American Modern Orthodox Establishment's Ban on Women Rabbis Sparks Backlash

'The American culture of personal autonomy and the ethos of equality collide head-on with Torah values,' declare Orthodox Union rabbis.

Yeshivat Maharat in New York, where women study to become Orthodox clergywomen, is one of the flagship institutions of the movement toward a more open-minded Modern Orthodoxy.
JTA/Uriel Heilman

The leading Orthodox Jewish organization has officially banned women from being employed as rabbis at its hundreds of affiliated congregations in North America, and announced that it will not recognize any women bearing the title “rabbi” or “rabbanit.”

In recent years an increasing number of women have been ordained as rabbis, or serve in the role without title, by Orthodox congregations in the United States and Israel, and the Orthodox Union ruled on February 1 that “a woman should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position.” This ruling casts a shadow on the legitimacy of female graduates of programs in the central strain of modern Orthodoxy.

According to the Forward, at least four synagogues that are members of the Orthodox Union currently employ women in clergy roles, which will be prohibited from now on. One of these synagogues has already announced that it rejects the new policy and criticized the decision.

The OU joins in its announcement the largest Orthodox rabbinical organization in the U.S., the Rabbinical Council of America, which in November 2015 officially decided against appointing women to clerical positions, although the new language appears to be sharper and has a greater effect since some 400 congregations identify with the OU.

The OU is best known for its kashrut certification, accepted by most Orthodox communities worldwide, and it also operates a wide network of communities and educational projects in universities and Jewish institutions.

On Thursday the organization published a 15-page report written by its rabbinical committee. Their decision prohibits women from holding the title “rabbi” or filling clerical functions such as leading services, delivering sermons, ruling on matters of religious law, or officiating at weddings and funerals. The committee included seven rabbis, most of them affiliated with Yeshiva University, the institution standing in the lead of the resistance to liberal trends within modern Orthodoxy.

Ordainment of women rabbis is a relatively new phenomenon on the liberal fringes of Orthodoxy in the U.S. and Israel, although the question of employing women in these roles is far more central in the U.S., where almost every congregation has a paid rabbi. Women holding the title rabbanit, for example from the Orthodox Yeshivat Maharat in New York, have found work throughout the U.S. in liberal Orthodox communities, but almost all of them were appointed to the “clergy” and were not appointed the synagogue’s “rabbi.” The OU rabbis say they expect every synagogue affiliated with them to apply the official policy, in a hint to those synagogues already employing women.

The rabbis’ document opens by noting: “The American culture of personal autonomy and the ethos of equality collide head-on with Torah values,” that place the individual above “halakhic dictates.”

The rabbis point out that “this collision stands out particularly in the field of equality of the sexes, although as religious Jews they believe that study of the Torah must reflect the aspiration to reflect G-d’s will, also when it is not comfortable or difficult to understand.”

They differentiate between Torah study for women and administrative roles in the community, which they encourage, and roles of rabbinical spiritual authority.

Rabbi Yosef Kenefsky, head of the B’nai David-Judea community in Los Angeles, which employs Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, a graduate of Yeshivat Maharat, has already announced that he will reject the new policy. On Friday, before Thomas-Newborn was to give a Shabbat sermon, Kenefsky wrote to the Jewish Journal that her sermon will be historic in light of the OU announcement.

“Our Orthodox synagogue, together with a few others where women serve in the clergy, absolutely do not accept the new OU policy. I don’t know what steps OU will take against us, but I know that we will stand firm and determined, because that is what you should do when you’re right. That’s what you do when the value that guides you is serving G-d and the Jewish nation,” wrote Kenefsky.

The only Orthodox synagogue in Israel that employs a woman in a role of spiritual leadership is the Ramban synagogue in Jerusalem, which several months ago elected Rabbanit Carmit Feintuch as spiritual leader alongside the head of the community, Rabbi Benny Lau. Lau said that the OU document expresses “weakness and fear.”

Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, was quoted in the Forward saying: “There are various ways of practicing Judaism, halachic Orthodox Judaism. We are disappointed, however, that the OU is attempting to squash that healthy debate and impose their [religious ruling] on hundreds of synagogues, thus centralizing power and not giving autonomy to communities’ lay and professional leaders.”