With the powerful Orthodox Union poised to vote on whether to expel several member congregations for employing women in rabbinical roles, and with a new poll of Modern Orthodox Jews showing 53 percent support for giving women expanded clergy roles, the issue of women rabbis in Orthodoxy is reaching a pivotal moment. (Read more on the survey’s results here and here.)

And this week, the Orthodox community here is considering the intriguing implications of the handoff of power at Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s pioneering network of religious schools in Israel, some of which grant women the equivalent of a rabbinic ordination.

Rabbi Riskin, 77, an innovative figure in the Modern Orthodox community in the U.S. and Israel for more than five decades, is seen as anchoring the religious left, in part for his outspoken advocacy on women’s issues. (Rabbi Riskin is Jewish Week columnist, you can read his column here.)

But his hand-picked successor, Rabbi Kenneth Brander, 53, is viewed as a leading mainstream centrist. An outgoing vice president of Yeshiva University, he secured a national reputation for his success as senior rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida before joining the YU administration in 2005.

Rabbi Kenneth Brander. Wikimdia Commons

The fact that he plans to head the Ohr Torah Stone network could bolster the notion here that empowering women as decisors of halacha, or Jewish law, is more mainstream than fringe, and well within the bounds of Orthodoxy. The network of 24 religious and educational institutions includes a five-year women’s seminary program that grants graduates heter horah, the equivalent of semicha [rabbinic ordination].

“It is significant and telling that one of the major rabbinic leaders of Yeshiva University, the flagship of Modern/centrist Orthodoxy, will be heading an institution that gives women semicha,” said Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). Referring to the OU’s deliberations on expelling member synagogues, she added: “If you choose to write off Rabbi Brander’s appointment” at Ohr Torah Stone as not applicable to American Orthodoxy, “you are blind to where Orthodoxy and amcha [the people] are. This is huge.”

“This is a plastic moment for the Orthodox community in the U.S.”

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, noted that “this is a plastic moment for the Orthodox community in the U.S.” He said the movement “could go either way,” based in part on how the OU handles the issue of women clergy. The umbrella organization, which represents several hundred North American synagogues, could take “the inclusive, big tent approach” in expanding Orthodoxy’s reach from liberal to charedi, Sarna said, or side with those seeking “ideological purity, which could result in a split” within the community.

“It’s not going to be easy,” he added, “for the OU to explain why Israel accepts Orthodox women leaders” and the U.S. shouldn’t.

In an interview with The Jewish Week, Rabbi Brander, choosing his words carefully on the women’s issue, spoke out in favor of deepening and expanding women’s roles in the community, avoiding the word “rabbi.” He noted with pride his role in overseeing the Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies (GPATS) for women during his tenure at YU, and said he believes “women should and can make important decisions” in “leadership roles.” He said he hopes to find ways to “create opportunities for them to make a difference in the world.”

The recent Nishma survey found higher levels of Modern Orthodox support for women clergy. This table shows support by denomination. Courtesy of Nishma Research

Rabbi Brander also spoke of continuing and expanding the work of Ohr Torah Stone, whose separate schools for men and women range from junior high and high school yeshivas and seminaries to college, graduate school and rabbinic programs on 11 campuses across Israel.

Ohr Torah Stone’s programs for women go beyond GPATS; they include the first school that trains women to serve as advocates in rabbinical courts, and another that prepares women as Jewish legal authorities, on a par with rabbis.

Asserting that “Modern Orthodoxy is alive and well in Israel,” Rabbi Riskin said he doesn’t understand why women’s roles are a subject of controversy in the U.S.

Rabbi Brander did not directly address his views on women’s clergy roles, but he gave no indication that he would change the groundbreaking programs Ohr Torah Stone offers for women.

Rather, he noted receiving a Facebook comment that he should expect to be criticized in his new post, presumably from those on the religious right. But he said he is used to criticism for positions he has taken in his career, including starting a kashrut certification group in Boca Raton and for participating in a local board of rabbis that included Conservative and Reform clergy. (He was the only Orthodox rabbi in the group.)

“I learned from my own rebbeim [rabbinic teachers] to engage with all Jews, and I plan to follow that path,” he said.

