Listening To Ecclesiastes

Sadly, the conversation about women clergy has been hijacked by radicals talking past each other. Now that they have had a chance to let off some steam (in tabloid magazines and incessant blog-posts), they will hopefully vacate the public arena and let saner voices take center stage. (Not that there is anything wrong with letting off steam. The rabbis claim (Eicha Rabba 4) that even G-d sometimes does it.)

The absence of intra-denominational flame throwers will allow the mature voices in both camps to start talking and listening to one another. There is a lot they can discuss.

The liberal camp’s critiques are legitimate and the conservative camp’s fears are understandable. Both deserve a hearing. Mature and respectful dialogue will produce a healthy synthesis, taking into account the goals and aspirations of each side.

The RCA’s fatal mistake hinges on one word. Their strident statement confused COULDN’T with SHOULDN’T. They said women cannot be rabbis, which is, of course, not true. Women CAN be rabbis. There is absolutely no real halakhic argument against them serving as clergy*. This is why their statement boomeranged. People dislike being bullied and misled.

However, if instead of a piercing COULDN’T, their statement had a soft SHOULDN’T, they would have received a hearing. That women CAN be rabbis does not mean that they HAVE to be. Even if one day it will be deemed that they SHOULD become rabbis, the communally appropriate title can still be debated. Let us begin those conversations.

The RCA statement is an embarrassment to Modern Orthodoxy. It makes orthodoxy look archaic, mean and reactionary. (Subsequent essays defending the resolution by negating Rav Soloveitchik’s complex legacy, only exacerbated the situation. The essayists portray him as a run-of-the-mill ultra-orthodox thinker. Nothing, of course, can be further from the truth.) Hopefully the damage can still be reversed. One hopes that, for the sake of the Jewish community, more responsible voices in the organization will undo the damage. They will pull the community back from the brink and instead engage in respectful dialogue about how to make Modern Orthodoxy viable for the next generation.

For Modern Orthodoxy to thrive, we need to make sure it is vibrant, relevant and authentic. The liberal camp has great ideas on how to make orthodoxy relevant to the younger generation, while the traditional camp has important ideas on how to maintain its authenticity. Together we can produce a sophisticated product: a nuanced and invigorated Modern Orthodoxy which is attractive to the thousands of Jews to our left, and at the same time still sounds authentic to the thousands of youngsters to our right.

The Navi tells us (Zecharya 4:6): לא בחיל ולא בכח כי אם ברוחי אמר ה׳ צבאות; the loud and aggressive voice is ungodly, the Divine message is articulated contemplatively and methodically. Ecclesiastes (9:17) compliments that message by telling us that דברי חכמים בנחת נשמעים מזעקת מושל בכסילים; the learned voice is pleasant and humble.

Let our community resort to civil and religiously productive discourse-now.

*None of the halakhic arguments proffered by the opponents of female clergy hold up under scrutiny.

1) Serara:

The Rambam is a שיטת יחידאי, we don’t pasken like him, nor is today’s Rabbinate a position of serara, since a rabbi isn’t the final authority on communal matters. As a matter of fact, Maimonides also prohibits converts from having leadership positions. No one would argue that geirei tzedek cannot be rabbis. (See Igrot Moshe YD 2:44; Shalot U’teshuvot Binyan Av, Siman 65)

2) Mesorah:

The relationship between Modern Orthodoxy and Mesorah is not obvious. Modern Orthodoxy repeatedly bucks mesorah. We pursue Torah U’madah, teach our girls Gemara and do many other things which are antithetical to mesorah.

3) Tzniut:
If taking a public role is indeed antithetical to tzniut, we would have to forbid women from being lawyers, CEOs or corporate leaders.

About the Author
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is the Senior Rabbi of PHS, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and Chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for more ten years, and is a graduate of the HaSha'ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz taught at the Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and SAR High School, and gave a popular daf yomi class in Brooklyn for more than eight years.
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