Jonathan Muskat

I Understand the OU’s Position and I Understand the Frustration

I understand the frustration. I understand the frustration that some may feel with the OU’s decision regarding women clergy because it is based on a ruling from last year that seemed to some to be lacking in rigorous halachic analysis. In truth, a rigorous halachic analysis probably would have increased the size of the Rabbinic responsum from seventeen pages to hundreds of pages.  Rather, it seems that the authors of the responsum preferred to write a shorter presentation simply outlining their perspective on the issue.  I personally hope to invite some of the authors of the responsum to our community in the spring or fall for a Q & A to address how some of the issues that underlie the responsum such as “serarah,” “kavod tzibbur,”tzeniut,”mesorah” and “minhag” apply in this context and permit certain roles and forbid other roles for women and why this is such a critical issue for the orthodox community.  I think it is good to have face-to-face interaction with the Poskim of our communities.  A dialogue has the obvious advantage over a responsum in that we can have meaningful give and take to perhaps better appreciate each other’s position.

I also understand the frustration that the modern orthodox community may have with a ruling based on values. Values are fluid and not fixed and are subject to interpretation. Two reasonable people can look at the same issue and interpret the values underlying that issue differently.  But I think it is mistaken to think that we only approach our Torah leaders for halachic decision-making and not for policy decision-making based on values that emerge from the halachic system.  Last week, Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier wrote an article for the Lehrhaus comparing two different approaches to the Jewish legal system that emerge from the writings of Rabbi Jacob ben Asher of Toledo, known as the Ba’al ha-Turim (d. ~1343), and Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven of Gerona, known as the Ran (d. 1376).  He argued that according the Ran, the goal of the Jewish legal system is more than simply pragmatic.  The goal is to share God’s will and God’s values with the world.  Perhaps this is why judges are called “elohim,” the same name given to God, because their interpretation of the Torah results in the realization of the values of the Divine in this world.

I personally can appreciate the position of those who advocate for women clergy based on their interpretation of the sources, just as I can appreciate the Charedi position when it comes to women’s leadership which is far more restrictive than the OU’s position. There are costs and benefits to each approach, as each approach has a different interpretation of values that emerge from the halacha.  For me personally, when my modern-day judges to whom I turn for halachic guidance all agree regarding a particular Divine value that emerges from the halacha, i.e., the proper roles for women’s leadership within the Jewish community, it is appropriate and responsible to defer to their judgment.

This is how I understand the OU’s position. The OU leadership has its set of Poskim, modern-day judges, and they have ruled on this issue and they feel that this issue is of critical importance to the future of orthodoxy.  Those shuls who disagree with this ruling represent a movement that has their own set of Poskim that emerge with a different set of values from similar sources.  I would love to think that we can all find a way to compromise and be united in a “modern orthodox” organization like the OU. However, the reality seems to be that we are two different movements because we have two different sets of Rabbinic leadership with fundamental disagreements and the issue of women clergy may be symptomatic of these fundamental disagreements. I am not confident that we can emerge united from this issue, but only time will tell.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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