Noam Stadlan
Noam Stadlan

Ordination for women: Halakha versus negative perspectives

We are at the start of the season of the “three weeks” when we mourn the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. According to tradition, the second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred.  Our tradition also notes that baseless hatred is the result of a problem of perspective. The classic Biblical example is the story of the spies. When the Children of Israel were in the desert after fleeing Egypt, they sent spies to view the Land of Israel. The spies saw and described a beautiful land, but then the majority imposed a negative perspective on what they saw, thus leading to death, 40 more years of wandering in the wilderness and perhaps most crucially, to sinat chinam. The facts about the land were clear and present, and two spies, Joshua and Caleb, spoke positively about the land. But their voices were drowned out by those who chose to impose their negative perspective and assumptions.

We do not need to look to history for a lesson on the impact of how negative perspectives are harmful and lead to strife and sinat chinam. We have the example of the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and many others like him. Rabba Dr. Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz, an extremely popular teacher for 16 years at the LSJS (London School of Jewish Studies), already had a PhD, but devoted an additional three years to study for rabbinic ordination in order to better serve her students and community. Essentially on the day that she was to receive her rabbinic ordination, she was fired by Rabbi Mirvis. Her “crime”? Investing 3 years of intensive study and having the temerity to receive ordination.

Rabbi Mirvis is not the only one to have a negative view of women’s leadership. The Orthodox Union[1] has threatened to remove synagogues that hire female clergy. The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County[2] threatened to revoke the membership of a rabbi member for mentoring female clergy.  These organizations and leaders obviously share a very negative view of women’s leadership, and it has led to much sinat chinam, threats, and division in the Orthodox community.

A fundamental tenet of Orthodox Judaism is an adherence to halakha, Jewish Law. One might think that these opponents of women’s leadership would claim to be following halakha and provide clear, logical, and unambiguous proofs in support of the very drastic and draconian steps they have taken. While they do obviously claim to be following halakha, they also invoke other rationales, and have not provided irrefutable support for their position-because there actually isn’t a halakhic problem with women’s religious leadership or ordination. The problem is that they, like the spies, have chosen to cast ordination for women in the worst possible light. It isn’t an issue of Halakhic fact,[3] it is an issue of perspective.

The lack of Halakhic support for these opponents is clear from what they have written. Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman for the Agudath Israel of America, wrote against Orthodox female rabbis.[4] He did not quote any halakha from the 4 sections of the Shulchan Aruch (codes of Jewish Law), but claimed the opposition was based in an unwritten 5th section- essentially what he or someone else believed. Imagine, an Orthodox rabbi telling us not to follow halakha, but what he or someone else believed. The rabbinic panel of the Orthodox Union devoted the majority of their paper against women rabbis, not to a fact and citation filled psak (rabbinic decision), but to arguments designed to bolster their authority. The document demonstrates that they were deciding based on feeling and gestalt, rather than on halakha. The specific halakhic arguments were few and illogical. For example, they stated that women were prohibited from occupying positions of power because of serarah.[5] Even if one were to accept this argument, they went on to claim that because of the prohibition of power, a woman could not perform any of the duties usually performed by clergy, even when those duties that could be performed by non-clergy and having absolutely nothing to do with power. They went so far to invent a new and previously unknown Halakhic category: things clergy do. They wrote:

The spectrum of functions appropriately considered as the role of clergy can be identified by duties generally expected from, and often reserved for, a synagogue rabbi. These common functions include, but are not limited to: ….officiating at religiously significant life-cycle events, (e.g. brit milah, baby naming, bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, weddings and funerals), the regular practice of delivering sermons from the pulpit during services, presiding over or “leading services” at a minyan and formally serving as the synagogue’s primary religious mentor, teacher, and spiritual guide.[6]

None of these activities are remotely related to the exercise of authority. One does not need to be a rabbi to ‘officiate’ at a baby naming, or any of the other activities listed above. Quite simply, the authors of the OU paper began with a negative view of women’s leadership, and constructed flimsy arguments around their beliefs.

