The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) this past week resolved that its members “may not ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate.” The resolution reasserts the RCA’s position of 2013 that ordaining women represents a “violation of our mesorah,” or tradition.
Mesorah is commonly associated with the transmission of Torah. For some, it is a meta-halachic concept: Regardless of what the halacha (Jewish law) says, there is a past tradition that must not be broken.
Of course, past tradition and consideration of time-honored practices are of tremendous import, as the Torah states, “Ask your father and he shall tell you; your grandfather and he shall say to you” [Deuteronomy 32:7].
But that’s only half of the equation. It is a mistake to think that mesorah only means that everything we do today is cemented in the past. Rather mesorah conveys the idea that, within proper parameters, we should innovate to address the issues of our time. This innovation is not straying from mesorah; it is rather demanded by it.
Religious innovation involves two steps. The first is to assess a particular law and evaluate whether it conflicts with other central principles of Torah. Consider, for example, the Torah’s position on polygamy, slavery or the laws of a female war captive. These laws seemingly conflict with other Torah values like tzelem Elohim (that every human being is created in the image of God), kavod ha-bryiot (human dignity), and kedoshim ti’hiyu (and you shall be holy).
If conflict exists, mesorah demands we take a second step through which halacha can evolve. The Torah makes this very point when declaring that the perplexing issues of the day should be brought before the generation’s judges [Deut: 17:8-9]. Beyond Torah law, mesorah includes a sophisticated network of rabbinic law. After an extensive, in-depth analysis of the legal issue at hand, new applications may be possible.
When making this analysis it is important to recall the teaching of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of then-Palestine, that “there is no prohibition to permit the permissible, even though it was not practiced in the past.”
This understanding of mesorah emerges when assessing women and halacha. There was a time when a husband could unilaterally divorce his wife; there was a time when most women did not study Torah; there was a time when the very same Rabbi Kook argued that women should not have the right to vote. And, in the not so distant past, women were shut out of life cycle events: no simchat bat for an infant girl; no bat mitzvah; no role for women to take part in a wedding ceremony.
If mesorah only encompassed the notion that “what was must continue to be,” these practices would still be in place. Yet today, the reverse is true. In the 11th century, Rabbenu Gershom decreed that no divorce (get) can be given against a wife’s free will. In the 20th century, the Chofetz Chaim insisted that women should study Torah, and 50 years later Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik led the march to have women study the Oral Law — the Talmud itself. In modern-day Israel, the Religious Zionist rabbinate supports the right of women to vote. I have little doubt that were Rabbi Kook now alive, he would support this right as well. And today, a simchat bat, bat mitzvah, and women reading the ketubah or sharing words of Torah under the chuppah are commonplace in Modern Orthodoxy.
Our community is now dealing with the question of whether women can be spiritual leaders; and, more specifically, can they be ordained? The stakes of this question are high as countless disenfranchised and alienated Jews are searching for a vibrant and inspiring Judaism. We thus desperately need committed, caring spiritual leaders who can teach and touch these myriads of souls. And, it would be senseless and counterproductive to tap only 50 percent of our community to assume leadership roles.
The halachic system unequivocally proclaims that women can be spiritual leaders. Biblical personalities like Sarah, Miriam, Devorah and Esther served as supreme religious leaders. In our century, Sarah Schenirer founded the Bais Yaakov school network in Poland. More recently, Chaya Mushka Schneerson, wife of the Lubavitcher rebbe, served as religious mentor to countless Lubavitcher women.
Today, charedi women lead their schools; a woman heads the SAR High School Talmud department; women serve as presidents of Modern Orthodox synagogues; and women are serving as full-time clergy members in Orthodox synagogues across the country.
And women can be ordained. Ordination does not date back to Sinai. That line was broken in the time of Hillel the Second in 360 CE. Rather, as the Rema codifies, “ordination (semichut) today certifies that one has the ability to be a decisor of Jewish law … with the permission of one’s teacher” (Yoreh De’ah 242:14). This means that ordination today signals that a person has mastered a particular area of halacha and can be a decisor of law. In contemporary times, Rabbi Bakshi-Doron, the former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, writes that “women can be the gedolim [the greats] of the generation and serve as halachic decisors” (Responsa Binyan Av 65:5).
Today, the debate concerning women’s ordination is not halachic but rather sociological. Here, I believe, the Orthodox community is split. While those on the Orthodox right say we are not ready, others in the more open camp disagree.
Our mesorah does not reject the idea of women’s ordination. Quite the contrary, the mesorah, while rooted in the past, emanates light into the future.
Why, for many, is women’s learning, Zionism and secular studies compatible with the mesorah, while the ordination of women is not? What does it say about our community when a central unchanging value of our mesorah is the exclusion of women from religious leadership?
The time has come to breathe life into the words of Rabbi Kook: “The old will become new, and the new will become holy.” With humility and respect for our detractors: with deep feelings of love for God and Israel, with conviction and proud commitment to mesorah, we declare: ki va mo’ed — the time has come.
Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale – the Bayit, and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat. He is also the co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship.