“You’ve come a long way, baby” is the slogan coined by the Leo Burnett Agency in 1968 for a thinner, more feminine smoke produced by the Phillip Morris Company for the Virginia Slims brand cigarette. The campaign was unusually successful in marketing cigarettes by tickling a soft spot on the American psyche that was celebrating the advent of feminism.
The Jewish world in general and the Orthodox Jewish world in particular often follow the leads of its host society albeit at a much slower pace. It is not by accident that 300 years later and 380 kilometers away from Martin Luther’s Reformation came forth Israel Jacobson’s Reform Judaism. It is also not surprising that 100 years after the French Revolution that paved the way for Nationalism to sweep through Europe Theodor Herzl published Der Judenstaat, exclaiming that Jews should return to their national homeland, Israel. In our time, taking the lead from the Episcopal Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the liberal streams of Judaism, a fringe element of the Orthodox community has announced the long-time coming and arrival of female Orthodox clergy. This is the latest example of absorbing the ways of our surroundings.
The Jewish world has always had female leaders: from Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah and Devorah the prophetess until today. Three outstanding representatives of true Orthodox Jewish Leadership in modern times have been Sarah Schenirer z”l, Nechama Leibowitz z”l and Y”LT Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis. Long before modern-day clerical feminist aspirations took root, Sarah Schenirer established a girls school in 1917 for 25 children that by the eve of WWII blossomed into 250 schools with over 40,000 students. Today her legacy continues with over 125 Beis Yaakov schools and seminaries that are producing the wholesome and dedicated future mothers of Israel. In 1930, Professor Liebowitz attained her doctorate, in 1956 she was awarded the Israel Prize for furthering our understanding of Tanach, and in 1983 she received the Bialik Prize for Jewish Thought. She was a trailblazing yet soft-spoken scholar par excellence who taught men and women her breadth, knowledge and insights into Torah. Finally, Rebbetzin Jungreis is a current modern-day Orthodox female leader (may she have a refuah shleimah). She mothered the outreach organization Hineni in 1973 that has brought thousands closer to Torah Judaism. She has spoken and written on Torah and Judaism for decades, influencing Jews and non-Jews worldwide. The common denominator between all three is that they studied, taught, lectured and led our nation as proud Orthodox Jewish women without great controversy or riding the isms of the day.
Orthodox Jews crave true Jewish leadership, male and female. Everyone knows that alongside any successful rabbi is a smart, pleasant and powerful rebbetzin. In America today there are hundreds and hundreds of outstanding Orthodox rebbetzins that already lead, counsel, teach and inspire. There are also hundreds if not thousands of outstanding Orthodox female educators who are not rebbetzins. The current cry for parity and equality in religious title is just the latest echo from our host culture seeping into the less-fortified souls of our people. I wonder what will be next?
Not too many women are smoking Virginia Slims cigarettes these days. Herzl’s Der Judenstaat is rarely, if ever, quoted on the Knesset floor. History has always and will certainly filter out untruths. Our Torah and its teachings are eternal and transcend any and all isms throughout the ages.
Who needs Orthodox women leaders? We do–like Sarah Schenirer z”l, Nechama Leibowitz z”l and Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis who proudly and prominently taught inspiring Torah and Orthodox Judaism creatively, but have carefully maintained the Mesorah bequeathed unto them by their fathers and mothers, and have done everything in their power to inspire us to carry the true torch of Torah forward. Let’s learn from our true leaders.
By Rabbi Ephraim Epstein, Congregation Sons of Israel, Cherry Hill