Friday, May 28, 2010

The Role of Women: This Week's Brouhaha

This week, the yishuv of Eilon Moreh conducted municipal elections to pick a "secretary." To keep keep things straight, "secretary" in this context is the head of the yishuv, involved in everything from construction to garbage collection to social programming. During the buildup to the election, a woman in the yishuv approached the rav, Rav Elyakim Levanon, wondering whether he felt that she should run for the position, as she felt that she had energy and passion that could benefit her fellow residents. Rav Levanon, in an answer that he published in the local Shabbat newsletter, answered, "No" (using the language that it's אינו ראוי - "not appropriate") for two reasons: first of all, a woman should not be appointed to a position of שררה - or "dominion"; in addition, because municipal meetings last until all hours of the night, these types of meetings could lead to all sorts of issues of modesty and inappropriate interaction between the sexes.
When women's groups (and the Israeli secular media) learned about Rav Levanon's opinion, the firestorm truly erupted. Sure, you can get a small sense of it from the English article on Ynet on this issue, (see also here, where Rav Dor Lior, rav of Kiryat Arba comes to the aid of Rav Levanon, and adds that violence among youth stems from the fact that mothers work outside the home. Ouch.) but when you look at the Hebrew press, it's "full-court press." (Get the pun?) And it's not just left-wing women's groups that are outraged. The head of Emunah Women, not known for it's liberalism, bitterly attacked Rav Levanon's decision.
What's going on? A number of things at the same time.
First of all, we need to put things into perspective. Rav Levanon is the head of a small, very religious yishuv, where people specifically move in order to live a certain way of life. He didn't issue his opinion for Tel Aviv, but for Elon Moreh. If you've ever been there, especially during the "hard" years when residents were getting killed on the roads to and from Elon Moreh at an alarming clip, you'd understand the unique nature of the typical Elon Moreh resident and the type of life that he or she wishes to lead. The woman who asked Rav Levanon the question wasn't upset by the answer. She genuinely wanted his opinion, and respected his candid response. If she wanted to run anyway, no one could or would have stopped her.
Secondly, Rav Levanon articulated Torah values. There is an issue of serarah in halachah with regard to women in leadership positions. The fact that many modern poskim allow women to hold leadership positions doesn't make that ideal, and certainly doesn't compel every rabbi to agree with them.
But I think that there's a larger issue lurking slightly below the surface. Rabbanim like Rav Levanon and Rav Lior really represent the leadership of the Religious Zionist community - or at least the right-wing of that community. Halachic opinions such as these raise the (I think well-founded) fear that these leaders have veered so far to the right that it's impossible to tell the difference between Religious Zionism and Hareidi Judaism anymore.
And, as opposed to the residents of the yishuvim (and especially the more right-wing yishuvim), who have no problem with this trend, many middle of the road Religious Zionists wonder: if they no longer have these great rabbis to follow, who will they have to lead them?