To say ‘the train has left the station’ is so 19-th century – as is the thinking of the OU (Orthodox Union) on the role of women. Let me be upfront about my attitudes. I would be very uncomfortable in a schul where a woman was the rabbi and I can’t imagine joining such a schul. Nevertheless I found the OU responsum on the role of women in the synagogue to be unsatisfactory. You can find the entire responsum on the OU website (www.ou.org)

The guiding light in the responsum seems to be the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839) whose war cry was, ‘whatever is new is forbidden’. Imagine our community being one in which Zionism had been rejected and the education of women reduced to a few pieties. Fortunately, there were great rabbis in the 20-th century who understood the need for innovation. Sarah Schenirer’s vision of an upgraded Jewish education for women succeeded because it was endorsed by the Beltzer Rebbe, the Gerrer Rebbe and the Chofetz Haim.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook legitimized Zionism in the observant community. Quoting from Wikipedia, ‘Many Jews did not embrace Zionism before the 1930s and certain religious groups opposed it then as some groups still do now, on the grounds that an attempt to re-establish Jewish rule in Israel by human agency was blasphemous. Hastening salvation and the coming of the Messiah was considered religiously forbidden, and Zionism was seen as a sign of disbelief in God’s power and therefore a rebellion against God.

Rabbi Kook developed a theological answer to that claim, which gave Zionism a religious legitimation: “Zionism was not merely a political movement by secular Jews. It was actually a tool of G-d to promote His divine scheme and to initiate the return of the Jews to their homeland – the land He promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob ‘

With that as background, let’s look at the OU document. The charge to the panel reads, (1) Is it halachically acceptable for a synagogue to employ a woman in a clergy function? (2) What is the broadest spectrum of professional roles within a synagogue that may be performed by a woman?

The argument of the panel is twofold -(1) an appeal to Chatam Sofer – i.e. we never did it this way so it must be wrong. That argument is made more verbosely in the responsum (page 3), ‘Not only is there enormous significance in the Torah community’s manner of observing a particular custom or behavior, equally significant is the community’s failure or refusal to to practice a certain custom or adopt a particular behavior. Although the Mishneh (Eduyot 2:2) states ‘lo ra’inu aino ra’ayah’ ( the fact that something has not been observed cannot be brought as a proof to one side of a legitimate halakhic dispute rooted in pesukim or sevara), the non-performance of a particular practice does constitute a minhag, and such a minhag attains binding status. In addressing the implication of a community practice, the Maharik (quoted by the Shakh at the beginning of Yoreh Deah) rules that by inference, the community’s failure to to adopt a particular practice can be understood to reflect an objection to to that practice.’

That reasoning is problematic. There is an assumption made here that nothing changes, which is not true. A minhag or a tradition might not have existed because there was no need for it or no interest in it in the past.

Similar reasoning on page 10 is equally murky. ‘The existence of female scholars throughout the history of our nation is, in our understanding, ample proof that the notion of semikha for women was conceivable. However, a continuing mesorah existed that dictated against it. We find it implausible to to say that the question of female ordination has never presented itself throughout the history of our mesorah.’

In fact, women (by and large) did not enter positions of authority in the general workforce until after World War II. It is extremely implausible to assume that women conceived of themselves as being orthodox rabbis before the post war period.

The second argument against women rabbis is halakhic. It is based on Deuteronomy 17:15 that states ‘Som Tasim Olekha Melekh’ (You shall put a king over you.) This is understood to mean that only a man can be in a position of ultimate authority – A king and not a queen. This position of ultimate authority is called ‘serara’. The Rambam ruled that the prohibition of serara for women applies to positions of authority in the Jewish community such as presidents or as rabbis.

Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz has ruled that a woman can serve as the president of a schul because the president of a schul does not have ultimate authority. The president can always be overruled by the schul’s board.

Let’s think for a minute about the realities of a Jewish community in the time of the Rambam as compared to our community. In the time of the Rambam, there was an organic Jewish community whose leaders had real authority over the Jews of Egypt. More recently, in Europe, Jewish life was organized as a Kehillah and leaders did have real authority. The concept of serara makes perfect sense in those societies.

But the concept of serara does not correspond to the reality of synagogue life in the major Jewish population centers of the United States. As a resident of West Rogers Park, I choose my schul affiliation and can change it easily. If I don’t like the president of a schul, or if I don’t like a position that the rabbi has taken, I can vote with my feet and find another schul that is more to my liking. There is no serara in the synagogues of West Rogers Park or in other major Jewish population centers.

My request to the OU is – Gentlemen please find some more convincing rationale so that we can all be comfortable in rejecting women rabbis.

There is another message in the OU responsum that I find upsetting – an attempt to roll back the status of women as Yoatzot Halakha. A Yoetzet Halakha advises other women on laws of ritual purity. The OU responsum tries to constrain the activities of these women. As stated on page 15 of the responsum, ‘We agree that yoatzot provide a valuable service, but some feel that, with regard to normative wide-spread community practice, halakhic and meta-halakhic concerns outweigh the benefits.’

On this issue, the rocket has indeed left the launchpad. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), in its 2015 resolution rejecting women rabbis made its peace with Yoatsot Halakha. In part it reads, ‘This resolution does not concern or address non-rabbinic positions such as Yoatzot Halacha, community scholars, Yeshiva University’s GPATS (Graduate Program of Advanced Talmudic Studies), and non-rabbinic school teachers. So long as no rabbinic or ordained title such as “Maharat” is used in these positions, and so long as there is no implication of ordination or a rabbinic status, this resolution is inapplicable.’