Israel More Open To Women

Rabbi Riskin, who initiated the succession plans and intends to focus on writing and teaching when he steps down from his position as president of Ohr Torah Stone next summer, was more expansive in discussing his views on empowering women halachically. He explained that while he is opposed to women serving as the primary rabbi of a congregation (because women are not obligated to perform many mitzvot), it is “absolutely permissible” for women to be “spiritual leaders and have the right to give halachic directions and make halachic decisions.”

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

He noted that he has received no negative reactions from Israeli gedolim (Orthodox rabbinic sages) regarding his positions on women’s roles, adding that “Modern Orthodoxy is alive and well” in the Jewish state.

(Two years ago, Israel’s two chief rabbis sought to force Rabbi Riskin, who has challenged their strict conversion procedures, to step down as chief rabbi of the West Bank community of Efrat. But in response to an outcry on his behalf, the chief rabbis backed down quickly.)

One might think that American Orthodoxy would be more innovative than Orthodoxy in Israel but that’s not the case. It may be because of, or in spite of, the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. Once led by religious Zionists, the office has become increasingly fundamentalist in recent years. Perhaps it has led to more freedom of expression as an alternative.

“Modern Orthodoxy is alive and well in the Jewish state.”

Another rationale for why religious advances for women began in Israel and are less controversial there: In the U.S., there is deep concern among the Orthodox about competition from and comparison to the other religious streams and, ultimately, marrying out of the faith. By contrast, intermarriage is not a serious issue in Israel’s predominantly Jewish society, and the liberal streams are a tiny minority.

Rabbi Riskin said he doesn’t understand why women’s roles are a subject of controversy in the U.S. He speculated that since the death of his rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the Yeshiva University rosh yeshiva and acknowledged leader of Modern Orthodoxy, American rabbis have lacked the stature and courage to base halachic decisions on the needs of the community, as rabbinic leaders did throughout Jewish history. Too many rabbinic leaders today are confined to the study halls and out of touch, Rabbi Riskin said. He noted that Rabbi Soloveitchik, who died in 1993, spoke out in favor of advanced secular education and Zionism, as well as women’s advanced Torah study, at a time when they were not favored by rabbinic sages.

A view of Efrat, the West Bank the 10,000 strong community Rabbi Riskin founded in the 1980s. He will retain his position as Efrat’s chief rabbi. Wikimedia Commons

Rabbi Riskin founded Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side in 1963 and built it into a vibrant, nationally admired congregation.  He made aliyah in 1983 to found the West Bank community of Efrat, where, as chief rabbi — a position he will retain — he presides over a population of more than 10,000, with 28 synagogues he visits regularly.

Findings from the recent Nishma survey show changes in levels of personal religious observance. Courtesy of Mark Trencher

But as the Modern Orthodox community has moved rightward — the Nishma study found a “net rightward shift” of 16 percent in the last decade — Rabbi Riskin’s advocacy of leadership roles for women, empathy for LGBTQ Jews, and creation of conversion courts in Israel have made him too controversial for some mainstream communities here. At least two leading congregations in the New York area have withdrawn invitations for him to speak in recent years.

‘Build On The Legacy’

Rabbi Brander, though, has maintained a centrist reputation as a product of Yeshiva University, where he was ordained, and most recently served as vice president for university and community life. His rabbinic career began in 1986 at Lincoln Square Synagogue, where he was on the educational staff and then served as acting rabbi for a year before moving to Boca Raton in the early 1990s. During his tenure in Florida, he oversaw the growth of the congregation from 60 families to 600, and helped found a yeshiva high school, a mikvah, kashrut supervision organization and kollel [Talmudic study program] for rabbinical students.

Yeshivat Maharat trains Orthodox Jewish women to be religious leaders. Pictured here are its first graduated in 2013 in NYC. JTA

He said he is excited to make aliyah, a lifelong dream, next spring with his wife and family and to “continue and build on the legacy of a Jewish hero,” Rabbi Riskin, by serving as “chief spiritual officer” of Ohr Torah Stone’s network of schools. He said he is committed to dialogue and engagement with all Jews, and knows that, given the level of parochialism in the community, “that comes with certain consequences. But I need to be true to myself.”

Whether he will take his place at the vanguard of women’s halachic empowerment, and what effect that may have on the Orthodox community in the U.S., remains to be seen. But as Professor Sarna of Brandeis noted, “the issue of women has long been a lightning rod” in Jewish life, and it has become “the decisive issue in America today.”