Don’t Unsettle our Community to Settle Debates—A Response to Rabbi Pruzansky

Dear Rabbi Pruzansky,

I appreciated your letter to the Jewish Link in which you defended the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County’s passage of a bylaw that would expel the rabbi of Netivot Shalom if he were to continue training female rabbinical students. Though you and I disagree about this issue and many others, I have always deeply respected you for publicly standing up for what you believe in.  I think our community benefits from a multiplicity of voices and that healthy debate keeps all of us honest.   And though I understand your retirement is imminent, I genuinely hope that you continue sharing your views with our community for many more years in good health.

Here is why, with the greatest respect, I believe your letter missed the mark.

First, you mistakenly attribute opposition to the RCBC’s decision to support of women rabbis.  That’s incorrect.  The “battle line” is not between advocates and opponents of women’s ordination.  It is between those who want their own shul to decide its own policies and those who want every shul’s policies to be dictated by a local vaad.  Our community categorically rejects the idea that a tribunal of rabbis should forcibly set policy for the community’s shuls.

In Modern Orthodox communities, like ours, communal policy should be the product of communal dialogue and transparency, not backroom dealings in a rabbis-only club.   A shul’s policies should be set by its rabbi together with the shul’s leadership and members.  They—and they alone—should decide what interns their shuls will take—or, for that matter, the height and texture of their mechitza, the scholars in residence they host, or what dance classes they offer their youth.

Second, I disagree that just because an organization is a “rabbinical organization” means it is automatically entitled to act as a community’s religious watchdog and police all things relating to the “Mesorah” in that community.   Communal institutions have specific mandates—the RCBC’s is to oversee Kashrut certification and conversions—and our community is best served when its organizations stick to those mandates.  Communal institutions that “go rogue,” as the RCBC did here, do not “safeguard the Mesorah,” they sow chaos and division.  The RCBC does best when it polices the kashrut of our lettuce; it does harm when it tries to police the purity of our shuls.

Third, I completely agree that “Halacha does not change because of how many ‘likes’ someone gets on a Facebook post.”  But do you not agree that Halacha should not be “settled” by organizational bylaws or letters to the editor?  It is settled by argumentation and sources.  And though I see the polemical value in repeatedly stating that an issue is “settled,” I think you know as well as anyone that the issue of women’s ordination is far from settled, and that anyone with even basic research abilities could find a number of teshuvot and articles by respected scholars that either outright support women’s ordination or acknowledge that the issue is complicated.  You may disagree with those sources—and if you do, by all means, make your substantive case to the community.  But merely declaring that an issue is “settled” is, with all due respect, no more helpful than a Facebook “like” or an angry-face emoticon—it proves nothing and gets us nowhere.

Fourth, I agree with (and greatly enjoyed) your statement that when Halacha is settled, it is settled “regardless of the feathers that are ruffled, the sacred oxen that are gored, or the genuine passions that advocates have.”  Halachic positions are certainly nothing to hide from and, to your credit, you have made your position clear.  But your colleagues have not done the same.   The vast majority of the RCBC’s members are hiding their positions.  To my mind, that significantly undermines your thesis that the law here is “settled.”   If the issue is as settled as you make it out to be, why hide the bylaw change and the RCBC members’ votes?  If “the Torah on this issue is settled,” as you say it is, and if the actions of the RCBC are as noble as you portray them to be, why be so secretive?   And if the RCA’s guidelines on the issue of women clergy are as “clear and unequivocal” as you say they are, why did you and 61 of your colleagues (tellingly, only one of whom is an RCBC member) need to pen a public petition calling upon the RCA to enforce those purportedly “clear and unequivocal” guidelines?  Clearly, the issue is not as “clear and unequivocal” as you make it out to be.

More fundamentally, if the issue is “settled” and “clear and unequivocal,” why do we need an RCBC bylaw at all?  Do we need the RCBC (or, for that matter, the RCA) to adopt a bylaw that pork is treyf or that one cannot light a fire on Shabbat?  The fact that the RCBC needs to adopt a bylaw on this subject proves that the matter is not settled, and the fact that the RCBC did so in secret proves that the RCBC is coming down on one side of an open issue and that many of its members have doubts about that stance.

Finally, I agree with your statement that the “issue of female clergy is our generation’s mechitza.”  Indeed, it is—or at least it has the potential to be.  Yes, like you propose to do today, the prior generation drew a “line in the sand” and insisted on disassociating themselves from shuls in which men and women sat together.  And while I share your respect for the prior generation, I think great caution needs to be exercised before replicating communal strategies that resulted in the estrangement of large sectors of the American Jewish community.  We need to ask ourselves: at a time when American Jewry is shrinking, when reform and conservative Jews are assimilating and even students from our own community are growing disillusioned when they go off to college, is it wise to cut off a community of observant Jews over an internship program?   I say it is not.

The outcry in response to the RCBC’s actions, I would respectfully submit, stems from our community’s profound sense of shock at their rabbinic leaders’ willingness to deal with disagreements by tearing off limbs from the Jewish communal tree.  We don’t want our rabbis drawing lines in the sand.  We want our rabbis to keep Jews in the tent, not find even more creative ways to cast them out.

I think it is deeply disingenuous of you to suggest that “[t]he ideal would be that Rabbi Helfgot defer to his peers” and that “[n]o one is being excluded or ostracized, except voluntarily.”  With all due respect, when have you, Rabbi Pruzansky, “deferred to your peers” on anything similar?   If the tables were turned and the RCBC stipulated that every shul must hire a female clergyperson, would anyone seriously expect a person as principled as you to “defer to his peers” and hire one?  And would you view leaving an organization that forced you to violate your beliefs as a “voluntary choice?”   Of course not.  And our communal institutions should never put you—or any other rabbi—in such a position.

I would respectfully submit that no “sacred oxen…are gored” when people who disagree with each other sit in the same organizations.  That’s the question here—not whether we support or oppose women rabbis.  No one will ever think that you, Rabbi Pruzansky, support women rabbis simply because someone else in the RCBC does.  No one is asking you to muzzle your views.  On the contrary, please speak up loud and often.  The challenge we face—you, me and our entire community—is keeping people who disagree at the same communal table.  I firmly believe our rabbis can meet that challenge, and that their meeting it is neither failure nor surrender, but the ultimate triumph.

About the Author
Yigal M. Gross is an attorney who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey with his wife Tamar Warburg and their children Ella, Sara and Yonatan.