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.