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Opposing Orthodox Women Rabbis: Laughable, Pitiful, Wrong

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Orthodox women hold a Torah during holiday celebrations in Jerusalem, January 2015.
Orthodox women hold a Torah during holiday celebrations in Jerusalem, January 2015.Credit: Michal Fattal

No one can be surprised that a group of top-notch Jewish religious scholars, at the request of North America’s leading Orthodox kashrut and synagogue organization, the Orthodox Union decided not only to forbid women as rabbis but for women to have any role as clergy at all. The fix was in from the very beginning.

The composition of the seven men-only rabbinical board did not include even one token woman rabbi or “clergy person” who at the least could have informed the group of a different way of looking at the situation – even by her very presence.

The board members are all graduates and lead teachers at RIETS of Yeshiva University, a rabbinical school (transparency – I am a proud ordainee) that has no women students or teachers.

Finally senior members of this group have already spoken up forthrightly against women’s participation in any form of communal liturgy, including women dancing with Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah on the women’s side of the mechitza, or reading from the Torah scroll even in a women-only prayer group.

Given all this, plus a rigid halakhic orientation framed by the anxiety of being cast out from even more traditional rightwing Orthodoxy, as well as the need of the OU to retain its consumer attractiveness as a kashrut authority to a large market, the outcome was predictable.

But it was also pitiful, as it places a group of at least five young clergywomen serving at major synagogues in potential danger of losing their jobs, or of their synagogues losing OU affiliation. And what of the cohorts of newly-minted women rabbis?

The predictability of the OU response is manifest in the opening of the document which basically says that it is not composed as a traditional rabbinic teshuvah (responsum).

This absolved the panel from doing what any classic legal decision must do to confirm its cogency and validity – namely, to discuss the arguments of all sides, including and especially the side one most disagrees with.

When one engages in this form of debate, first of all you learn a lot. Indeed your own views may change or be modified; at least, it is possible that you gain respect for the “other side”.

Clearly, all these possibilities were out of the question for the panel. Indeed there is no citation of material already written in favor of “women clergy” by eminent thinkers.

This neglect is all the more unfortunate in that the members of the panel are justifiably renowned for seeking expert advice when dealing with medical, economic, and other social policy.

Did they ever speak to a group of women about this, to women who function as rabbis, or to a focus group of their male and female congregants?

But the main reason that it's clear the OU response is an ideological piece is that, if it had been based on halakhah alone, the panel would lose the argument.

Those who oppose women as rabbis can no longer argue that women do not have sufficient intellectual power to become halakhic masters. In a day when women are celebrated in film, as the math team for NASA’s space project, or win the Fields Medal, that argument is laughable.

What is left is a flaw in women’s character such as their will or judgment is weak – nashim daatan kalot. But Chief Justice Naor, Justices Hayut, Barak-Erez, Baron, and Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan from the Israeli and U.S. Supreme Courts, present the paradigm of a multitude of women who are plenty tough and incisive. So that argument doesn’t work.

Instead the panel relies on the notion of serarah – that women cannot exert authority in the community. While based on Maimonides’ clear statement in that regard (Laws of Kings I:5)– they neglect the change that serarah has undergone in a strictly halakhic sense.

For example, Maimonides himself declared that serarah means that rabbis have life tenure, which passes on to his next generation, the rabbi’s son [I:7]. (Get the Orthodox Union to put that rabbis' standard contracts, and I’ll consider changing my mind!)

Further, the dominant halakhic authority for American Judaism, the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986, New York) pointed out that Maimonides’ position, which depends upon coercion, is negated by many early authorities and is not considered as normative law in the Shulchan Arukh, the code of Jewish religious law.

The great Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel (1880-1953, Jerusalem) ruled that serarah did not stand in the way of women voting (accepted in practice by haredim) or in serving in official positions accepted by religious Zionists.

Indeed, synagogue life is already and ever increasingly so, one of voluntary consensual agreement. If a community agrees, then a woman can be leader and judge. It worked for the prophetess Deborah; it can work today.

Given a weak Halakhic argument, the panel has to introduce the notion of mesorah – Tradition, functioning as a vague Jewish equivalent of Papal Infallibility.

Here the current rabbis know what direction communal policy must go, brooking no alternatives. The Catholic doctrine became dogma in the First Vatican Council of 1869-70 when the Church, confronting modernity, had a hard time making its argument. So too here with the rabbis who have difficulty making their argument on the points.

Actually, mesorah is a way of guiding rabbis to open the texts to create new possibilities. So it did when Rabbi Gershom (960-1040, Mainz) forbade polygamy or in modern times when our master Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik opened a school where girls studied what boys were already learning. And later, when to the shock of many, he gave the impetus for women college students to study Talmud at a sophisticated level.

That the OU panel could not see what a young Rabbi Soloveitchik could have perhaps done in our contemporary situation is an opportunity missed. It is a bright point that they allow for women teaching and being in advisory and management roles within a synagogue.

They also “celebrate” that many women have achieved high levels of learning, but an ethical trajectory cannot stop there. If women can learn, let them serve!

Rabbi Daniel Landes teaches Talmud and theology from Jerusalem. He was recently named one of the 2016 Forward 50 leaders.

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