Early in my career, I served as the rabbi of a small synagogue in Upstate New York. On one of my visits to New York City, I happened to meet the president of the OU.
I introduced myself to him, and told him how much I valued my shul’s membership in the Orthodox Union. Just the week before, I said, I had had an argument with one of my members about a particular product that they wanted to serve in the shul. The product carried a kosher supervision that we did not accept, and I would not allow it to be served. One of my members, who used this product in his home, asked me, “Are you saying that my house isn’t kosher?”
I responded to him that since we are an OU shul it behooves us to maintain the high standards of the OU. The shul member accepted my explanation, and that was the end of the discussion.
The OU president was clearly pleased to hear my story. But then I followed up with the “But…”
“But what am I supposed to tell them when they ask me why there are OU congregations with mixed seating?”
He gave me a frustrated look and said, “Do me a favor. Write me a letter and tell me exactly what you just told me. I need to hear from more rabbis like you so I can make the argument that we need to insist that all member congregations have mechitzas.”
Eventually he succeeded.
The OU adopted a policy that was in line with Orthodox values. But they didn’t immediately expel anyone; it was a process.
The Orthodox Union stopped allowing congregations with mixed seating to become members. It insisted that those congregations that were already members needed to have a plan to eventually install mechitzas.
Some congregations complied right away. Some began an educational program to explain to their members why they needed to eventually make this change. And some congregations left the Orthodox Union.
In 2015, Bais Medrash Hagadol of Denver was the last non-mechitzah shul still remaining in the Orthodox Union. Its members finally came to the conclusion that they did not choose to conform to OU policy, so they resigned from the OU.
History has now repeated itself, although with a different twist.
In the entire century-plus history of the Orthodox Union, there was never a member congregation with a woman rabbi. Indeed, even in the non-Orthodox movements such a concept was unheard of until the 1970s.
But as time went on and radical feminism found its way into the non-Torah world, the concept began to trickle into the minds of Orthodox-affiliated people as well.
The Open Orthodox movement began to push the envelope to equalize the roles of men and women in Orthodox practice.
They began with small changes. Then came Partnership Minyanim where men and women sit separately, but share the role of leading the service.
Finally they decided, “Hey, since women can do anything that men can do, why don’t we make them into rabbis?”
And thus was born the maharat.
Feminists of all religions, including members of the non-Orthodox movements celebrated the fact that Orthodox Judaism was finally coming of age. Finally Orthodox Judaism was recognizing the ability of women to serve as spiritual leaders of their congregations.
The only problem is that it was fake news. All mainstream experts in Jewish law agree that there is no such thing as an Orthodox woman rabbi. This is an area where Hassidic, Yeshivish, and Modern Orthodox leaders are unanimous.
However, members of the Open Orthodox movement came up with their own “experts,” who maintained that there is nothing wrong with ordaining women. Four Open Orthodox congregations that are members of the Orthodox Union hired women to serve as members of the clergy.
Many people felt that these congregations should be immediately expelled from the Orthodox Union for violating Orthodox halachic norms. But the OU didn’t want to jump into anything. Instead the OU leadership did what Orthodox Jews do when faced with a halachic dilemma. They submitted the question to “poskim” (deciders of Jewish law).
The Orthodox Union approached an esteemed group of Modern Orthodox experts for guidance. These poskim concluded unanimously that female clergy is inconsistent with Orthodox practice. As a result of this consultation, OU official policy was now that, in keeping with Halacha, women can’t be rabbis.
The congregations in question were not interested in complying with the OU’s policy. The rabbi of one told the press that the OU “…should stick to tuna fish.”
Another rabbi made it clear that neither his nor the other congregations intended to adhere to OU policy.
Again there were calls for immediate expulsion of the offending congregations. Again, the OU, decided to act cautiously. OU leaders met with each of the congregations to determine exactly what the women rabbis were doing in these synagogues.
After several months of careful deliberation, the OU has decided to give those four congregations a chance to remain within the flagship organization of mainstream Modern Orthodoxy. It is not taking any action against them right now, but it has made it very clear that their actions are not acceptable, and no other member shuls will be permitted to hire female clergy. The OU will continue to work with them to attempt to bring them into compliance, and reevaluate the situation in three years.
So apparently, once again, the Orthodox Union has opted to patiently allow members whose current practice is less-than-Orthodox to take some time to decide whether they want to stay or go.
Let us hope that, for the sake of Orthodox unity and respect for Halacha, they will decide to do what is necessary to stay.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, but opinions expressed here are his own. He is a mohel (BrisRabbi.com) and chaplain in Monsey, New York. His divrei Torah on the weekly parsha can be read at TorahTalk.org.