“Extol Her for the Fruit of Her Hand”: An Alternative Perspective on Female Leadership

As the drive for formal women’s religious leadership continues to manifest itself with greater force and momentum in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community, one senses an opportunity. Here is a chance to celebrate women, to show how we value contemporary women’s voices and perspectives, as well as unsung female leaders of the past who influenced the course of Jewish history both directly and indirectly. Yet, instead of this movement for female leadership expanding our collective sense of the many forms leadership can take, we are asked to view events through the paradigm of victory or frustration: a woman has been assigned this or that position, or such a position has been denied or declared off limits. These milestones may in fact have some significance, but there is also something retrograde about a religious conversation that places so much stock in the acquisition of titles and authority. Although great leaders are identified and praised in the Jewish tradition, most of them male and some female as well, in many cases their authority is interrogated, critiqued and ultimately viewed as besides the point. In stark contrast to the epic heroes of other traditions, Jewish heroes, even as they achieve external greatness, are praised for their humility and devotion to God. Some may say, first give a woman a seat at the table, and then we can begin the conversation about the quality or texture of her particular leadership. Or some might contend that female Jewish leaders would not be prone to the same foibles that plague traditional male authorities, rendering our tradition’s critiques of those foibles irrelevant. Yet, the ways in  which we discuss this issue as a community matter, and a singular focus on giving women greater formal authority, even within the realm of Torah, is profoundly lacking from a religious point of view.

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