Even Rabbi Mirvis, in his statement regarding the firing of Rabba Dr. Taylor-Guthartz, didn’t mention halakhah. This would have been the perfect time for the Chief Rabbi to instruct and educate everyone on the Halakhic problem that bothered him so much that he had to fire a 61 year old beloved college teacher. Instead of halakah, he gave a sociological reason:

… a continued formal affiliation with a person who, while having contributed a great deal to the institution, had nonetheless stepped beyond the boundaries of mainstream Orthodoxy… would have sent a misleading message about what LSJS stands for — a message which would have compromised its longstanding commitment to Orthodox Jewish education and training, the consequences of which could have been significant and far-reaching for LSJS.[7]

Essentially Rabbi Mirvis was so concerned about how the school would be perceived by others, he was willing to fire one of his employees because of that worry.

There are other examples of the negative perspective exhibited by the opponents of ordination for women. These opponents regularly question the motivation of the women involved, and accuse them of trying to subvert Judaism. They baselessly equate the desire for removing unwarranted restrictions with heresy. As a point of comparison, there are other groups that are treated differently in halakha– such as the blind, cheresh (deaf/mute), and shoteh. Thankfully there has been progress in removing unwarranted restrictions on these groups, and rabbis in fact have gone to great lengths and employed significant halakhic creativity to minimize restrictions, and positively change how the members of these groups are perceived halakhically. Certainly the Rabbis have not called into question the motivation of those advocating for lessening the restrictions on these groups, nor labelled their quest to be one of heresy.

If one were to judge based on Halakhic fact, there really wouldn’t be any opposition to ordination for women. As Prof. /Rabbi Marc Shapiro wrote, most Orthodox rabbis would admit privately that there is nothing Halakhically problematic with ordination for women.[8]

The negative view of ordination is the same historic view of women that resulted in sayings such as “Women’s wisdom is solely in the spindle (Yoma 66b).” And “The words of the Torah should be burned rather than entrusted to women” (JT Sotah 3:4, 19a). It is the same view that led the Rambam to claim that a woman should not leave her house more than a few times a month, and led the Chafetz Chayyim, Rabbi Ozer Grodzinski, and Rav Kook to object to women’s suffrage. Many more examples could be cited, because our social and Halakhic history is one of restrictions on women that have been gradually lifted. Thankfully, Orthodox Judaism, especially Modern Orthodox/Religious Zionist society, has overcome much of that historic perception of women,[9] and substituted a positive perspective that has removed many obstacles previously placed on women. But unfortunately remnants of the historical attitude persist, and the opposition to ordination for women is a manifestation of that historical attitude. The OU paper in fact concentrated on the concept of mesorah (tradition) which in this case meant that they wanted to maintain the historic conception of women, despite the lack of halakhic support for the ban on ordination.

Rav Kook, the opponent of women’s suffrage, wrote (Orot HaKodesh II 544) that ‘the world is made up of a goodness that constantly increases…in the past man’s nature and desires were coarser than they are now, and in the future they will be more refined than they are at the present.’   R. Walter Wurzburger[10] wrote “…there is a great deal of positive value contained in modern attitudes of dignity, human understanding, and rationality…. whenever the Torah is silent, we can embrace many modern values, because that is one of the ways in which God reveals himself.”  There is a difference between that which is old, and that which is timeless. The progress over time in how women and men are viewed should be seen as positive, similarly as to how views have changed on slavery, the blind, and other Halakhic categories.  Halakhic values and halakha are timeless, negative perspectives on women are simply old.

