Should there be female Orthodox rabbis?
As I was researching the above question for this blog – I came across an article by Rabbi Avi Shafran, published in the Forward in October of 2017. I then decided to address this blog to R. Shafran as a response to his article. His article defends the OU’s position rejecting the allowing of women to be ordained as rabbis.
(In a follow up to this blog, I plan to outline the history of rabbinic ordination, the fundamental change in same that took place after the destruction of the 2nd Temple, the real halachic reason that potentially precludes women from the Rabbinate, and a discussion of whether that reason is still applicable. To do both in one post would simply be too long for most readers.)
As an “Orthodox” rabbi, I believe that absolutely, without question there should be women ordained as Orthodox rabbis, and the sooner the better. What is an Orthodox rabbi? A person who has received semicha, ordination, from a recognised Torah institution. To achieve this a person must have mastered the relevant portions of the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch); specifically in the ares pertaining to daily Jewish life (Kashrut/Shabbat/Mikveh etc) and be able to ascertain in any given situation the correct halachic application, or at least to know when a question is too complicated for them, and know from whom to seek clarification.
This is the only real function of the Orthodox rabbi. Yet, the role has expanded beyond the ability of this blog to truly describe in all of its aspects. The rabbi is a “spiritual leader,” an advisor, a confidant. The rabbi is a spokesperson, a visionary, an inspiring lecturer. In short, a teacher.
Is there any issue in Judaism with women being teachers? After we’ve had Devorah the Prophetess, Bruria, Rashi’s three daughters (who helped finish his commentary) and so many others before and since?
R. Shafran agrees on this point, but makes his first argument defending the status quo by writing the following:
For starters, Judaism, in the Orthodox perspective, is predicated not only on the letters of its laws but on their spirit. Though there are only four sections to the mainstay of halachic rulings, the Shulchan Aruch, there is a proverbial, ethereal “fifth section,” consisting of what is appropriate – as determined by the consensus of respected halachic authorities. And it is in this fifth section that we find the issue of congregational leadership roles for women.
Here is where I believe R. Shafran makes his first mistake. He did not even attempt to address the actual halachic issues involved (which as I wrote above, will be addressed in my next blog) but simply relegated the issue to one of the “fifth Shulchan Aruch,” i.e. what today’s Torah leaders deem to be “appropriate” within Jewish society.
If we were in a debate (oh, I guess we are) I would thank him for making my position so easy to defend. The “fifth Shulchan Aruch” is by definition not actually part of the Shulchan Aruch, number one. No one transgressing a “psak” based on the fifth Shulchan Aruch would be transgressing any Torah, or even rabbinic law, even those which command us to follow the “Judges” of our time, an actual Torah commandment. That law only applies to an actual Torah authority, which due to the lack of real “Semicha” since the generation after the death of Yehuda ben Bava (Talmud Sanhedrin 14a) simply does not exist in the sense the verse intends. And even the concept of “daat Yehudit” (normative Halachic practise by observant Jews) does not apply here, as we find in earlier Jewish history, e.g. in the times of Devorah the Prophet, it was absolutely normal for a woman to be a Torah authority — and therefore — we find that halachic social normals can and do change as the people’s needs change. The entire concept in halacha of “rabbi” in the modern era (post “real” Semicha) is extremely vague and ill-defined in itself – and to say a woman functioning as an Orthodox rabbi is “bucking” Orthodoxy, is really only saying said woman is an innovator — a social misfit perhaps among the more right-leaning Orthodox community — but no sinner.
Back to R. Shafran:
This is what the Orthodox Union (OU) decided recently when they took up the question of female clergy. The OU asked a group of seven respected rabbinic authorities whether the current push for Jewish women’s clergy in Orthodox circles is worthy of approval.
I am beyond dismayed that the OU would consider the opinions of only seven rabbis, great as they may be, to be sufficient to decide such a vital initiative.
The rabbis issued a 17-page responsum.
In it, they repeatedly cited the late Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, “Modern Orthodoxy”’s revered religious luminary, and other established authorities. And they concluded 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.”
The prohibition, they added, 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.
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.
Dear Rabbi, my average college research paper was longer than 17 pages.
The idea that the desire of the Jewish people to have women rabbis is because of the “feminist agenda” of having woman take traditional male roles is a complete misrepresentation of the issue. The push is not, at all, for women to “fill every role” that men traditionally filled. The push for this is because WE NEED WOMEN RABBIS. Is that not clear to you, OU? If – when the question was asked of the current Torah authorities – it was phrased as a “push for feminism” then the question was misrepresented, and the resulting decision not applicable. The question must be re-asked, this time by someone who understands why people are indeed asking for women rabbis.
You may ask – why do we need female rabbis? I don’t know how many women you know, or how much research you have done into the great female Torah scholars and teachers of the past, but women contribute a dimension that men simply lack. We need women rabbis – not because we want them to be “just like” men rabbis, but precisely because they are different, and will in time, bring a different perspective to halacha as it evolves through time, and as we, the Jewish people, evolve through time. Without the presence of the feminine psyche infusing our halachic process with its insights, I fear for our future. Because we will not evolve as we should, but rather we will continue to limp along, screaming at modernity as if we could stop it with our “halachic rulings.”
Last quote from R. Shafran:
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.
Rabbi, to put it bluntly, I don’t know if you will consider my blog “pressure from within.” But I am a “voting member” of the Orthodox community (although in truth, I consider myself post-rabbinic, or “post-denominational.”) I am also an ordained Orthodox rabbi, and I studied full-time in Yeshiva and then Kollel for over 20 years. I don’t know your standards for what constitutes a genuine “push from within” as opposed to a secular Zeitgeisty-push. But I know I am not the only one who feels this way.
I hope this post catches fire, and raises a stink, and that the pressure to correct this injustice comes squarely and forcefully from within your own community. Because Rabbi, and the esteemed OU, this is not a battle you should make a stand on. The loss of your youth to modernity is what you really should be focused on. I have an entire cadre of volunteers ready and willing to help you with that. They are women. They just need you to accept that they can do this job – and then give them the authority to help you out. I think it is worthy of your consideration.
Lastly, dear Rabbi, and dear readers, I do not believe as R. Shafran says that it takes “courage” (see his summation) to resist the call for women rabbis. I think it simply takes a shovel and pile of sand, to dig a hole and stick your communal heads into. Times are a changing rabbi, and they always have been.