In January 2015, the Orthodox Union (OU) announced that for the first time, women would serve in top leadership positions of the organization. Allen Fagin, Executive Vice President, said that gender diversity within the senior ranks of the OU was one of his top priorities.

“If we want to be true to our bold ambitions, we need to fully include the female half of our communal talent pool at the highest levels,” Fagin said in his speech. “This is not about being politically correct. This is about being smart. It is about finding and utilizing outstanding talent rather than excluding it.”

Yeshiva University, which considers itself the flagship educational institution of Modern Orthodoxy, runs programs to train and encourage women to assume professional and lay leadership positions in the Jewish community.

One of the characteristics of Modern Orthodoxy communities, as opposed to some that are more right wing, is that women are successful professionals, leaders in their fields, and publicly identifiable in the Jewish community for their contributions and accomplishments, both communally and professionally.

Which makes it all the more puzzling why the OU has asked Rabbi Herschel Schachter, among others, to provide input on women’s religious leadership in the synagogue.

While all issues such as this are about halacha, Rabbi Schachter’s underlying hashkafa and attitude towards the place of women in society drives his halachic calculation.

Rabbi Schachter has written on women in public roles a number of times. The basis for his position can be summarized as follows:

  1. Requests for changes in the roles of women are heretical, similar to the Reform movement and the early Christians.
  2. Women have an obligation to remain as private as possible. They are forbidden to take any public role. The exception is if a man is not available (see end note 1).

Rabbi Schachter’s prohibition on women in public is as stark as it is comprehensive. It applies to all women at all times, regardless of age, marital status, location or situation (with the exception noted above). Furthermore, any request or move for less restrictions on women is considered heresy (see end note 2). For example, he writes: “Let the men run the government….if a woman were to run the government…this would indicate that we have no choice in the matter, that from all of the men present we were unable to get enough of them to take care of these activities.”

So it will come as no surprise that Rabbi Schachter’s response to the OU query will be: women’s participation in synagogue leadership is forbidden or very highly restricted. And this restriction is actually in no way related to ordination, because it applies to all women, ordination or not.

The question actually is whether the OU themselves will abide by Rabbi Schachter’s opinion? If they were to follow his opinion, they would not seek out women leaders, publicize their accomplishments, or welcome them on the board publicly (or even have them on the board). They would actually remove all the women vice-presidents they were so proud of electing. YU would not train women for leadership and would discourage women from looking for those opportunities. YU might as well close the GPATS program and expel all women from the Azrieli graduate schools. Are there not enough men to do the job?

In fact, if all of these institutions and the entire Modern Orthodox community followed R. Schachter’s opinion, our community would be completely different. Women and girls would be taught the ultimate value of modesty and keeping out of the limelight. They would be forbidden from achieving anything that would thrust them into the public eye or the spotlight. There would not be plays or performances by women. Shiurim, with rare exceptions, would be taught by men. We would not honor women at our dinners or events, seeing as they should not compromise on their modesty. They would be forced to stay home or at least out of the public. Even events for women only would be problematic, because according to Rabbi Schachter, public is public, even if it is single gender.

Obviously the Modern Orthodox community is not as described above. The OU and YU and many other institutions rightfully encourage women in public and leadership positions. They clearly are not following Rabbi Schachter’s position. If those organizations are going to ask for and accept R. Schachter’s position on women in synagogue leadership positions, then they should be obligated to accept his underlying premises and follow his restrictions themselves, with all the ramifications for their organizations and the Modern Orthodox community. The fact that they do not illustrates that R. Schachter’s underlying hashkafic approach is not shared (at least in practice) by a large section if not most of the Modern Orthodox community.

Orthodox ordination of women is a halachic and hashkafic issue. There are those who oppose it on hashkafic grounds, and for them it will always be prohibited, no matter what halachic argument is made. On the other hand, a very compelling halachic argument can and has been made in support of ordination of women. And it has been made by a number of august and respected rabbis (see sources in end note 3). The most reasonable course is to let each synagogue decide for itself. Communities that find the arguments for ordination compelling will have women clergy. Those that agree with the arguments against ordination will not have women clergy. However, those who want to forbid all synagogues from having women clergy face the insurmountable challenge of showing that the opinions supporting ordination are completely out of halachic bounds – something that clearly is not the case.

Modern Orthodox communities are not living according to R. Schachter’s idea of modesty. His hashkafa on this issue does not align with the practices on the ground. It is not an issue of learning, reputation, or personal piety. Just as a Zionist would not ask the Satmar Rav for a psak regarding Zionism, the Modern Orthodox community should not look to Rabbi Schachter for opinions on the role of women in our communities. And if an organization is going to ask him for a psak on an issue, it should understand all of the ramifications of his opinions, both for the organization and those it represents.

End Notes:

  1. The third point, not the topic of this article, is that only the greatest of rabbis such as him are allowed to have a public opinion on such topics. Rabbi Schachter has referred to those who disagree with him very disparagingly so there is nothing to be gained in engaging on this issue. In one article he refers to them and put quotation marks around the term ‘ordained rabbis,’ and says that they are in the category of students who have not reached the level in order to decide questions, that they lack education in a number of topics, and that they want to claim that they also are ‘rabbis’ who can answer questions like the greatest of rabbis. Furthermore, they foment conflict destroy the world, and extinguish the candle light of Torah.
  2. It is instructive to read what he thinks of women: ..these practices were introduced… as a result of the general movement to liberate women, whose motive and interest in this area is for the purpose of pritzut(variously translated as removing boundaries or more negatively as being wanton), to make women equal to men in every way possible…. And in our time that they want to engage in all sorts of wantonness and allow a rage of sexual improprieties, the public have destroyed and diminished many of the behavioral differences between men and women, which were present in previous generations. And this includes WTG, hakafot(on simchat Torah) for women, and it is all part of the same intent.” My translation from ‘Tzi’I lach b’ikvey hatzon’ published in Biet Yitchzak 1984/5. To my knowledge and judging by his recent pronouncements and publications, Rabbi Schachter’s positions haven’t changed.
  3. Responsa Regarding Women’s Roles in LeadershipResources on Orthodox Female Ordination.

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