This represented a change in thinking for the RCA. There was no mention of Yoatzot Halakha or GPATS in the RCA 2010 resolution rejecting women rabbis.

In fact, the RCA is somewhat backward on the issue of women’s participation in matters of religious law when compared to the Dati- Leumi (Religious Zionist) position in Israel. Last spring’s edition of Tradition magazine dealt with the changing role of women in the modern orthodox community. In her article, Dr. Rachel Levmore brings an Israeli perspective to the discussion. She points out that women’s halakhic role has already gone far beyond the yoatzot halacha sanctioned by the RCA. In Israel today, and for the past twenty years, women have served as toanot rabbaniyot – advocates who are licensed to represent litigants in the Beit ha-Din ha-Rabbani ha-Mamlakhti (National Rabbinic Court).

The licensing of toanot was instituted by the then chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu at the suggestion of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Women take the same examinations as men who wish to be toanim. Amusingly, as Dr. Levmore mentions, women passed the licensing examination at twice the rate of men. This upset the establishment to the point that women were not allowed to take the exam until the Israeli Supreme Court intervened in their favor. Today women function in this role, representing both men and women. In her summary, Dr. Levmore notes that ‘ women in Israel are actually and quietly functioning in various roles in which rabbis would function for at least two decades. In Israel, the women do not care what the title is’

Perhaps in the 2020 RCA resolution and in the 2020 OU responsum rejecting women rabbis, there will be an acceptance of toanot rabbaniyot.

RCA October 30, 2015

2015 Resolution: RCA Policy Concerning Women Rabbis

Oct 30, 2015 — Formally adopted by a direct vote of the RCA membership, the full text of “RCA Policy Concerning Women Rabbis” states:
Whereas, after much deliberation and discussion among its membership and after consultation with poskim, the Rabbinical Council of America unanimously passed the following convention resolution at its April 2010 convention:
The flowering of Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women in recent decades stands as a significant achievement. The Rabbinical Council of America is gratified that our members have played a prominent role in facilitating these accomplishments.

We members of the Rabbinical Council of America see as our sacred and joyful duty the practice and transmission of Judaism in all of its extraordinary, multifaceted depth and richness – halakhah (Jewish law), hashkafah (Jewish thought), tradition and historical memory.

In light of the opportunity created by advanced women’s learning, the Rabbinical Council of America encourages a diversity of halakhically and communally appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women, in the service of our collective mission to preserve and transmit our heritage. Due to our aforesaid commitment to sacred continuity, however, we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.

Young Orthodox women are now being reared, educated, and inspired by mothers, teachers and mentors who are themselves beneficiaries of advanced women’s Torah education. As members of the new generation rise to positions of influence and stature, we pray that they will contribute to an ever-broadening and ever-deepening wellspring of talmud Torah (Torah study), yir’at Shamayim (fear of Heaven), and dikduk b’mitzvot (scrupulous observance of commandments).

And whereas on May 7, 2013, the RCA announced:
In light of the recent announcement that Yeshivat Maharat will celebrate the “ordination as clergy” of its first three graduates, and in response to the institution’s claim that it “is changing the communal landscape by actualizing the potential of Orthodox women as rabbinic leaders,” the Rabbinical Council of America reasserts its position as articulated in its resolution of April 27, 2010… The RCA views this event as a violation of our mesorah (tradition) and regrets that the leadership of the school has chosen a path that contradicts the norms of our community.

Therefore, the Rabbinical Council of America

Resolves to educate and inform our community that RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not
Ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; or
Hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution; or
Allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a teacher of Limudei Kodesh in an Orthodox institution; and,
Commits to an educational effort to publicize its policy by: Republishing its policies on this matter; and, Clearly communicating and disseminating these policies to its members and the community.

This resolution does not concern or address non-rabbinic positions such as Yoatzot Halacha, community scholars, Yeshiva University’s GPATS, and non-rabbinic school teachers. So long as no rabbinic or ordained title such as “Maharat” is used in these positions, and so long as there is no implication of ordination or a rabbinic status, this resolution is inapplicable.

RCA – April 27, 2010
1) The flowering of Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women in recent decades stands as a significant achievement. The Rabbinical Council of America is gratified that our (members) have played a prominent role in facilitating these accomplishments.

2) We members of the Rabbinical Council of America see as our sacred and joyful duty the practice and transmission of Judaism in all of its extraordinary, multifaceted depth and richness – halakhah (Jewish law), hashkafah (Jewish thought), tradition and historical memory.

3) In light of the opportunity created by advanced women’s learning, the Rabbinical Council of America encourages a diversity of halakhically and communally appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women, in the service of our collective mission to preserve and transmit our heritage. Due to our aforesaid commitment to sacred continuity, however, we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.

4) Young Orthodox women are now being reared, educated, and inspired by mothers, teachers and mentors who are themselves beneficiaries of advanced women’s Torah education. As members of the new generation rise to positions of influence and stature, we pray that they will contribute to an ever-broadening and ever-deepening wellspring of talmud Torah (Torah study), yir’at Shamayim (fear of Heaven), and dikduk b’mitzvot (scrupulous observance of commandments).