Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Courage of One's Convictions

I don’t believe anyone can say with certainty who first said of someone else that he or she had the courage of his or her convictions. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms says the expression first entered English in the mid-1800s as being about people who maintained the courage of their opinions—it was apparently a direct translation of the parallel French expression—and then, perhaps just because it sounded so much better, the opinions in question somehow morphed into convictions and so was born one of those overused expressions that people suppose must just always have been part of the English language. But overused or not as an expression, the concept itself strikes me as not being worn out at all. Just to the contrary, actually. I’ve written a lot just lately about the concept of heroes—about people like Miep Gies or Rosa Parks or Nofrat Frenkel who risked arrest and serious personal loss for the sake of standing up (or in Rosa Parks’ case, sitting down) for what they believed to be right and just—and it strikes me now that I consider the matter that what all the people I think of as being truly heroic figures have in common is precisely that it could easily be said of them all that they were unable, or at least unwilling, not to maintain the courage of their own convictions even, or perhaps especially, when the going got truly tough.

It sounds so much easier to do than it actually ever is in the context of real life! Nor does it invariably end up well for such people—we celebrate endlessly the Ghandis of this world who struggle to maintain their own moral bearing in the face of brutal opposition, but rarely hear about those who finally are crushed by the very system they felt morally bound to oppose. Is having the courage of one’s own convictions its own reward? I suppose that in the end it has to be: what you get for not crumbling when challenged to betray your own beliefs is that you get to go to sleep that night untroubled about the strength of your own character. That sounds like a pretty good deal to me! And yet, if that is true (and, really, how can it not be?), then why exactly is it so difficult to remain faithful to ideals you actually do hold dear?

I’ve been reading this week about the scandal surrounding Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a large Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx. Rabbi Weiss, who has been a thorn in the side of the Orthodox establishment for many years and in many different ways, outdid himself considerably in terms of raising the ante by establishing a yeshivah last May in which he intended to ordain women not precisely as rabbis but rather as spiritual leaders virtually indistinguishable from rabbis who were intended instead to use the title Maharat, an acronym for the Hebrew words that mean something like “spiritual leader of Torah and halachah.” A woman, Sara Hurwitz, eventually graduated the program and was awarded that title, but now Rabbi Weiss, prompted by his realization that the title Maharat was too much of a mouthful ever really to catch on, has announced that henceforth Maharat Hurwitz will simply be called by the title Rabbah, a kind of feminine equivalent of the Hebrew word for rabbi.

Why Sara Hurwitz can’t just be a rabbi is a different question, one rooted in Rabbi Weiss’ interest in pushing the envelope only so far as it can be pushed without creating an unbridgeable chasm between himself and the more traditional end of the Orthodox world. (The term rabbah, by the way, is used in our masorti circles in Israel as the Hebrew word for a female rabbi. But female masorti rabbis are invariably called “rabbi” in English, not rabbah, precisely to stress that they are rabbis in the same sense that our male colleagues are.) Rabbi Weiss may seriously have miscalculated, however, in that the response has been scathing even by the standards of the people Rabbi Weiss is trying not totally to alienate. The Agudath Israel, an organization of haredi rabbis, denounced the decision as “a radical and dangerous departure” from Jewish tradition and declared that any synagogue that hires a woman in any sort of rabbinic role in so doing gives up its right to be considered Orthodox. The Jewish Week reported that the Rabbinical Council of America, the international organization of modern Orthodox rabbis, was considering cancelling Rabbi Weiss’ membership. (You can read more about that at If you google “Weiss-rabbah-Riverdale,” you’ll find people calling for Rabbi Weiss not solely to be kicked out of his professional organization but actually excommunicated. Even for someone like myself who browses these sites all the time, I found the language used to condemn Rabbi Weiss to be shocking in terms of its shrillness and its vituperation.

