No, Rabbi Student, Professor Lieberman’s Responsum Does NOT Apply

In the recent RCA resolution, Rabbi Gil Student referred to the teshuvah of Prof. Shaul Lieberman of Jewish Theological Seminary when the Conservative Movement was dealing with the issue of women rabbis. Rabbi Student’s rationale is that if Prof. Lieberman of the Conservative Movement was not ‘for’ women rabbis, a fortiori for Orthodoxy.

I found this reference to Professor Lieberman quite curious, as the Orthodox movement has considered all the rest of Prof. Lieberman’s immense scholarship as invalid. I asked my father, Prof. Rabbi David Novak, one of Prof. Lieberman’s greatest living scholars, for his impression and Rabbi Student’s co-opting of Prof. Lieberman’s opinion. What follows is my letter and my father’s response.

Dear Daddy,

As you are most certainly aware, the RCA has put forth a pronouncement against ordination, semikha, for women in the Orthodox community. This statement was specifically directed to the women who have been ordained and are current students, including myself, at Yeshivat Maharat.

Those who crafted the resolution, Rabbi Gil Student, in particular, include many details in their opinion. Student and others point to their interpretation of Jewish law. Additionally, they continually highlight Professor Lieberman’s teshuvah regarding women rabbis when the issue raised itself in the ’80s at JTS. Many know of your connection to Prof. Lieberman as not only his greatest student (in my humble opinion), but also as his legitimate representative to his approach to learning and halakha. I am so grateful to have your strong support as I begin my studies this year at Yeshivat Maharat for the purpose of eventual ordination. Many have asked me, however, given Prof. Lieberman’s supposed stance on women rabbis, how you could be so in favor of my decision?

While I am able to assure those asking that you would never endorse this course unless you thought it was within the bounds of halakha, I am limited in my ability to fully describe and explain what Prof. Lieberman’s possible opinion of Yeshivat Maharat would have been. It would be most helpful to hear your thoughts on the matter as the true link to Prof. Lieberman. It is important that Prof. Lieberman’s legacy not be hijacked by those who at all other times regarded him as a persona non grata, albeit the greatest talmudic scholar of the modern era.

Thank you so very much for taking the time to respond to this.


29 Marcheshvan 5776
11 November 2015

Dear Marianne,

The 30 October 2015 statement of the Rabbinical Council of America prohibiting their members from recognizing the graduates of Yeshivat Maharat as “clergy” is their own business. Whether Yeshivat Maharat or any of its graduates are “Orthodox” or not is difficult to ascertain, primarily because neither the RCA nor any other institution has a copyright on the name “Orthodox.” As for the charge that Yeshivat Maharat is contradicting “the norms of our community,” I would say that the recent resignations of Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Asher Lopatin from the RCA indicate that the leadership of Yeshivat Maharat have removed themselves from “our community,” but not from the larger, more informal world that calls itself “Orthodox” or “Traditional.” Finally, the RCA statement only reflects the mores or “outlook” (hashkafah) of their organization. Despite their mention of “consultation with poskim,” they do not name them, nor do they cite any actual halakhic opinion having the mandatory citations from undisputed halakhic sources. So, for all these reasons, you and your teachers and colleagues need not be intimidated by this statement, despite its rather intimidating tone.

As for Rabbi Gil Student’s citation of the responsum written in the late 1970s by my late revered master and teacher, Ha-Gaon Professor Saul Lieberman, it is beside the point. Professor Lieberman might have been opposed to any clerical role for women. Nevertheless, he only cited the classical sources that indicate that only men may be dayyanim or even serve on a bet din as laymen (hedyotim). Since Yeshivat Maharat is careful to remain within the bounds of Halakhah by not ordaining women to roles that are proscribed by Halakhah, Professor Lieberman’s responsum does not apply to the yeshivah or to any of its graduates.
As one of those who solicited Professor Lieberman’s responsum (although it is only addressed to five members of the Talmud faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was Rector or Reish Metivta until his death in 1985), I know that in the atmosphere of the Conservative Movement then as now, no halakhic distinctions would have been kept by the increasing egalitarian leadership and membership of the movement. Even the Seminary itself was already being led by the late Professor Gerson Cohen, whose egalitarian views had been made public. That is why I was opposed to the ordination of women by the Jewish Theological Seminary, beginning in 1983, and that is why I am quite consistent in my full support of the very different ordination of women such as yourself by Yeshivat Maharat in 2015.

When in the 1970s those of us who later became the leaders of the Union for Traditional Judaism were first organizing, Professor Lieberman wrote us words of encouragement. He quoted Mishnah: Peah 4.1 that we “should only heed the one who spoke according to Halakhah,” even if ninety-nine others speak differently. Since you and Yeshivat Maharat are not in violation of any halakhic norms, you are therefore acting “according to Halakhah” (see Ramban’s comments on Kiddushin 31a). Since your clear intention is to serve God, the Torah, the Jewish people and our tradition, you show yourselves and the world that what you are doing sanctifies God’s name in the world. My late revered teacher (also at the Jewish Theological Seminary), Ha-Gaon Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel, once quoted to me when I was in a situation where I too was facing fierce opposition: “Ride on for the sake of truth” (Psalms 45:5).


Your Dad

About the Author
Rabbi Marianne Novak recently received Semikha from Yeshivat Maharat. She lives in Skokie, IL with her husband Noam Stadlan. She is an educator for the Melton Adult Education Program and a Gabbait for the Skokie Women's Tefillah Group.