The Orthodox Union’s panel of rabbis’ prohibition of women serving as clergy is an historic mistake of epic proportions. It places Orthodoxy in opposition to the greatest human rights transformation of the past half century – the rise of women to full equality. Such a regressive stance is an embarrassment and a stain on Judaism’s standing as a world religion.
This dignity of full value and equality was given to women in the Torah. “…God created the human in [God’s] image… man and woman [ God] created them.” (Genesis 1:27) However, that equality has not yet been fully realized either in the Jewish religion or in world civilization, though great strides have been made in both sectors in recent decades. This may be the worst time in history to try blocking the fulfillment of the divine promise to women.
This fundamental error is the outcome of using a charedi Orthodox approach to resolve a modern Orthodox communal issue, so the process did not work. As the OU board explained in its statement accompanying the rabbinic ruling: ”… matters of religious practice cannot be decided by lay bodies “ but rather must be determined “by a group of leading rabbinic scholars.” Read: Gedolim (great sages). Well, no. That is the charedi practice. In the two greatest Orthodox issues of the last 300 years, Zionism and policy towards modernity, it was the lay people who took the positive lead, assisted by a minority of rabbis. Zionism and modernity defined and brought Modern Orthodoxy into existence. It was the overwhelming consensus of the Gedolim to oppose both advances.
The chasidic and yeshiva sages expressed the charedi community’s decision to stay out of the swift currents of modern history in order to protect their religious status quo. They repeatedly proclaimed that Modern Orthodox participation in Zionism and modern culture was a grave sin and was prohibited. Even when great Modern Orthodox rabbis like Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik advocated for the Zionist cause, they were isolated and delegitimized by the majority of Gedolim and yeshiva leaders. The lay leadership and the rabbinic pioneers held their ground and made the right historical choice. Had the Modern Orthodox accepted those prohibitions, Judaism and the Jewish people would not have survived the catastrophe of the Holocaust and the triumph of modernization in Jewry throughout the world. The same wisdom and courage is needed to advance the women’s issue.
This may be the worst time in history to try blocking the fulfillment of the divine promise to women.
The OU’s rabbinic panel denies that their ruling is based on woman’s inequality. It claims to uphold that “… The Torah affirms the absolute equal value of men and women as individuals and as ovdei haShem[servants of God]…” The panel failed to grasp the contradiction. Semichah [rabbinic ordination] is universally given for mastering a certain body of Torah knowledge, and the leadership title authorizes the new rabbis to rule on religious questions [psak], educate and counsel people. When women master the same knowledge, pass the same tests, and give halachic decisions, educate and counsel people equally well – but are denied the title or role solely because of their gender – the result is that women are being treated as unequal. Actions speak louder than words.
The rabbinic panel asserts that it is solely because of Judaism’s strong emphasis on role differentiation that they deny women’s right to be rabbis. They quote “our Rebbe,” Rabbi Soloveitchik, in explaining the different religious activities of men and women on this basis. He says that role differentiation “contradicts the perverse notion that Judaism regards woman as being inferior to man.”
But the rabbinic panel failed to report Rabbi Soloveitchik’s full statement — on that very same page — which contradicts them. He wrote that the proof of male and female “equal worthiness before God” is that “both bear His image… both may be ‘called to the colors’ to assume leadership roles, as history-makers, as God’s messengers. Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Esther, and many others… were elected by Providence as shelichay hakel, His emissaries when great problems were to be overcome.” Was there ever a time as now of the great a risk of assimilation, when women’s learning and teaching capabilities are so needed? Was there ever as intense a problem of drawing people into synagogues to accept and live by the Torah values — for which women rabbis can make a major contribution so these “ great problems were [are] to be overcome”?
The OU board’s approval of this regressive policy was an act of reckless endangerment. It for it has taken the classic, most widespread and trusted seal of kashrut –the OU — and associated it with a socially backward attitude toward women. This mistake is a great pity because there have been great advances for women’s roles in Orthodoxy in recent years.
What is to be done? The OU should acknowledge what is widely known – that internationally respected Orthodox scholars and rabbis, including Daniel Sperber, Shlomo Riskin, Avi Weiss, Daniel Landes, Herzl Hefter and others have given ordination or clergy functions to women with great achievements. Beit Hillel, an association of Modern Orthodox rabbis in Israel, has accepted such women to full membership as has the (Orthodox)International Rabbinic Fellowship. Leading Orthodox synagogues have hired such women and have been served and inspired by them.
The OU should determine that the panel’s findings were an advisory opinion, available to all congregations wishing to follow that path. Those congregations that chose to follow a more progressive option have a solid halachic basis and can follow their community custom. Let all the communities explore and decide on this issue. Undoubtedly what will emerge is pluralism in Orthodoxy, which will widen its appeal. The affirmative option on women’s roles will increase its credibility on college and university campuses (where the Modern Orthodox have the highest percentage of children attending). This course correction will meaningfully increase Orthodoxy’s ability to serve the whole Jewish people -in personnel, role models and communal example.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg is a noted scholar and author.