Orthodox Judaism — Fully Egalitarian? Impossible!

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz has made the kind of unequivocal statement one would — and should — expect from anyone that calls themselves an Orthodox rabbi. His statement is precisely the same argument used by those of us who oppose innovations he supports (like the ordination of women). From the Times of Israel, it reads in pertinent part as follows:

Halakha was never destined to be optimally inclusive or perfectly egalitarian. There was always going to remain a whiff of discrimination (descriptively speaking) which is innate to the system and could never be eliminated. Coupling halakha with modernity was never meant to be the perfect elixir, completely eradicating the existential pain of the modern-and-observant Jew. That is impossible. It can only minimize that pain.

I welcome the clarity of this statement — even while the lines drawn by virtually all mainstream Orthodox Jewish institutions in the world are drawn differently than his lines. This is an important statement because it clearly delineates that societal values never trump the Torah. There are lines that cannot be crossed no matter how unjust they may feel to modern sensibilities.

His point in making this statement was that all the possible accommodations to modernity made by Progressive Orthodoxy (formerly known as Open Orthodoxy)… have already been made. We cannot go further. There is much to be done elsewhere, he says, and we ought to be getting on with that. The battles are over. Their progressive agenda has taken hold. The war has been won. Female rabbis are a reality (albeit one that has to be nourished, he says). Case closed.

I hope he’s right about the battles and war being over. But I think he is mistaken about winning the war.

As noted here many times, there has been no acceptance of female rabbis by any mainstream Orthodox institution anywhere in the world. Not a single posek of stature has endorsed it. Member synagogues of the OU may not hire a female rabbi. Doing so would void membership in the OU. Negotiations with member synagogues that currently have female rabbis are taking place. But if their status quo in that regard remains they will surely be expelled. To paraphrase Mark Twain, news of their survival is greatly exaggerated!At least as any kind of Orthodox Judaism.

And yet Rabbi Katz calls it a reality — albeit a reluctant one. The issue has been conquered. Progressive Orthodoxy can afford to retreat.

I heartily endorse them doing that. Not because they have won. But because they have lost even if they don’t realize it yet. Retreating is the right thing to do. Because if they insist on maintaining this new innovation they will eventually write themselves out of Orthodoxy. Not because I say so. But because Orthodoxy itself does, by dint of rejecting what they have done.

Rabbi Katz might counter this and say that what he means is that the genie is out of the bottle. Women are being ordained and serving their synagogues as rabbis. No one is going to change that. It will only increase.

It is true that women are being ordained. It is also true that some women are already serving as rabbis. (Whether that increases remains to be seen.) What is also true, however, is that it is not accepted as a legitimate form of Orthodoxy by any Orthodox institution. Synagogues doing so will not be considered Orthodox. This is not called winning. It’s called wishful thinking.

One may ask, who gets to define Orthodoxy? Why shouldn’t Progressive Orthodoxy have the same right to be called that as does the right-wing or Centrist Orthodoxy?

True, they can call themselves anything they want. A person has the right to call cubic zirconia a diamond if he wants to. But that will not make it a diamond no matter how much he says it is. Even though it closely resembles a diamond. Only those with expertise in the precious gem industry have that right. They are the most educated in the matter and therefore have the most expertise. They are the only ones that can decide what is and isn’t a real diamond.

So too with Orthodoxy. When it comes to the definition — it remains in the hands of the people that know Torah the best — the mainstream poskim of our day. When there is universal agreement among them about a parameter being crossed — it is crossed.

This is the case with female rabbis. Those who accept or endorse it might call themselves Orthodox. But they are no more Orthodox than a cubic zirconia is a diamond.

There are those who will say, ‘So What?’ ‘Who cares what they are called?’ ‘If they think they’re right, who is anyone to tell them to stop?’ ‘Let them do what they believe in — and see what happens!’

This is true. But it was also true for a movement founded over 100 years ago that also wanted to be considered Orthodox. They too considered themselves to be a Halachic movement. Today, there is not a single Orthodox rabbi — including Rabbi Katz — who would make such a claim. Conservative Judaism is not — and never really was Orthodox.

If Progressive Orthodoxy goes that route, I fear it will have a similar outcome. I do not believe that Progressive Orthodoxy wants to do that. Which is why they continue to use the word ‘Orthodox’ in any label they choose for themselves. Whether the prefix is ‘Open’, ‘Liberal’, or ‘Progressive’.

Perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part. But I hope that when Progressive Orthodox leaders see the actual truth rather than what they think it is — they will realize that they have not won the war but have have lost it! And finally abandon this position as a well intended mistake — difficult though that may be.  A mistake that at the end of the day, cannot fully satisfy the egalitarian agenda in any case — just as Rabbi Katz has clearly stated. And then they can turn their attention to what he says they should be doing next. Something all of Orthodoxy should  be doing as well: ‘reorient its energies towards creating a religiously vibrant home front.’

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.