Sitting on the sidelines as someone with no ties of any formal sort to that world, it’s easy to be smug. We, after all, have been ordaining women within our Conservative movement for almost a quarter-century. And we have not felt the need to invent some alternate title to describe qualified women who join the rabbinate so as specifically to avoid calling them by the title they have earned and to which they are thus formally entitled. But our growth towards the eradication of illogical gender bias has not been as forthright or as direct as many would prefer to imagine. For years, our scholars poured over medieval law codes to find some precedent, no matter how slight, for calling women to the Torah. Eventually, they found one too—an obscure reference in an obscure book to an obscure medieval French rabbi of whom it was obscurely said that he (possibly) allowed women to come forward for aliyot to the Torah in his synagogue—and upon that most slender of threads was hung what should have been a moral decision in the first place based on the fact that irrational discrimination is morally unjust and should invariably be set aside. A similarly elaborate effort went into the decision to count women in a minyan or to allow women to sign a ketubbah as the witnesses at a wedding. But all of that paled in comparison to the years of debate that led to the decision at JTS finally to ordain its first women rabbi in 1985. Specifically not choosing to frame the issue in moral terms, the decision was rooted instead in an elaborate halachic compromise based on the discovery that it could theoretically be possible to be physically female yet halachically male. (For the uninitiated, halachah is the Hebrew word for Jewish law. The adjective “halachic” is used to mean “in accordance with halachah.”) In other words, it could just as correctly be said that the decision at JTS in 1985 was actually not to ordain women, or at least not to ordain women who chose to remain faithful to the traditional strictures delimiting women’s participation in ritual life, but instead to focus on a candidate’s willingness to accept the obligations traditionally understood to rest upon men regardless of that candidate’s anatomical or physiological gender, thus creating some sort of weird hybrid of legally male rabbis housed in physically female bodies. To say the least, it was not our finest hour. Preferring that sort of legalistic legerdemain to clear moral reasoning did not do us proud, nor does it matter much to me that this compromise, which I believe remains in effect de jure, is today widely (and wisely) ignored by all or most concerned parties.

Of course, having the forceful courage of one’s own convictions does not make right or good anything at all that anyone believes forcefully because the concept rests on the supposition that the convictions in play are themselves morally defensible and not merely passionately maintained. And it is surely so that many of those who the most bitterly oppose Rabbi Weiss’ decision to ordain Sara Hurwitz as a rabbah would argue in precisely that vein that the concept in play is not whether Avi Weiss is a moral individual possessed of the courage to live by his own convictions but whether his basic assumption—that there is something morally indefensible about denying someone the fruits of her own labor merely because of her gender—is itself seriously flawed. That society as a whole appears almost fully to have accepted the distinction between rational and irrational gender bias—and so permits gender-restricted locker rooms and hospital wards, but not gender-restricted country clubs or professional organizations—seems not to carry any weight with these people. But, in the end, it is they—the people who so hate Avi Weiss—who have failed to understand that the effort to balance fidelity to tradition with the moral imperative is at the very core of Jewishness. Indeed, trying to negotiate a path of integrity between the obligation every Jewish person must feel to embrace as sacred the word of God as revealed in the Torah and the parallel obligation to hear the word of God as spoken directly and distinctly to every human being willing to open his or her ears to the communicative presence of the divine in our midst—that is the definition of Jewishness that I find the most compelling and the most attractive. That we in the Conservative movement have adopted this as one of our foundational principles speaks, I think, well for us. That we have occasionally allowed ourselves to look away from that principle, less so. But the bottom line has to be that we see the path forward guided by the twin obligations to be traditionally faithful and morally just. And that, in the end, has to be the determining factor in justifying our right to success as a movement and as a legitimate philosophy of Judaism.

What the future will bring for Avi Weiss, who knows? If he is finally ejected from the RCA, I believe it will in the long run hurt them more than him. And no matter how much opprobrium they bring down on him simply for having tried to be just and fair, the more important point in evaluating the larger implications of this whole rabbah affair will have to be the moral reasonableness of Rabbi Weiss’ actions. If the powers that control Orthodoxy determine that there is no place for a man such as Avi Weiss in their world, then there will surely be a place for him in ours.

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