2004 Korach's Daughters
Chananya Weissman

Recently a major controversy erupted over comments made by Rabbi Herschel Schachter in a shiur about women in Halacha. One item he addressed is the reading of the kesuba at the wedding. He concluded that from a technical standpoint the reading of the kesuba is not part of the marriage ceremony, and therefore “even if a parrot or a monkey would read the ketubah, the marriage would be 100 percent valid.” He later reiterated that “a monkey could also read the ketuba!” Ultimately, however, his opinion was that it is nevertheless improper for women to perform this public act for reasons of modesty.

I am not here to analyze the validity of this opinion from a Halachic or social standpoint, nor is the conclusion of particular interest to me. Further, I am generally not shy about questioning and even challenging Rabbinic figures who I readily acknowledge to be far greater than me in scholarship and otherwise, so my defense of R’ Schachter is anything but a knee-jerk, party-line response. What concerns me is the reaction by those who identify themselves as feminists and by the community at large when this shiur was brought to public attention.

The feminists naturally pounced on R’ Schachter’s comments as an offense against women; they perceived his remarks as an equation of women to monkeys. Blu Greenberg, a feminist leader quoted in a Jewish Week article, acknowledged that the Rabbi “may have intended no disrespect” (emphasis mine), but still claimed that his words were a “comparison through innuendo of women to animals.” In other words, even if he did not mean to offend women (which she is not prepared to assume), his comparison of women to animals is nevertheless insensitive and offensive.

The Jewish Week article, ostensibly a news item, was titled “Rabbinically Incorrect”, and contained no shortage of innuendos that the Orthodox world, and this prominent Rosh Yeshiva in particular, are at best nave about the feelings of women and at worst “insulting”, even “vulgar and embarrassing”, as one brave anonymous source put it. The average, know-nothing Jew (even an Orthodox one) is sure to come away from this article with a highly negative impression of this Rabbi in particular and Orthodox Judaism in general.

This unfortunate episode further exposes the “religious feminist movement” for what it is: a challenge of the status quo that has more in common with that of Korach than with that of the daughters of Tzelofchod. On the surface, both can be viewed as genuine attempts to address a displeasing Halachic reality. The only real differences between them are motivation and approach, and the respective outcomes of these movements could not have less in common. One was acknowledged by Hashem Himself to be righteous, the other met a ghastly end.

Indeed, skepticism regarding the motivation of the feminists is commonly used as an argument against them. They invariably respond that we have no right to flippantly assume impure motivation on their part, and they are correct. However, it is clear from their approach that the feminist movement, despite making inroads with Orthodoxy in recent times, is both impurely motivated and sinister in nature.

The aforementioned controversy highlights this bold accusation. Right off the bat, the unwillingness of feminists to assume innocence on Rabbi Schachter’s part demonstrates a lack of integrity and intellectual honesty. At best, they say, he is naive and unwittingly insensitive, at worst he compares women to animals, and in either case Orthodox Jewry is too timid to challenge an esteemed Rabbi. Without even attempting to gain clarification of his remarks, they will readily cry foul to the press. The opportunity to score some public relations points is what matters, not the truth or what collateral damage might be caused. Like Korach, they are only superficially interested in civilized discourse; when an opportunity to push their agenda presents itself the gloves come off.

The offending remarks are, of course, entirely benign.

Just as Korach accused Moshe of power grabbing against God’s will, an accusation that it is difficult to imagine him or any Jew truly believing, the feminists claim that Orthodoxy and “male Rabbis” have deprived them of their God-given rights and privileges.

Chananya Weissman is a Jewish educator and a freelance writer.