The haftarah for this week concluded with a famous line from the prophet Micha (6:8) – “What does the Lord require of you, only to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”  The last part, ‘walk humbly with God’, has frequently been quoted by opponents of women holding public or authority positions to justify the imposition of ‘modesty’ requirements on women. Those requirements are frequently extra-Halachic and a result of a negative perspective on women. Unfortunately, the beginning of the sentence is frequently ignored. Not only are we required to walk humbly with God, but to do justice and love chesed (kindness). Justice is following the letter of the law, and there is no law against ordination for women. Part of chesed is judging positively, and avoiding negative perspectives.

The Three Weeks that we have entered is a time of introspection, and a time to evaluate our thoughts and actions, and the impact of those actions. I hope that the opponents of ordination for women will think long and hard about their opposition, the basis for their opposition, and the effects of their opposition. It is hard to imagine believing that the survival of our religion depends on imposing non-Halakhic restrictions on women. Their needlessly negative perspective on women and ordination for women has resulted in sinat chinam. People and organizations have been ostracized, there has been a loss of employment and blacklisting from job prospects, threats against rabbis and synagogues, and worse. Let us all re-evaluate our perspectives, especially regarding those that we disagree with, and try to find the positive perspective, eliminate the negative, and banish the sinat chinam. 

[1] https://www.jta.org/2017/02/02/default/ou-bars-women-from-serving-as-clergy-in-its-synagogues

[2] https://www.timesofisrael.com/in-nj-orthodox-rabbis-vote-to-bar-a-colleague-for-training-female-clergy/

[3] For my review of the OU paper, please see here: Gender Roles in Ordination, Leadership and the Public: An Analysis of the OU Paper | jewishideas.org . See also Rabbi/Prof. Daniel Sperber in his book length treatment of the topic and his shorter paper here:  (PDF) Daniel Sperber, “On Women in Rabbinic Leadership Positions,” Meorot, vol. 8 (2010): 1-12 | Daniel Sperber – Academia.edu. For more resources including teshuvot by Rabbis Fox, Bigman, Rabinovitch, Gilad, Bazak, Bin Nun and others, see here: teshuvot_ordination | Yeshivat Maharat

[4] https://forward.com/opinion/385146/the-ou-is-right-orthodox-women-shouldnt-be-rabbis/

[5] There is more than ample proof that rabbinic positions are not considered serarah, and the vast majority of Rishonim do not forbid women from positions of serarah. Furthermore, forbidding women from positions of authority, if taken seriously and consistently, would forbid them from ALL positions of authority, religious and secular. This is an excellent example not of clear and logical Halachic thinking, but of the maxim-‘Where there is rabbinic will to forbid, a Halakhic way will be found.’

[6] https://www.ou.org/assets/Responses-of-Rabbinic-Panel.pdf

[7] https://www.timesofisrael.com/uk-chief-rabbi-axes-educator-after-she-receives-orthodox-rabbinic-ordination/

[8] For example see here: http://seforim.blogspot.com/2012/03/answers-to-quiz-questions-and-other.html#_ftn1  (note the multitude of sources negating the claim that women cannot provide ‘hora’ah’). It is specifically stated in this post:  http://seforim.blogspot.com/2013/05/partnership-minyanim-and-more.html

[9] Essentially all secular societies have also had negative views of women. For example, it wasn’t until 1971 that women had the legal right to have a credit card. See:  https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/9-things-women-could-not-do/ .  We have also overcome negative perceptions of other groups such as the blind, cheresh, shoteh and others.

[10] Wurzburger, Walter S. “Confronting the Challenge of the Values of Modernity” The Torah u’Madda Journal available here:  download.yutorah.org/TUJ/TU1_Wurtzburger.pdf   I strongly encourage everyone to read this paper.

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About the Author
Noam Stadlan, MD is Vice-Chairman, Department of Neurosurgery at NorthShore University Healthcare System and received a Masters in Bioethics from New York Medical College/Touro. He is a member of the JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Alliance Feminist) board. His wife, Rabbi Marianne Novak, is an educator and a graduate of Yeshivat Maharat.
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