Friday, October 19, 2012

Torah, Science and Women's Issues

In the latest post on Hirhurim, Rabbi Raphael Davidovich responds to Rabbi Broyde's recent article on Women's Torah reading with a basic ideological critique. He accuses Rabbi Broyde of essentially burying his head in the sand of halakhic minutiae rather than confronting the ideological and theological erosion taking place in Modern Orthodoxy right before his eyes.

While halakhic analysis of what is permitted or forbidden for women in the context of Orthodoxy is certainly welcome, Rabbi Davidovich argues that it sidesteps the more fundamental issue - namely, the fact that what many modern Orthodox Jews really have a problem with is not the specific halakhic parameters being followed but one of the foundational teachings of the Written and Oral Torah themselves.

 In other words, they are disputing, disparaging and dismissing the idea - codified and canonized in our tradition - that men and women are different and are, as a result, subject to different rules, regulations and obligations. Rabbi Davidovich brings much persuasive evidence for the fact that the Torah does, indeed, enshrine a very specific vision of men, women and their roles in society and in the world, as well as in their relationships with one another and with Hashem.

I have already weighed in on the issue of increased ritual participation for women. I strongly oppose it; I would much rather see increased Torah learning, tefillah, acts of kindess, and pursuit of justice among both men and women. Nevertheless, upon reflection, it became clear to me that the various rabbis weighing in on these issues are talking past one another. They are failing to directly address the underlying difficulty that lies beneath this entire  controversy and, in reality, comes between them. Without a head-on confrontation with this problem, their debates will never yield any fruitful conclusion.

Rabbi Davidovich astutely observes that there is much more at stake here than some particular halakhic ruling or another. Focusing on the halakhic issues is missing the forest for the trees. Despite the title and ostensible goal of his post, however, I don't think Rabbi Davidovich really succeeds in "refocusing the discussion". After all, what is the real substance of the dispute over women's status in Orthodoxy, what is the basis of this war raging between representatives of the Left, Right and Center of our movement?

I would argue that what we are in fact witnessing is another incarnation of the classic Torah-Science conflict. The Torah and Talmud present a vision of men and women, their relationships, societal roles, intellectual and emotional makeup, etc., that seemingly clashes with much of what modern civilization perceives, believes and teaches about these matters. There is a contradiction between what we know or have been taught by our tradition and what we see or experience with our senses. And as with any such Torah-Science conundrum, three rational responses are available to us.

One is to uphold the traditional viewpoint unquestioningly and to dismiss whatever external evidence appears to contradict it. The difficulty with this approach is well known: While it resolves the problem for all practical and theological purposes, it leaves us somewhat intellectually dissatisfied.

Granted, the Torah gives us an eternal, sacrosanct and absolute set of principles through which to understand males and females and their respective places in the world. And certainly, just as we can accept a straightforward reading of the Biblical Creation story on faith and remain skeptical of modern science, so too can we take refuge in our Divinely revealed tradition and derive much comfort, confidence and solace from it.

But how do we explain the odd fact that women today are scientists, doctors, lawyers, judges, etc.? How do we account for the reality that modern women seem more capable, intellectually sophisticated and emotionally independent than the Torah and Talmud would suggest? I don't know the answer to these questions, but I think it would be highly instructive were proponents of the  traditionalist approach like Rabbi Davidovich to provide some tentative responses to them.

The second option for dealing with this "Torah and Science" conflict, taken up by Rabbi Broyde and to a greater or lesser extent by many Left-of-Center Modern Orthodox rabbis,  is to find refuge not in the absolute theological teachings of the Torah but in the more flexible and neutral realm of halakha.

By working out compromise solutions that are halakhically defensible and socially acceptable, we can avoid confronting the deeper ideological problem that actually faces us. Rather than take sides on the question of the nature of women and their differences from men - specifically, rather than openly endorse the traditional or the modern view - we can cobble together practical strategies and public policies that foster compromise, quiet the protests and relieve us of the responsibility to tackle the weightier and more controversial matters at hand.

The third response available when we discover a conflict between Torah and Science or between theory and empirical data is to downplay or dismiss the former in favor of the latter. Some variation of this stance, which is highly troubling to those in the traditionalist camp, seems to be the one adopted by many of the advocates of Open Orthodoxy.

 While they do not reject the truth of the Torah or the authority of the Talmud, many proponents of Open Orthodoxy may question whether the teachings of the Talmud on scientific subjects, including the nature, emotional makeup, intellectual proclivities and societal role of women, carry the binding force of law, or whether, instead, they can be understood as reflecting the scientific and cultural views that were widely held at that point in history. As Rabbi Davidovich points out, their manner of framing the issues goes beyond quibbling about details of halakha - it represents a fundamental ideological parting-of-ways with much of Mainstream Orthodox thought on these matters.

Open Orthodox Rabbis see a world filled with female scientists, judges, world leaders, philosophers, etc., and reach the conclusion that we live in a different world than the ancients did. Just as they have set aside medicinal, astronomical and biological teachings of the Talmudic Sages in deference to today's scientific findings, so too have they set aside or at least augmented the beliefs about women that were current in Talmudic times and adopted more modern, egalitarian and liberal perspectives. They argue, in the spirit of the Gaonim, Maimonides and many others, that we are not obligated to accept the scientific and sociological statements recorded in the Talmud, just as we are not obligated to embrace the literal truth of its many Aggadic and homiletic passages.

