The Orthodox Union (OU) recently released a rabbinic panel response and policy statement opposing the appointment of women to serve in clergy positions.
Our congregation, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale – The Bayit, a longstanding OU member synagogue deeply committed to halacha (Jewish law) in its fullness, is a living response to that opposition. Having both men and women serve as clergy and interns, as spiritual leaders, enhances our community’s commitment to Torah and mitzvot. It enables us to reach each and every member of our kehillah (congregation) where they are. As the beneficiaries of female clergy leadership, we proudly support the work of the learned, talented, passionate women who serve as spiritual leaders in Orthodox shuls and communities around the world.
I see the crux of the matter like this. Much of the impact of the clergy role in our Orthodox communities comes from its holistic leadership model. Rabbis are teachers, pastors, role models, and they share our personal highs and lows and the milestone moments in our lives. While one of the great strengths of the Orthodox community is an empowered laity, the community is deeply committed to the model of rabbinic leadership, from as far back as Moshe Rabbeinu in the Torah, and the Mishnah’s dictum: “aseh lekha rav” – make for yourself a rabbi.
Our female clergy impact our communal lives by performing leadership roles that male clergy cannot — roles like standing alongside women reciting Kaddish, escorting women all the way through the conversion process, and providing an ear for women who feel more comfortable speaking with other women – on halachic and pastoral matters alike.
More broadly, our female clergy impact our communal lives by increasing the pool of learned, capable, devoted spiritual leaders for our community, irrespective of gender.
Gender was irrelevant to the family who had no synagogue to feel at home in until one of our female clergy reached out and welcomed them to do a naming for their newborn daughter, guiding them through the process and deepening their connection to Jewish tradition.
Gender was irrelevant to the members of our Bayit affected by depression who felt heard and understood when one of our female clergy addressed the topic in a powerful sermon from the pulpit during Shabbat services.
And so, if female clergy were constrained from a meaningful role in life cycle events, in guiding and being present at daily services, in delivering regular sermons, in answering halachic questions, and in counseling as clergy, the impact of their role would simply be diminished. They would not be able to touch lives as comprehensively and powerfully as they do. And our Orthodox community would suffer as a result.
Our successful decades-long journey of female religious leadership, with the support of our lay leadership and the urging of our congregation, demonstrates that while not every community must or should make this choice, every Orthodox community should have the opportunity to make this choice. There is room for different halachic viewpoints about female clergy, but the halachic argumentation in support is well-grounded and clear.
The OU policy, which was developed through a long process of research and consultation, did not include a visit to our synagogue or a meeting with our rabbinic or lay leadership, among the ones most affected by this pronouncement.
So, to the OU and the greater Jewish community, we invite you:
Ta shema – come and learn.
Come see a flourishing frum [observant] community where men and women serve and participate, all squarely within the dictates of halacha.
Come meet our members who have been inspired and brought more deeply into Torah life – ritual and ethical – by the relationships and role modeling of our female clergy.
Come learn from our female clergy – from their classes and sermons, from their facilitation of meaningful, personal life-cycle events, from their sensitive pastoral care, from their personal connections with the individual people and personalities who make up our thriving community.
The Orthodox community has so much to gain here. Men and women clergy make us better Jews and better people. We do ourselves a disservice by supporting anything less.
Steven Exler is senior rabbi at Hebrew Institute of Riverdale – The Bayit in Bronx, New York.