Friday, February 1, 2008

Hugely Significant Strides

Remember President Taft? Didn't think so. Most people have never heard of him, even tho he was the President of the United States less than a hundred years ago (slightly less). 90 years from now no-one will remember Bill Clinton, either, unless for the women in his life: he'll be remembered for that one lie he brazenly told us all about one woman, or, if he's lucky, he'll be remembered as the fellow whose presidency didn't hurt his wife towards becoming the first woman to be president. No one will remember Ehud Olmert at all.

What will be remembered and noticed is that we're living in one of the most dramatic moments in the story of the Jews, and one of the more dramatic threads of the story is the sea change in the position of women in Judaism.

Shmuel Rosner posts some links on this subject here, the more significant of them being this article, written by one Samantha M. Shapiro at Slate. The flurry of articles and responses surrounds a decision by the Hartman Institute to begin ordaining women as orthodox rabbis, or at least sort of rabbis. Now, the Hartman Institute people like to regard themselves as a religious vanguard, while many of their numerous detractors have long since written them off as a curiosity. It's about 50 years too early, at the moment, to say who's right. But in this case, the Hartman people are clearly on to something, namely the complete centrality of learning as the kingpin of the issue.

There is no single institution in Judaism more important than the house of learning. Synagogues are all well and fine; most synagogues in Israel (which means, I expect, most synagogues in the world) don't even have a salaried Rabbi in the American meaning of the term. But what the congregants do have, are rabbis they respect and learn from. And in the past 25 years or so, a growing number of orthodox women have begun putting ever greater effort into acquiring a high degree of proficiency in Jewish learning -or, put more simply, they're becoming scholars. Given the unalterable fact that even exceptionally brilliant men require 50-60 years of learning before they can become important talmidei chachamim - scholars in Jewish learning - this means that there are not yet any really important women scholars. But since women as a group are no less intelligent than men as a group (I'm being careful here), the statistics would indicate that within a generation or two there will be orthodox women scholars of such a stature that the old world will be washed away, at least at some significant points.

This tendency will be greatly re-enforced by the fact that in the surrounding world women are almost there. No orthodox man would hesitate to be cured by a woman physician because of her gender, and so on. Once the person with the best ability to reason halachically just happens to be a woman, the ancient self-evident structures will change.

1 comment:

Lydia McGrew said...

Women and men have the same mean IQ, but men are over-represented both at the high end and at the low end. That is why men are overrepresented both in physics departments and in prisons! (No one ever complains about the second of those.) As far as sheer ability, I have no doubt that there could easily be individual women who would have the ability to be excellent Talmud scholars. However, and setting aside various cultural factors altogether, since Talmud scholarship is (I would guess) a high-end-of-the-curve activity, there will very likely be notably _fewer_ such women than men.