There is a fourth option, of course, which would be to find some cogent, persuasive and theologically acceptable middle ground between these views, a way to integrate the truths of tradition with the facts on the ground. This might proceed along the same lines that some thinkers have proposed to reconcile the Torah's account of Genesis with modern cosmology and physics - not by choosing one over the other, not by declaring one version right the other wrong, but by creatively reinterpreting the two as somehow complementary, understanding them as two sides of the same coin.

As I said, I don't have a definite answer to the questions I have raised here. The objective of this post was not to settle any disputes as much as it was to reframe the discussion as yet another instance of the classic Torah-Science conflict.

Not all cases of apparent dissonance between traditional belief and empirical science need to be resolved in precisely the same way. Each genuine or apparent difficulty must be evaluated on its own merits before a conclusion is reached.

 However, in order for meaningful discussion to be had, and in order for our global conversation to move forward, we must address the philosophical or ideological issue of the nature and role of women in Judaism as if it were a real or apparent contradiction between Torah and science.

Our responses, whenever and however we formulate them, should confront this fundamental source of tension dead-on and should include a clear explanation of how we interpret it and propose to resolve it.


Eric said...

Nice post. Your categories are reminiscent of Rambam's three approaches to aggadah - those who accept the words of Chazal without reservation, those who accept the words of philosophy without reservation, and the last "group" which tries to synthesize between the two. Your group that uses halachic arguments as separate from extra-halachic concerns seems forced. I suspect that most of the people in this camp would actually fall more neatly into the Chazal-only or the synthesis group (and might just be afraid to commit to one or the other for other reasons). In my mind (from his written work) R. Broyde is in the synthesis group and not for drawing a distinction between "dry" halacha and what society is willing to tolerate.

Also, I'm not sure I would use "Torah-science" to describe Judaism's conflict with society's increasing equality of women in all spheres. Something like Torah-Mada or Torah-Derech Eretz would be more appropriate, although those have also come to signify something very different than what I think you refer to. We are talking about societal conventions (which change by definition) here and not scientific fact (which should be timeless although clearly there are paradigm shifts in how we perceive it). Thus, a priori, the capacity for change in women's roles seems much more flexible both halachically and hashkafically than killing lice or saving an eight month old fetus. Or do you claim that Chazal thought that women were inherently intellectually inferior and incapable of ritual performance and now we know otherwise (provide source)?

RGT said...

"he Torah gives us an eternal, sacrosanct and absolute set of principles through which to understand males and females and their respective places in the world."

can you elucidate with details of the set of principles and their respective places?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

My point is that I agree with Rabbi Davidovich that halakhic analyses like the one provided by Rabbi Broyde do not address the deeper ideological factors at play, at least not openly.

I don't think that the Talmud's discussions of women were meant as nothing more than commentary on social mores or conventions that have now changed.

I think they were intended as statements about some objective reality. Whether they were meant to represent eternal tradition and are therefore binding positions or they were the products of the Sages' own musings on the subject, possibly informed by the cultural and/or scientific opinions of their day, is the question at hand, I believe.

ksil said...

only strong leaders and brave men (yes, men, unfort) will step up and reinterpret the torah and our tradition to fit with current modern thinking.

lakewood and boro park (and broyde and maroof) can stick their feet in the mud and not move, but the world, and this religion, will pass them by.

Anonymous said...

Ksil - what a fitting screen name.

RGT said...

RMJ - "I think they were intended as statements about some objective reality..."

can you state what they are and if not why not. can you describe a coherent meta halachik guideline that if tested by history would be usable ? that would add to the discussion otherwise were are we? and lastly , why can't some of chazal's statements be eternal and some not - why either or. chazal and others seem to have the fluidity and flexibility to seems to be missing at times today. OTOH, it has to be based on the sources otherwise we are left with no mesora.

Charlie Hall said...

"the Torah gives us an eternal, sacrosanct and absolute set of principles through which to understand males and females and their respective places in the world"

There are only about a dozen mitzvot from the Torah in which men are chiyuv and women are patur. There are far more differences in the levels of obligation between Kohanim and Yisraelim, yet nobody claims that there are eternal sacrosanct priciples for that distinction! And for most of these dozen or so mitzvot, women (at least in Ashkenazic practice) are encouraged to take them on and recite the blessings beforehand. Womens' sections tend to be packed on Rosh Hashanah for the blowing of the shofar. This is a pretty thin thread on which to build a Theology of the Differences Between Men and Women.

"The third response available when we discover a conflict between Torah and Science or between theory and empirical data is to downplay or dismiss the former in favor of the latter. Some variation of this stance, which is highly troubling to those in the traditionalist camp, seems to be the one adopted by many of the advocates of Open Orthodoxy."

I find the rejection of empirical data to be troubling. And this should particularly true in a religion such as Judaism that relies on empirical observation! (Has the sun set? Does the animal have the kosher signs?....)

