There is a particular group of crazy radicals, who are making chiddushim — dangerous, new innovations — based on their own opinions of social engineering. These people are disregarding centuries of Jewish traditions, and are changing — and destroying — the traditional role of the rabbi and eroding the very face of the Jewish rabbinate. I speak, of course, of the individuals who have signed public declarations against ordaining Jewish women as rabbinic professionals.
There are varying traditions of how a “rabbi” has been defined throughout Jewish history. Rabbis have been advisors, pastoral counselors, shochetim, prayer leaders, and halachic decisors. One of the unifying factors for serving as a “rav” in any context has been honoring the millennia-strong tradition of not making halachic psak for individuals or communities without first being asked to do so.
In Pirkei Avot, we learn “asei l’cha rav, k’nei l’cha chaver” — make for yourself a rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend.” This is couched in the reflexive — you make for yourself a rabbi. You find someone whom you trust, with whom you can engage spiritually and personally, to come to with your questions. Jewish jurisprudence has preserved a tradition down through the millennia of respecting multiple attitudes, multiple opinions, even multiple — and opposing — psaks, binding rabbinic decisions, about all sorts of critical issues. So a relationship with an individual, trusted rabbi to help make halachic decisions is extremely important for observant Jews.
To have a group of rabbis make public declarations undermining other rabbis is ridiculous. It’s radical. It’s inappropriate. It serves no purpose other than sowing discord and disunity. It undermines the ability of each individual person and community to decide in which authorities to impose their trust. It violates some of our most cherished traditions. It is a dangerous, new innovation that seeks to transform thousands of years of careful religious jurisprudence and respect for other opinions into a mindless, group-think cult. These public proclamations devalue Judaism. They make mass conformity the goal of religious observance. They disrespect our ancient tradition of psak being a careful, respectful interaction between Jewish individuals and communities and those we choose to render these decisions.
And then there’s this: in case these RCA and Agudah rabbis weren’t paying attention whilst they were composing their fatwas, Jews are being attacked and stabbed on the streets and the world rushes to condemn us for being in the way of the attackers’ knives. Anti-Semites are crawling back out of their dark holes to spew their violence and venom. The physical safety of Jewish communities all over the world and Israel are threatened from without in ways that we haven’t seen since the 1930’s. On the inside, Jewish communities have challenges such as assimilation, intermarriage, drugs, pornography, domestic violence, and agunot — challenges that cry out for unity and invigorated, dynamic spiritual and pastoral leadership.
Yet, with all of these emergent challenges, these rabbis have chosen to make public proclamations against learned, religious women who want to join their ranks to help them with these challenges? Women wanting to join Jewish leadership is the “problem” that is so important that these rabbis want to override centuries of Jewish tradition of how Jews choose and validate their own rabbinic decisors? This is what they want and need to publicly decry and condemn?
It’s no secret that I fully support Jewish women learning, and Jewish women serving as religious leaders in whatever capacity we choose. I find it difficult to believe that having Jewish women who are learned and serve our communities will somehow undermine Judaism. However, whether I or anyone else supports Jewish women becoming rabbis is not likely to be impacted by rabbis we didn’t ask making pronouncements to try to force the issue one way or the other.
I have no words to describe the shortsighted, radical, foolish nature of the decision to choose to bully and shame rabbis with different viewpoints rather than uniting to face all of the actual challenges facing the worldwide Jewish community right now.
Years ago, I was lucky enough to live in Jerusalem for most of a year. During that time I lived near neighbors who became some of my dearest friends. They are the kindest, most humble, most loving people I have ever met. Living near them, experiencing their devoted faith and joyous religious observance was one of the more inspiring experiences of my life. They had no idea that they inspired me, as their stringent and devoted practice was a fulfillment of their own inner convictions. They did nothing for show and everything in the desire to fulfill their religious obligations in the most exacting way with pure hearts.
I have no idea how they classify themselves — it’s not a discussion we needed to have. But clearly we were on different religious “levels.” I did not cover my hair in my house. I occasionally wore pants. My friends held by only charedi hashgachot, and their observance was very different from mine. They did not eat food that I had cooked, and I did not expect them to.
One day, I made a self-deprecating remark about my family’s religious observance in front of them. The husband turned to me with a puzzled look, held out his hand, and said quietly, “no, but you are frum yidden.”
His ability to identify me as a religious Jew, in spite of the many differences between our spiritual and practical observance, was very meaningful to me. His statement has continued to inspire me in the years since then. There were many times, during my return to the States, my divorce and other spiritually challenging times that followed, that I was in religious despair. I experienced events that caused me to feel distanced from my religion and devoid of connection between what I practiced and what I felt. My friend’s simple statement — that I was a frum Jew — helped connect me to halachic observance even during tough times when other connections weakened. His recognition that in spite of all of our differences, we were religiously part of the same family was precious to me. It wasn’t something I wanted to jeopardize.
When I read demagogic pronouncements about who isn’t really “Orthodox,” who isn’t “a frum rabbi,” I find it extremely dispiriting — as do many others. By making such irresponsibly divisive statements, these religious leaders are doing the opposite of strengthening the Jewish community. They are distancing at a time when we need achdut, Jewish unity. They are sowing discord at a time when we should be pulling together to meet the many challenges facing our communities. And worst of all, they are undermining, and dishonoring, rabbinic authority.
The RCA and their Agudah friends may think their proclamations and grandstanding will isolate what they feel to be dangerous and radical practices. In truth, they are the dangerous radicals. They are distancing themselves from the main body of the Jewish community by their disregard for centuries of Jewish tradition. While these rabbis are busy writing themselves out of relevance straight into the dustbin of Jewish history, the rest of us — Jews who care about the physical health and safety of the Jewish communities across the globe — have some serious work to do. Labels such as who is or isn’t “Orthodox” or “frum” are distractions from the real issues facing us, and are semantic games that Jews can no longer afford to play.