Against Women Rabbis? It’s All About Power

The current debate in Orthodoxy about whether women should be ordained as rabbis or even serve in clergy-type roles without that title, has been churning for some time.

It was brought to a head last year when the Orthodox Union (OU) in the U.S. decided that this was not in keeping with halachic dictums and, therefore, member congregations of the OU would need to adhere to this restriction or risk losing their membership affiliation with the OU.

As it turns out there are just 4 or 5 congregations in the U.S. that fall into this category and a committee of OU representatives met with each of them to try to convince them to abandon their support of women functioning in clergy-related roles with or without the title of rabbi, rabba or anything else that implies ordination. To date, none of the congregations has agreed to that request and the OU has not yet disaffiliated those synagogues. Many of us hope is that the OU will not land on the wrong side of history and will simply walk away from the issue.

Yesterday, Rabbi Avi Shafran, the public face of Agudath Israel of America published an op-ed in the Forward on-line arguing that the OU’s position is an accurate one according to halacha and urging the OU to stand its ground in the name of religious honesty.

Interestingly enough he admits that women, properly trained, would make good rabbis even though he is against it. To use his words:

“Most of a rabbi’s roles can be halachically and effectively assumed by women, and have been for many years. …. Considering that women excel at most of a rabbi’s tasks, it would seem that a recent question that has arisen in Orthodox circles – about whether women might be ordained as rabbis – would be a simple one to answer. It’s not. Because the truth is, even though women can carry out these tasks, they still should not be ordained, from a strictly Orthodox point of view.”

Rabbi Shafran goes on to try to identify why the push now for women rabbis within Orthodoxy (the other movements including “open Orthodoxy” already have women serving in clergy-related activities). He says:

“For unlike the push for Jewish girls to be educated, this push is not motivated by a need to address Jewish ignorance, or some other urgent Jewish goal. Rather, it stems from pressures born of broad societal embrace of the idea that women should be able to fill every role that has been traditionally filled exclusively by men. To put it bluntly, the pressure comes not from within the community or from Jewish values, but rather, from without – from the desire to satisfy the secular Zeitgeist. As such, it is foreign to us and our values, not a cause worth compromising over.”

To justify his position he refers to earlier decisions made by the late Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Modern Orthodoxy’s revered religious luminary, and other established authorities concluding that “while various educational and other communal roles may be appropriate for women, a woman should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position.” In those decisions they said that “The prohibition encompasses both the designation of a title for women that connotes the status of a clergy member, as well as… the appointment of women to perform clergy functions on a regular ongoing basis, even without any title.”

But of course the good Rabbi has been dead for 24 years and was a product of European Jewish life during the post-World War I period. While we have no way of proving this, my guess is that if he were alive today his rulings might well be different than they were at the time he made them considering how religious life has changed over the last 100 years.

What Rabbi Shafran fails to point out is that religious life within Orthodoxy is a men’s club on every level where women are continually praised and lauded by never given the permission to enter the men’s sacred space. One obvious proof is that the OU also has a rule prohibiting women from serving as presidents of their member congregations. So even in the lay leadership sphere the senior places are reserved for men who, oftentimes, are significantly less knowledgeable than the women who are not permitted to serve.

So, at the end of the day, it is really about power. No one likes to relinquish power and by allowing women to be rabbis, or to function as rabbis even without the title or to serve as a congregational president, the men’s power and authority is threatened. But that can’t be officially stated so, instead, the issue is hidden behind the veil of halacha as a protective shield against that loss of power.

Daniel Webster said “Power tends to protect itself merely to maintain its own status and control. Principle gives up power for the sake of creating the best public policy.” Would that the Orthodox leadership could understand that concept and implement it

About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 32 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, regional entities and Invest Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Former Chairperson of the Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and a Board Member of the Israel-America Chamber of Commerce. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.
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