The Orthodox Union (OU) just did something extraordinary. Modern Orthodox organizations seldom establish binding policies on their members. Yet last week, the OU, the umbrella body for Modern Orthodox synagogues in the US and Canada, formally banned its member synagogues from employing women rabbis.
In its statement, the OU pointed out that it turned to a panel of respected rabbis from Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy. These rabbis affirmed what every respected Orthodox religious authority has made clear: that Orthodox Judaism, unlike other religions, does not allow for female clergy. The RCA already clarified that American Modern Orthodox rabbis are prohibited from supporting the hiring of women rabbis.
Yet this was not enough. Some rabbis from the “Open Orthodox” movement, which promotes and trains women rabbis at Yeshivat Maharat, quit the RCA in protest. The question remained: would Orthodox Union synagogues tolerate divisions on this issue? After all, Jewish history is replete with disagreements over legal and theological issues. Could the question of women rabbis be just another one of these common disputes within our camp?
The OU responded in the negative. There is, after all, a type of dissent that Jews have not historically tolerated: arguments that would irreparably divide our community. Small groups of Jews are not free to adopt religious practices that disrupt the community’s ability to function.
One historical example is the canonization of scripture. The Talmud records debates about which books should be considered part of the Bible. Yet while there was debate and discussion about the matter, the rabbis and the Jewish people agreed upon a resolution.
Similarly, the rabbis of the Mishnah refused to allow a dissenting rabbi to follow his view concerning the dates of the Hebrew calendar. The same was true in the Middle Ages, during a dispute between the Jews of the land of Israel and eastern Jews over the calendar. All Jews agreed to follow one uniform calendar so that they would all observe Jewish holidays together.
In modern times, the OU and RCA played important roles in requiring that Orthodox synagogues maintain a mechitzah (partition) and separate seating for men and women in their sanctuaries. Then, as with last week’s OU decision, Orthodoxy’s leading rabbis established a standard that all observant Jews are required to meet, regardless of whatever theoretical debates might take place on the matter.
Modern Orthodox Jews who are cognizant of our history should realize that disallowing female clergy is not the vestige of an ancient patriarchal code that continues based on inertia. On the contrary, Jews did not copy separate synagogue seating or the institution of exclusively male clergy from other religions. The synagogue partition was a Jewish innovation. The insistence on male clergy was also unique, and carried over to the synagogue, which the prophet Ezekiel and the rabbis understood as constituting a “small temple.” Judaism, like other religions, had prophetesses. In opposing female clergy, however, Judaism stood in opposition to foreign and locally bred religious practices, including those of the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world, as well as Zoroastrianism and Christianity. Adopting female clergy, an institution pointedly excluded by Judaism despite its prevalence in other religions from ancient to modern times, runs counter to the biblical prohibition of following the religious paths of other nations.
We do indeed change our practices over time, as the Talmud itself notes. But without a respect for the Jewish legal tradition, which includes everything from laws concerning what we eat to laws concerning how we pray, it is impossible to live as a confident Jew. This is why we ought to embrace change only when it is based on internal considerations that respond to new challenges or realizations, and not when it results from external ideological pressures that seek to undermine our fundamental principles. Traditional change sometimes happens organically, with Jews gradually adjusting their customs in ways that are not significantly controversial. Other times Jews change inorganically, turning to acclaimed religious leaders who approve changes that are necessary in order to preserve first principles in the face of new challenges. The adoption of women’s education and the birth of religious Zionism are good examples of these changes, which involve new practical steps but no new religious principles.
The adoption of women rabbis is not a traditional change. It is highly controversial and has not gained the adherence of any posek (Jewish legal authority). Apparently aware of this conundrum, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which ordains male Open Orthodox rabbis from its rooms in the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, announced that there are Jewish authorities who support the ordination of female clergy. Only it failed to name any of these supposed authorities, except of course for its own leader.
In splitting from the Orthodox community on religious matters, Open Orthodoxy has displayed its aloofness to the actual problems that Modern Orthodoxy faces. The Modern Orthodox community has been struggling with tuition costs, the atmospheres of secular colleges, high costs of living, helicopter parenting, and lack of knowledge when it comes to spoken Hebrew, biblical scriptures, and Jewish history. Open Orthodoxy’s greatest mission has been to spend millions of non-Orthodox dollars, given to it by people who have no qualms with altering Orthodoxy from the outside, paying enormous fellowships to male and female rabbinical students in order to subsidize a product for which there is almost no organic demand.
Yeshivat Maharat, which produces Open Orthodox women rabbis, does a disservice to its own graduates by bestowing a title manufactured from whole cloth on its heavily subsidized graduates, most of whom cannot find work in Orthodox congregations. If the school had offered doctorates instead, it might have produced proud leaders who could pursue serious scholarship and enjoy broad respect, all without violating traditional and uniquely Jewish understandings of ritual leadership obligations.
All the OU and RCA are looking to do is to preserve Orthodoxy. As the Pew Report recently demonstrated, Orthodoxy is the only growing Jewish denomination, and the more traditional elements of Orthodoxy are growing at much faster rates than the more modern elements, which may actually be stagnating when we consider that Modern Orthodox day school enrollments are essentially frozen. We should not try to fix a relatively successful denomination with the failed tools of those in steep demographic decline.
We certainly ought to be sympathetic with those who do not feel comfortable in the Orthodox tradition. I have proudly served and worked with Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Jewish clergy for more than 10 years in the pulpit rabbinate and military chaplaincy. I have made great friends whom I deeply respect. But we have profound differences of opinion, and just as I do not expect them to adopt my views, I know that they do not expect me to adopt theirs. Similarly, Open Orthodox advocates cannot expect Orthodox Jews to call them “Orthodox” if they do not wish to follow Orthodox guidelines. As the Pew Report demonstrated, the other Jewish denominations could use reinforcements. Supporters of women rabbis can help our coreligionists in other denominations, but they cannot alter Orthodoxy.