, Rav Aviner - who is prominently and sympathetically featured, with his daughter Tamar, in the video - is also in the news for this.

I have tremendous respect for Rav Aviner and it is not for me to criticize his halakhic analysis (as a Sephardic Rabbi, I follow the view of Chief Sephardic Rishon Letsion HaRav Uzziel Z"L that it is permitted for women to serve in the government as democratically elected representatives). However, from a philosophical perspective, it is hard to overlook the connection between these media reports. After all, it stands to reason that Rav Aviner's view of women in general has exerted an influence on the way in which he has raised and educated his daughter. This, in turn, has undoubtedly contributed to the spiritual and emotional dilemma in which his daughter now finds herself.

There is little room for doubt that barring women from the world of Torah and denying them the opportunity to contribute their spiritual talents to our communities in some recognized capacity is a disservice to them. Truthfully, all of our daughters are at an innate disadvantage because of our failure or our tacit refusal to make room for them in our midst.

Precisely because of the fact that so many doors are open to women in our society and so many other options are made available to them, we cannot content ourselves with moving over a little so that they can squeeze in at the far end of someone else's bench. That's as good as saying "you can rest here temporarily but you're not really welcome here, find somewhere else to sit as soon as possible."

Instead, we must identify and sanctify a bona fide place for Orthodox Jewish women, a spiritual path and destination that belongs to them and that grants them the dignity of belonging, a goal for which they can yearn and an objective toward which they can strive.

Otherwise, the highly talented young women of this generation will find their potential both unacknowledged and unfulfilled and will feel themselves stifled, frustrated and shut out of our community. And if there is one lesson we can learn from the video, it is that, in the end, the Rabbis' daughters will suffer the most.


E. Fink said...

I was going to write this too.

But I left it out for a couple reasons.

1) I'm not sure it's correct that the daughter of a rabbi is not a "chashuv" position. The best bochurim seek out the daughters of great rabbis. So there is a quite a kavod to be the daughter of the rabbi. Also, they are honored and revered by their peers. It's not the same as for the boys, but it's not nothing.

2) I needed a break from women's issues.

It's definitely worth thinking about...

Pragmatician said...

The "best" bochurim often make the worst husband, so no perk at all I'd say.

ruvie said...

There is progress on this front. Just look at RAL's daughter - esti rosenberg. maggid shiur and rosh beit midrash at migdal oz. or is it the exception to the rule.

Charlie Hall said...

I haven't had time to view the video, so I'll refrain from commenting on it. But IIRC Rav Aviner also has prohibited women from learning gemara.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Rav Aviner has every right to his own halakhic opinions. I personally love his sefarim and have gained much knowledge and inspiration from him.