Mautner on Excluding Women from Torah Study

One of the many things that worries secular liberals about the revival of religion — assuming a revival is really occurring — is the traditionalism of the religious worldview. Since the Enlightenment, liberalism has taught that the individual must be free to  determine for himself, without the interference of tradition or traditional authority,  the meaning of existence and his place in the universe (see, e.g., Planned Parenthood v. Casey). The religious worldview rejects this idea. The meaning of the universe is determined by God, and wisdom lies in discovering His plan and accepting the place He has assigned you in it. (Of course, religions differ on the details of the plan!) There are important qualifications, of course. Liberalism doesn’t think people should just do what they want, and traditionalism doesn’t think that everything must always remain the same. But much of the tension between secular liberals and religious conservatives can be traced to these different premises.

Menachem Mautner (Tel Aviv University – Buchman Faculty of Law) has posted an interesting-looking piece that explores this tension in the context of Jewish law, or, more precisely, the study of Jewish law: A Dialogue between a Liberal and an Ultra-Orthodox on the Exclusion of Women from Torah Study. Here’s the abstract:

This is a fictive dialogue between a liberal and an ultra-Orthodox on the exclusion of women from Torah study. The dialogue begins with a lengthy discussion of the highly intricate preliminary problems of understanding and normatively evaluating the practices of another culture. The Liberal argues that the exclusion of women from Torah study precludes them from fully realizing the intellectual potential that lies within them, i.e., it denies them reaching the height of their human flourishing. It also implies that ultra-Orthodox women are regarded as having lesser moral worth than men.

The ultra-Orthodox argues that whereas modernity is premised on the denial of any status bestowed by tradition in the life of a person, for the ultra-Orthodox tradition has a binding force: it embodies God’s imperatives as to the good life, together with the ways these imperatives have been interpreted throughout the generations by Halakhic sages. Torah study is a religious imperative (mitzvah) that under the accepted tradition is incumbent upon men, but not upon women. The ultra-Orthodox also argues that when men study Torah, women study as well, though by proxy, in creating the conditions that enable their husbands to study. This draws on an ancient notion that exists in Judaism – the ‘Issachar and Zebulun Agreement’.

Finally, in the ultra-Orthodox community there are two central values: Torah study and raising children. The community upholds these two values by maintaining a division of labor: men are in charge of Torah study and women are in charge of raising children. The upshot of these arguments, according to the ultra-Orthodox, is that it cannot be claimed that the ultra-Orthodox community violates women’s sense of worth, self-respect and human dignity. One understanding that emerges from this dialogue is the need to base normative evaluations on a close examination of the facts relevant to the evaluations.

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