Are Female Orthodox Rabbis A Threat to Jewish Tradition – Or Is It the OU Itself ?

A little over a week ago the Orthodox Union, that orthodox administrative body which overseas nearly everything Jewish – related in America, called together a seven – man rabbinic panel to answer the question whether synagogues under the aegis of the Orthodox Union may employ female rabbis. The unanimous opinion of this distinguished panel was a ringing, if eloquent, NO !!

Citing philosophy, history, and great amount of rabbinic sources, they resolved that the status of women as religious leaders is contrary and inappropriate to Jewish law and must be prohibited.

Now this is not the point, place, or appropriateness to argue with them point by point, word by word, line by line. It is, however, well known that every word, line, sentence, idiom, commentary, remark in Jewish law can be, has been, and continues to be, subjected to mounds of interpretations, depending on how those who interpret would like to direct the Halachah. In this case, the Panel of Seven came with their pre-determined opinion to drive the Halachah away from the role that Jewish female leaders are playing in the 21st century in America.

In making their determination, the Panel set aside an entire cache of different statements and opinions that could at least have balanced the final opinion, if not weighted it in favor, towards positively endorsing the female leadership roles already in play in many synagogues in America, and opening the window of opportunity to many others determined to embrace their own congregational leadership roles with commitment and fervor.

The Orthodox Union was given an opportunity to support these amazing female leaders for their commitment, passion and sacred holiness that they bring to the task at hand. Here was an opportunity to patronize their already – present contribution to bringing Jewish learning, Torah scholarship, and unparalleled love to the roles that they have trail – blazed in synagogues and communities around this country. Here was the opening, today, in the 21st century, to have virtually embraced these amazing and dedicated leaders for the work that they perform in synagogue leadership roles, and the tremendous responses they have received. Instead of closing the door in their faces, the Orthodox Union should have publicly clapped them on the back (of course, in a very modest manner ) and thanked them profusely for the magnificent leadership they continually inspire in the lives of so many Jewish souls.

As we witness the role of women today taking on and advancing every kind of profession, from law to medicine, from education to politics, from industry to art and culture, does it not seem a little out of step that religion cannot deal with a clergy leader that wears a dress ? The Catholic Church struggles with this idea, as does the Muslim religion…and Gd forbid if Orthodox Judaism should be seen to be out of step with its religious cousins. Not only that, but the Arab world continues to demean women by assigning them away from public roles ( and cars !! ). Maybe the fervently orthodox can join hands with their religious non-Jewish confederates in their joint negation and condemnation of the religious role of female leaders. That really would be a great step towards religious co – operation. I just hope that no one asks our Seven Panel as to whether Jewish women should be wearing burkas as well ! It is also somewhat ironic that while America allows the free practice of religious expression without government interference, it is the Orthodox Union, a Jewish body, that interferes in that very free practice that has been sanctioned by the leading rabbis of those very synagogues where female leaders exist.

The Orthodox Union blew what could have been such a Kiddush Hashem by endorsing the elevation of these women and their work instead of crafting a rabbinic opinion that sends them back to the dark ages. Maybe it’s time for a group of orthodox synagogues to create their own organization where their rabbis are given the sanction and respect to decide upon halachic issues within their own sanctified domains instead of having the Orthodox Union unilaterally trespassing upon that very sanctity with their stone age rulings.

Respectfully submitted

Chaim R. Landau

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Landau is Emeritus Rabbi and President of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis. He served the Bnai Jacob Congregation and later Ner Tamid Congregation in Baltimore. He was born in the UK, graduated Jews College with Bachelors Degree in Jewish Studies, has Smichah from Israel.