The fact that the Orthodox Union, the influential national body that serves some 400 synagogues in North America, announced a new policy this week prohibiting women from serving in the clergy should come as no surprise.
Those who have followed the debate in recent years in the Orthodox community about women’s roles on the pulpit know that the Rabbinical Council of America, the OU’s rabbinic arm, has come out with such a prohibition not once or twice but three times since 2010.
What’s new is that while “less than a handful” of its member congregations now have women serving in clergy roles, according to Allen Fagin, executive vice president of the OU, there was a sufficient level of inquiry and interest in the issue for the lay organization to establish a seven-member rabbinic panel to explore the issues. It has spent the last year and a half seeking to answer two questions: whether it is acceptable under halacha (Jewish law) “to employ a woman in a rabbinic function,” and to determine “what is the broadest spectrum of professional roles within a synagogue that may be performed by a woman.”
“We’ve seen an acceleration of shuls that hired or contemplated hiring female clergy in the last several years and thought it proper to respond,” Fagin told The Jewish Week.
No doubt much of that heightened interest in the community is based on attention given to Yeshivat Maharat, the first women’s yeshiva of its kind, which gives ordination to women, and the growth and assertiveness of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which last month held a major conference promoting greater involvement for women in the clergy, in addition to other goals.
In forming its panel of prominent rabbis not known for leniency on such matters (see list of members, below), the OU knew that it might alienate the more liberal strands of its membership with a strict ruling, especially since women are making significant progress in gender equality in so many segments of society.
As one observer noted, a woman can be prime minister of Israel but she can’t be president of a Young Israel congregation.
Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, executive director of JOFA, told The Jewish Week she was “disappointed but not surprised” by the ruling, noting that the time and brainpower invested by rabbis and the OU could have been better spent on tackling such difficult issues as abuse in the community and/or freeing agunot, women unable to receive a religious divorce.
A statement from JOFA said the OU failed to acknowledge that large segments of the Modern Orthodox community in the U.S. and Israel already have “female leadership.”
One prominent rabbi of an OU-affiliated synagogue that employs a woman assistant clergy member believes the organization’s decision “constitutes a leadership error of historic proportions.” Rabbi Yosef Kanefsy, senior rabbi of Bnai David-Judea in Los Angeles, noted that a number of rabbinic decisors, including Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a leading 20th century sage, took a more lenient position on the issue. “My contention is simply that imposing one perspective on all of its member synagogues, when a halachically valid alternative exists, is divisive, counterproductive and just plain contrary to the OU’s own values of supporting Torah and mitzvot,” Rabbi Kanefsky wrote in a response to the ruling.
Will OU synagogues employing women clergy members be forced to leave the organization? Fagin was circumspect, saying the next step would be to for OU leadership to engage in discussion with such congregations.
A careful read of the 17-page report by the rabbinic panel, as well as the 16-page statement by the OU, indicates that both the rabbis and lay leaders were well aware of the sensitivities at hand. They knew that strict traditionalists were hoping the reports would put an end to the notion of women rabbis (whatever their title), and progressives might walk away from the organization if it shut the door on increasing roles for women in the clergy.
Thus, while stating clearly that women can have neither the title of rabbi nor the status of a clergy member without such a title, the rabbinic panel acknowledged and celebrated that many women in the Orthodox community are involved in advanced Torah study and are teaching on a high level of expertise. It praised the trend of increased and deeper Torah knowledge among women and encouraged them to use their talents in other aspects of synagogue and communal life rather than the clergy.
The panel also dealt with the role of yoatzot halacha, women highly trained in the laws related to ritual impurity and family relations, who have become sought out by many women preferring to discuss intimate matters with a female rather than a rabbi. The panel noted that it was split on whether yoatzot are permissible, but concluded that they may be employed with the approval of the local rabbi and lay leadership.
This appeared to be a tacit recognition of the growing popularity of yoatzot by women around the country.
Fagin noted that “much of the conversation on this issue generally is about what women cannot do, and we think it’s equally important to focus on what women can do. If we focus solely on women’s ordination, we are doing ourselves an important disservice.” He asserted that “from a halachic perspective there is a whole world open to them in the synagogue” and beyond. “What separates us,” he said, “is far less than what unites us.”
Rabbi Kanefsky, the Los Angeles outlier, says he doesn’t know whether the OU will take action against his synagogue. “But I do know that we will be strong … and resolute, because that’s what you do … when your driving value is the service of God and the Jewish people.”
Following are the members of the OU rabbinic panel:
Rabbi Daniel Feldman, rosh yeshiva, Yeshiva University; Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger, rosh yeshiva, Yeshiva University, and spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Abraham, Bergenfield, N.J.; Rabbi Michael Rosensweig, rosh yeshiva, Yeshiva University; Rabbi Herschel Schachter, rosh yeshiva, Yeshiva University; Rabbi Gedalia Schwartz, head of the rabbinical court of the Beth Din of America, based in Chicago; Rabbi Ezra Schwartz, rosh yeshiva, Yeshiva University, and spiritual leader, Mount Sinai Jewish Center, Washington Heights; and Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, spiritual leader, Congregation Shomrei Torah, Fairlawn, N.J.