“The imputation of unstated motives instantly renders toxic any conversation in which it is inserted”

In any debate over women’s communal and halakhic roles, the Orthodox community’s version of Godwin’s Law is that the longer the debate continues, the greater the certainty that not only one’s policy decisions or halakhic conclusions, but one’s motivations, will be impugned. The imputation of unstated motives instantly renders toxic any conversation in which it is inserted. “She’s only doing that because she’s a feminist who wants to undermine Orthodoxy.” “He’s only resisting that because he’s a man bent on maintaining his power.” Those arguments delegitimate, give offense, and are not subject to being disproven. And yet, combatants on both sides often resort to them. “All people of good sense, integrity, and yirat shamayim will obviously arrive at the conclusions at which I arrive. If you don’t, you must be evil, stupid, or in it for power.” They leave us stuck in ruts in our discourse, and our thinking. If you have only arrived at your conclusion through character flaws, insufficient religious seriousness, or venality, there is nothing about your argument that I must engage with seriously or even learn from. We can easily set aside the other position without seriously considering the challenge it poses, and perhaps even reconsidering our own. (Which may account for the popularity of this mode of argumentation–it is confirming, and not demanding.)

While these charges are leveled in every direction, women in particular find themselves subject to this sort of attack. When a man seeks to enter semikha, no one asks him to prove to their satisfaction that he has no motivation other than the l’shem shamayim before accepting him. A man can enter semikha for the glory, the stipend (granted, both less than likely), the chance to delay a decision about graduate school, or the desire to annoy his parents, as well as for the calling to tend God’s flock. When a woman seeks a leadership role, or even simply to engage in advanced Torah study, however, she can quickly find herself asked to prove that she is doing so for all of the right reasons, and none of the wrong ones. (Even institutions that afford advanced Torah learning opportunities to women can, in their desire to mark themselves as being on the “acceptable” side of the line, contribute to this climate by rushing to offer assurances that their students harbor no such nefarious motives or ambitions.)

Rivka Press Schwartz, “Climbing Out of Our Trenches: Towards a Different Conversation”, Tacit Knowledge (21 December 2016) [https://rpschwartz.com/2016/12/21/climbing-out-of-our-trenches-towards-a-different-conversation-about-women-and-orthodoxy/]