9.20.2006

Woman heads up Islamic Society of North America and Where are the Jews?

Interesting article in today's New York Times. I'm not sure why it was in the Metro section, since the appointment was announced in Chicago sometime "this month."

The appointment was only minorly controversial, it seems, and the issue might have been as much about her ethnicity as about her femaleness. (In addition to being the first female president, she is also the first non-immigrant president of the Society.) That is, some felt that the Islamic Society of North America should not feel that it has to appoint a native, white North American to this position in order to integrate Islam into North American life and to take away the stigma of terrorism. Someone in the article was quoted as saying, "'Somehow there is the feeling that someone who is white is safer and less scary,'" and that shouldn't be so.

As far as her gender and sex go, "Some naysayers grumble that a woman should not head any Muslim organization because the faith bars women from leading men in congregational prayers, but they are a distinct minority." That is promising. I was glad to hear it. I think she was helped by the fact that she had been a or the vice president for five years before she became the president, and she is a respected academic in Islamic Studies.

Not surprisingly, this is also a question in the Jewish community, and not only the Orthodox community. In the Orthodox community, the question arises: Can women serve as leaders, if they cannot lead prayers or be ordained as rabbis? KOE gave one answer. Some people didn't like it.

There is, some say, an issue of modesty that prevents women from being leaders even when there is no issue of knowledge or chayavut (halachic obligation) in mitzvot. This is the only argument I know of that prevents women from being presidents of congregations. I believe that a shul cannot be part of the Young Israel movement unless it specifically prohibits women from becoming the shul president. In pre-state Israel (i.e., Palestine), the question was raised, I believe by Rav Kook, about whether women should be able to vote in the Jewish state, or if they should "vote" through their husbands' or fathers' votes. Clearly, we have a ways to go before a woman will be even a national lay leader of the Orthodox Union or of the Agudah (who are so frum they don't even seem to have a website). In terms of their paid staff, women are: Associate Director of Financial Resources Development, Director of YACHAD, Director of Human Resources, and Deputy Director to the Executive Vice President for Community Planning.

This problem is not limited to the non-ordaining-women segments of the Jewish community. This troubles me greatly. Orthodoxy, across all of its sub-segments, has institutionalized sexism,1 but for the movements that claim not to, what's taking so long? It is a big problem at the Federation level, where leadership is not even religious in nature (it's communal). Shifra Bronznick's Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community is trying to rectify this, but I'm not sure how far they've gotten. Here is more information about who they are and what they do (or possibly don't do). I haven't heard much from or about them since they released a report in 2004 showing that women are very underrepresented in positions of leadership in the Jewish community.

The 2004 UJC/AWP report focused on the Federation, but I think it's equally true at other Jewish communal institutions and in the world of Jewish education, where men tend to be the principals, deans, etc., even though at the lower levels, it is mostly women who do the teaching. Again, leaving the Orthodox world aside for the time-being, are there women deans, chancellors, presidents of the CCAR, URJ, HUC, JTS, or UJ? I'm actually asking that because I don't know the answer.

All this grumbling about the imperfect state of our world means is that there is still a lot of good work to be done. Thank God.

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1. I don't think that authentic Judaism (however you want to define that) or halacha require institutionalized sexism to the extent that it is prevalent in Orthodoxy today. On good days, when I'm not totally disgusted with or apathetic towards the state of Orthodox Judaism today, I think you can create equal learning opportunities for girls and women, you can teach tsniyut in ways that don't equate women's bodies with shame, and you can provide opportunities for women to daven in a spiritually-uplifting and religiously-meaningful manner, without upsetting the mesorah or halachic system.

4 comments:

David said...

I've gotta say, I'm tremendously refreshed by the ISNA: perhaps these are the Muslims I've been waiting for - the ones who can help fight Islamic extremism from an Islamic perspective.

Regarding Judaism, I would like to object to the blanket accusation of sexism - Kesher Israel has had multiple female vice presidents, one who is new in the position, and the other who moved away (which explains why she didn't move up). We would consider hiring a female Rabbinic Intern (we haven't had a qualified female candidate from the assorted schools yet).

Yeah, I agree that Young Israel is mistaken in that guideline (among many others), but remember, the same voices who argue that a woman can't become a shul president / rabbi say the same thing about a (male) convert too - "sexism" isn't quite the right term to use to describe this...

(FYI, your "didn't like it" link is broken)

I'll let other movements defend themselves, but there have been studies about relative pay of male and female Conservative Rabbis which showed substantial differences...

JXG said...

See Rambam (Yad, Shoftim) Mlachim 1:6. Re converts, 1:5.

ALG said...

For anyone who wants to see the sources that JXG mentioned:

ה [ד] אין מעמידין מלך מקהל גרים,
אפילו אחר כמה דורות--עד שתהיה אימו מישראל: שנאמר "לא תוכל לתת עליך איש נוכרי, אשר לא אחיך הוא" (דברים יז,טו). ולא למלכות בלבד, אלא לכל שררות שבישראל--לא שר צבא, ולא שר חמישים או שר עשרה, אפילו ממונה על אמת המים שמחלק ממנה לשדות; אין צריך לומר דיין או נשיא, שלא יהא אלא מישראל: שנאמר "מקרב אחיך, תשים עליך מלך" (שם)--כל משימות שאתה משים עליך, לא יהיו אלא "מקרב אחיך".

ו [ה] אין מעמידין אישה במלכות--שנאמר "מלך" (דברים יז,טו), ולא מלכה; וכן כל משימות שבישראל, אין ממנים בהם אלא איש. [ו] ואין מעמידין מלך ולא כוהן גדול--לא גרע, ולא ספר, ולא בלן, ולא בורסי: לא מפני שהן פסולין; אלא הואיל ואומנותן נקלה, העם מזלזלין בהן לעולם. ומשיעשה במלאכה מאלו יום אחד, נפסל.

Rav Ben-Tzion Uziel, the former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, said about halacha 6, above, in the Rambam: "This halacha is not found in the Talmud, the Mishnah, or the Gemara and since this is not found anywhere else in the poskim (halachic decisors) it is a halacha that one can reject." (Source: Mail.Jewish Mailing list, vol. 7, no. 15.)

ALG said...

David, thanks, I fixed the "didn't like it" link. The blanket accusation of sexism is just that--a blanket accusation. Of course there are exceptions. Kesher Israel is one of them. I hope that there will be more and more of them in the future, so that blanket accusations of sexism are no longer true for the majority of congregations and educational institutions. Note that when women are treated in ways that I regard as "unfair" in Judaism, I don't always think that the intent is to be sexist or to "keep them down" or whatnot. The intent is often honorable, but the effect is sexist.

I don't know much about how converts are treated in Judaism, but I'm not surprised that they are also discriminated against.