By Rabbi Steve Pruzansky
This essay, written by a teenage girl and now several years old, came to my attention recently. It is a window into a certain part of our world, but a darkly-tinted, grotesquely-distorted window. Here are relevant excerpts:
“The service ends and one of the boys rises and begins to dole out aliyot for the boys to read next week: “Who will be here next week?” he asks. (I will.) “Who can layn?” (I can.) “Who wants shlishi (the third aliyah)?” (I do.) “OK, great, we’re done. Who wants to say Kiddush?” (Me.) None of these silent cries for religious participation are ever heard, of course, and kiddush is served without anyone wondering why the ratio for guys to girls is almost three to one.
What I don’t understand – it really does baffle me – is how we call ourselves Modern Orthodox. This patriarchal design we call a religious experience is not reflective of modern society; it’s as anachronistic as possible. The few allowances-the girls’ dvar Torah and the prayer for the State of Israel-take some of the sting out of the experience of invisibility, yet I still find myself perpetually irked. The caging restrictions are conducive to the small number girls present – why come when you mean nothing to the service? …….
I know in my case certainly, and in the cases of many of my female peers, that this is an age where we will either fall into religion – or out. Thus I really don’t know how we can call ourselves Modern Orthodox and let every teenage girl grow up with no interest or opportunity and condone rabbinic indifference.
In modern society, we have women’s suffrage – women vote, women run organizations and women speak in public. So why should it be that suddenly the shul is the only area where women are denied such rights? When girls live in a time where gender roles are being demolished, no one associated with such modernity is going to want to connect to religion. As members of Modern Orthodoxy, we care so much about not upsetting the boundaries set up by the other more stringent sects of religions that we lose ourselves – and our girls……
Does anyone realize that if this keeps up, there will be no future movement because there will be no girls who know or care about any of this religion – and that it is your fault, Modern Orthodox society, not ours!”
I do hope in the ensuing years she has made peace with G-d’s Torah, but I assume there are others who have not (I pray not too many). We have to excuse the narcissism, the self-centeredness, of her generation; they were raised being told that they were all “special,” and they actually believe it. Life has not yet taught them that if everyone is “special,” then no one is special. That mistaken proposition also ignores the truism that “specialness” is earned by some unique ability or contribution to society, not acquired merely by virtue of respiration and ambulation.
I hope as well that she learns the meaning of Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim – the acceptance of the yoke of G-d’s kingship – a recognition that we are just servants of the Master, and not in a position to dictate to the Master what we think His Torah should decree, or else. As Rachel Fraenkel, for whose son’s freedom, and his two friends, we pray daily, said this past week: “G-d is not our employee.” We don’t get to prescribe to G-d how He is to be worshipped. And it is the implicit threat – “if I don’t get my feminist way, I will take my toys and go elsewhere”- that is so off-putting. But, again, that can be attributed to youth and an overestimation of the self. Perhaps she will outgrow it – but not if she does not receive guidance from her mentors.
And here’s the most troubling aspect of her writings, for which she is not at all to blame. In all her years of “Modern Orthodox” education, hasn’t there been even one person – parent, teacher, rabbi – who taught her that a shul is different, indeed, that Judaism is different, because its value system is not premised on nor beholden to the values of the modern non-Jewish society? Has she never been taught that Judaism has its own divinely-based system, and we do not judge the worth of that system or its precepts by measuring it against the prevailing mores of the rest of the world?
Is it too much to expect that a yeshiva or day school – wherever, and run by whomever – should at some point introduce the notion to its students that the Torah, both written and oral, is of divine origin; that there is a Mesorah that has guided Jewish life since Sinai; that its values represent the Divine will and were given to us to provide us with the means to actualize our human potential and live fulfilling lives as divine servants? Is that too much to ask for $20,000 per year?
That is the biggest failing in her education, and that of her like-minded friends. We have to ask ourselves what is happening in these communities that children are not taught that, or that Rabbis are not preaching that when necessary. And why not. What is the fear or hesitation?
Obviously, those in the camp of the discontented have an a priori conception of what Judaism should be – even what Modern Orthodoxy should be – that bears little relation to what it actually is. Here’s a news flash: there is a system that was entrusted to us in which we are mandated to both observe its laws as the faithful and preserve it as the guardians for future generations. A Torah that changes with the times to conform to modern sensibilities is not only not divine but also not worthy of preservation. It could not – and should not have survived – the Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Christians, the Muslims and a host of others. (Indeed, the values of modern America are uncannily similar to those of ancient Rome in its decadence, to a great extent in its emptiness and its yearning for distractions from real life – World Cup? Who cares! – and even in the decay that has already set in.) What does any of that have to do with Judaism, and why would we want to import the failures of Western morals into our system, even if we could?
There is “unfairness” in the world with which we all must reckon in shul, in the workplace, and in life. For example, in baseball, a batter is out after three strikes, but takes first base after four balls. Unfair!! That gives the advantage to the pitcher and should be unacceptable to any thinking egalitarian. Why should the pitcher be advantaged? Alas, that is the system of baseball. We either accept the system or create a new game. Why is this so complicated?
It is further troubling that our young writer perceives Modern Orthodoxy as inherently capable of deviating from the Mesorah in order to accommodate her personal needs, or else it must be construed as hostage to the “stringent sects of religions” that clearly have no appeal to her. But a Modern Orthodoxy in which the veneer of ritual is superimposed on a degenerate lifestyle – as in the yarmulke-wearing off-color young comedian who recently appeared on American television, clearly clueless as to the boundaries of propriety in Jewish life – is less orthodox than it is modern, and in the worst sense of the term “modern.” Young girls who obsess over Tefillin and ignore the strictures of tzniut are really living in a different reality and have abandoned the pretense of serving G-d in favor of self-worship. One might as well daven in front of a mirror.
Indeed, Torah Judaism, modern or otherwise, is “not reflective of modern society.” That is to be celebrated, not lamented, for that is the whole point. We wouldn’t need the Torah if we could determine how to live – what G-d expects from us – by reading “The Feminine Mystique” or some female teen magazine. That is what is unique about Judaism and Jews. And so her explicit threat – if she and her friends are not accommodated, they will opt out – leaves me sad but also detached. I think of what Queen Esther was told by Mordechai at a critical moment in Jewish history and paraphrase it here: if indeed you want to establish your own religion or your own version of Judaism because you find the Torah unsatisfying at present, good luck with that. “Relief and salvation will come to the Jews from some other place, and you and your father’s house will be lost” (Esther 4:14). It has happened before; indeed, it has happened in every generation since Sinai. It is your choice whether or not you want it to happen to you.
Consider this not the “rabbinic indifference” that you castigate but the rabbinic truth to which you have apparently never been exposed. The answer to your complaints is intellectually straightforward even if it is emotionally unappealing to you. Orthodoxies that pander to the masses are not orthodoxies, even if they claim the name for themselves. Orthodoxies that have fluid belief systems are oxymorons with short shelf lives. The embrace of leftist political doctrine has already permeated the newest attempt to reform Orthodoxy, and with predictable results. That decline has already started, as the Torah faithful have retrenched and defined what is inside and/or outside the Mesorah. That flash in the pan is already fading, despite the repeated hoopla in the media.
I would not worry at all whether there is a future for Torah; that is guaranteed.
I would only worry whether you and those like you will be part of that future.