"They argue, in the spirit of the Gaonim, Maimonides and many others, that we are not obligated to accept the scientific and sociological statements recorded in the Talmud, just as we are not obligated to embrace the literal truth of its many Aggadic and homiletic passages."

The Gaonim and Rambam were Open Orthodox? I would never have known! ;)

" a way to integrate the truths of tradition with the facts on the ground"

Rabbi Avraham Ben HaRambam addresses this in his famous essay that is now used as the preface to *Ein Yaakov*.

"I don't think that the Talmud's discussions of women were meant as nothing more than commentary on social mores or conventions that have now changed."

Unclear to me. For one thing, we do have in our history a female judge, numerous female prophets, a female ruling monarch, and a female tanna. WADR, those are all much more important roles than 'Tabbi'. ;). So it is clear that in at least some circumstances women can perform some public leadership roles (and quite well).

Did Chazal see their assessments of natural and social science as infallible? Certainly not the former. And I find it much easier to explain difficult sections of the Talmud by simply concluding that Chazal did the best they could do with the limited methodology of their time. Ditto the Gaonim and Rishonim. I object both to ascribing supernatural powers to the authors of the Talmud and also to the nihilistic POV that they can be ignored because they were not perfect, chas v'shalom!

Charlie Hall said...

One more thing about why I find the halachic approach so appealing: The essence of being a Torah Jew is the experience of being commanded -- in almost every aspect of life. The philosophical arguments regarding the differences between men and women do not require that framework, and in fact prominent thinkers of other religions make pretty much the same kinds of arguments. I would think that an argument that is unique to rabbinic Judaism ought to be given more credence than one that Christians have been making!

RD said...

I don't think a Jewish ideal, to be found in dozens of pesukim and dozens of halachos, can or should be discarded because similar arguments (I am unfamiliar with) are to be found in other religions. If anything, the current burden of proof regarding authenticity rests upon those who are seeking to change the paradigm.

Eric said...

>I don't think that the Talmud's
>discussions of women were meant as
>nothing more than commentary on
>social mores or conventions that
>have now changed.

I agree with you - they have not changed now - they are continually changing.

Look at Sifra Metzora 9:12 (brought by Moshe Halbertal in one of his books)

"והדוה בנדתה" - The original elders would say, let her be in her niddah - she should not wear make-up until she immerses in a mikve. Until R. Akiva came and learned, the matter will come to animosity and he will divorce her. How do I fulfill "והדוה בנדתה"? She remains a niddah until she immerses.

Leaving aside the issue of flexibility of drashos - there seems to be a changing of mores. The elders saw niddah as a time of distance and required her to be without make-up. Rabbi Akiva was able to fulfill the pasuk's dictate in another way, thus avoiding an undesirable situation. I don't think R. Akiva is innovating a law here, he is taking the verse which implies that niddah is pervasive and connecting it to the fact that the woman remains niddah until she immerses.

There are many sources in Chazal themselves that suggest that they were willing to "change with the times" when the need arose. I find it interesting that Chazal were willing to interpret Biblical verses differently when the need arose, yet many in our generation are unwilling to interpret Chazal's pronouncements when the need arises.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...


That doesn't seem like a very persuasive example. Rabbi Aqiva and the Elders are arguing about how much distance between a husband and wife should be rabbinically mandated during the period of niddah. It has nothing to do with their substantive understanding of what niddah is; rather, it is a dispute about how to balance the separation with the value of Shalom Bayit.

Eric said...

The idea is that the social convention at the time of the elders (and probably in the Biblical period as seen in the example of Lavan stopping his search for the terafim when learning that Rachel is niddah) is that a woman who is niddah should "look the part" and not adorn herself.

The social convention at the time of R. Akiva (I don't think you would argue that this is personal taste) is that a woman should look appealing to her husband at all times. This would be a change in social conventions which leads to a change in halacha - the first elders were likely not contemporaneous with R. Akiva so it's not an argument - it's a change.

According to your understanding would it be fair to say: giving women aliyot on ST has nothing to do with our understanding of what Simchat Torah or Kriyat Hatorah is, rather it is a dispute of how to balance the separation of gender roles with expressing love for the Torah?

David said...

Of course the nature of men is also different. The decent, caring men we try to raise now, would not, to give an example of R' Akiva above, become hostile because their wives aren't wearing make-up. So a lot of this is cultural and can change. but certainly the statements about what women are actually capable of is a scientific statement as much as whether elephants can jump and then this is all reminiscent of Natan Slifkin's Torah and Science. However, even if you get rid of the g'mara's statements this way, you still have to deal with tora law as opposed to rabbinic. I guess that could also be cultural -- that very few women they knew were ever educated and raised to be capable of judging, but this seems difficult in light of the strong women in tana"kh. It must be remembered that the only reaosn that the g'mara really discusses women (well not the only, but the most relevant) is to explain why they can't be witnesses or judges etc., which was an old tradition the orthodox among us would probably say went all the way back. So if we reject their reasons about women, as we reject why lice are allowed to be killed on shabat, then we need to come up with another solution, as we did with lice.