This past Friday the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest body of Orthodox rabbis in North America, put out a new resolution banning their members from hiring any female Orthodox clergy. This followed a 2010 resolution and a 2013 announcement to the same effect. This latest resolution came from an ad-hoc committee in the organization and was apparently passed by only a close vote, although since the organization does not release those details (despite a 2009 resolution calling for “transparency”) it is impossible to know for sure. This new resolution decries the “violation of our mesorah (tradition)” as the central and, indeed only objection, to the use of any rabbinic or semi-rabbinic titles by women.
What does it mean for a rabbinic organization that prides itself on support of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel to declare any deviations from the mesorah to be off-limits? The RCA has untold number of proclamations, resolutions and statements supporting the right of a Jewish state to exist. Yet, how could an organization so invested in perpetuating the image of a perfect mesorah support what was fully and unequivocally a revolution in the mesorah? If it is permissible to violate the mesorah for Zionism, why is it not okay to violate it for anything else, like feminism? (I first wrote about this problem in 2009 for First Things.)
The Israeli historian and diplomat Elie Barnavi described Zionism as “an invention of intellectuals and assimilated Jews who turned their backs on the rabbis and aspired to modernity, seeking desperately for a remedy for their existential anxiety.” Zionism, which at its beginning was cradled amongst the Russian Jewish secular elite, was a project to return Jews back to makers of history. It cast all of diaspora Jewish history as a time of uselessness and rabbinic Judaism as shackles of our own design meant to hold us back from our true aspirations to be a free and unburdened people in our own land.
Nowadays we view those religious Jews who are anti-Israel and anti-Zionist as marginal and fringe. Some of us, unfortunately, shout at them when they gather to protest community Israel celebrations. However, that is far from how it always was. The fears about violating the mesorah to hasten the redemption were not an anti-Zionist invention but rather intrinsic to the Judaic tradition enshrined in the Talmud and many other places (Dr. Aviezer Ravitzky’s Messianism, Zionism and Jewish Religious Radicalism, University of Chicago Press, 1996, is an excellent academic source on this subject). Not only were the anti-Zionist religious Jews not the minority or the fringe in the early days of Zionism, they represented the consensus rabbinic opinion on the topic!
Many of these early secular Zionists were not only non-observant but active deniers of the Divinity of the Torah. They rejected wholeheartedly the concept of “Torah min hashamayim,” that the Torah was written by God. Many of them took the sacred texts of our mesorah and used them to further their own aims in contradiction to the will of the rabbis. For example, one of the leaders of the Russian Zionist contingent, Aaron David Gordon (1856-1922) proclaimed the following:
We in this country,” said Gordon, “created the saying ‘Man is made in the image of God,’ and this statement has become part of the life of humanity. With this statement, a whole universe was created. With this, we gained our right to the land, a right that will never be abrogated as long as the Bible and all that follows from it is not abrogated.
(Zeev Sternhell, The Founding Myths of Israel, Princeton University Press, 1998)
The idea that the Jews wrote and created the Bible is outright heresy. With all of this how can the RCA decry women’s ordination as a violation of an inviolate mesorah while celebrating the rupture of that very same tradition?
The answer is Modern Orthodox Jewish education has succeeded in educating its adherents to view Zionism as a natural continuation of rabbinic Judaism. This educational system views the aliyah of the Vilna Gaon’s pious and devout students as part of the same project as political Zionism. It does this in order to remove the cognitive dissonance of having accepted one major deviation from the mesorah while simultaneously believing that the mesorah is never violated. Any responses to this critique will seek to continue to do more of the same. They will tell you of the great rabbis who supported Zionism while ignoring the fact that the majority of the Torah world rejected it (and still does so today). They will tell you that Zionism really was not a significant departure from two millennia of Jewish tradition contrary to the plain facts before your eyes.
Let me be perfectly clear. I support the State of Israel to exist. I am proud that there is a Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel. It is far from perfect and has much to work on but it is a blessing that it exists. I do not reject Zionism. Yet, by not rejecting Zionism, one has to come to terms with the obvious fact that tradition changes, sometimes in major and significant ways.
I continue to be moved to action and inspired by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s (1808-1888) call to not let Judaism continue to be treated as a “mummy in a museum” protected by men afraid that any moment it will crumble to dust. Rabbi Hirsch, as it happens to be, was also opposed to Zionism.
It is much easier to return to calls for preserving the mesorah when faced with something new and unprecedented. It is an appeal to authority and tradition, two things that resonate deeply with Orthodox Jews. However, for those of us who support the State of Israel and consider ourselves Religious Zionists, it rings truly hollow. Unless the RCA is willing to renounce its support of Israel and the Zionist project than these appeals to a pristine mesorah that has never been exposed to radical change must cease. I hope the RCA does not renounce Israel in order to remain consistent and rather chooses to return to the path of halakhic conversation and debate that is the hallmark of a living, breathing and dynamic Orthodox Judaism.