Our heavenly voices: A response to Avrohom Gordimer

Along with Rabbis Gil Student and Steven Pruzansky, Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer has emerged as the leading critic of the trend to ordain women as Orthodox clergy. He has written extensively and repeatedly on the subject, attacking anything which smacks as religious innovation based on changing social attitudes, defending a traditional, patriarchal approach to Torah and ritual, which for him is the only authentic version of Judaism.

Gordimer is a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), a professional association of Orthodox rabbis which passed a recent resolution that not only reiterated the RCA’s long-standing ban on women rabbis but went further in also rejecting the ordinations offered by seminaries for women such as Yeshivat Maharat. “Maharat” is an acronym in Hebrew for Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit, which means, “one who is a leader in Halakhah (Jewish Law), spirituality and Torah.” At Maharat, students follow a traditional course of rabbinical studies and are certified as decisors of Jewish law. However, they are not given the title of rabbi but are instead encouraged to work out a professional title with the communities they serve. Some graduates of Maharat in fact use the title “Maharat.” Others have used titles such as Rabba or Moroteinu.

Prior to the RCA resolution, the linguistic difference between rabbi and the various titles used by Maharat graduates allowed for creative ambiguity. Women studied to be Orthodox religious leaders and were given a degree which recognized their knowledge and skill, but were not given the title of rabbi. Had they wanted, the RCA could have remained officially opposed to the ordination of women rabbis, while accepting that institutions like Maharat would continue their work, allowing changes in gender roles to play out gradually within the Orthodox community.

Gordimer and his allies like Rabbi Student, who sponsored the resolution, reject that approach, seeing the degrees granted by Yeshivat Maharat and other such schools as opening a side door towards full rabbinical ordination of women, something which they believe is antithetical to a pure Orthodox Judaism.

In passing the resolution, the RCA brought the issue to an explosive head. However, if it was intended — as it seemed to be — to definitively establish that Orthodoxy would never accept women’s ordination, something very different happened. It caused a furious backlash. Even many inclined to agree with the RCA were upset with the brazenness of the resolution which was seen as unnecessarily provocative. Various media outlets struck with condemnation. Prominent members of the Orthodox rabbinate, accustomed to being deferred to, especially on religious matters, found themselves or at least their views subject to ridicule. The RCA was accused of being backwards, out of step or even misogynistic. One prominent Orthodox rabbi called the fallout a “bad dream.”

Many in the RCA publicly distanced themselves from the resolution and were anxious to point out that it passed with only a small percentage of members actually voting. Some RCA members maintained their opposition to women rabbis but argued that there was no reason for a new resolution. As another unintended consequence, many supporters of Orthodox female ordination (of whatever title) began speaking for the first time or the first time publicly about actually calling Orthodox female spiritual leaders “rabbis”. So in the end, the resolution had precisely the opposite of its intended effect; the net result is that, for the first time, significant segments of the American Orthodox community began speaking openly and positively about Orthodox female rabbinic ordination.

Supporters of ordination often argue that the title “rabbi” is simply the recognition of a completed course of study. It is a degree, not much different from calling someone “doctor” when they graduate medical school. Women and men follow the same curriculum; they should be entitled to the same or at least equivalent degrees. The principle argument against women’s ordination has two inter-related components. First, it is seen as contrary to Jewish law, or halacha. Second, since there is no precedent for it in Orthodox Judaism, it would constitute a radical change such that it would upend the character of what it means to be an Orthodox Jew. In this sense, it is seen as violating mesorah, or tradition.

Proponents of ordination have, to some degree, neutralized the first argument by saying they do not want to change halacha. They are emphatically not seeking expanded ritual roles for women which are prohibited by a traditional halacha, such as the ability to count in a minyan (prayer quorum). Unlike other religions, such as Catholicism, where clergy have defined theological roles, in Judaism, while rabbis are recognized as the most learned and knowledgeable within the community, they are not enjoined to play any specific religious or ritual role which another learned Jew who is not a rabbi would be unable to perform.

There are some exceptions to this general rule which touch upon an interesting but ancillary debate about whether or not ordination permits a rabbi to serve as a judge on a rabbinical court — something explicitly prohibited for women by certain classical Jewish sources. Although Gordimer has tried to make a big issue out of this, saying women’s ordination paves the way for them to serve as rabbinical judges in, what he sees, as a clear violation of Jewish law, it is important not to be side-tracked by this argument. The current debate is not about whether women can serves as judges on a rabbinical court but rather about whether women can be spiritual and religious leaders in Orthodox communities.

Throughout this debate many have wondered why women who seek ordination do not become Conservative rabbis. Conservative Judaism is fully egalitarian and unlike Reform Judaism remains committed to Jewish law, albeit with a far less rigid approach than Orthodoxy. Conservative Judaism sometimes allows modifications to Jewish law in light of changing societal attitudes. The response from those seeking ordination has often been that they do not want to be Conservative rabbis precisely because they are committed to a strictly traditional halachic practice and Conservative rabbis are not. Indeed, much of the argument for the legitimization of Orthodox female clergy is that they are emphatically not practicing like Conservative Jews.

The second objection to ordination is that it violates mesorah, or tradition. Although somewhat amorphous as a concept, when Gordimer speaks about tradition, he is referring to something specific, even mystical: “Mesorah relates to that which is beyond our local perception, which lacks codification, which is nearly inscrutable and is not at all apparent to one standing on ground level. Inability to discern Mesorah does not negate its existence.” With respect to women rabbis, “Our Mesorah is that women are not ordained as rabbis. There is no tradition to the alternative, and to assert that no Mesorah exists on the matter requires a near-omniscient understanding of this eternal practice and its background, so as to rule out any and all unknown material considerations behind the practice, such that it can be declassified from the category of Mesorah.” For Gordimer, mesorah has theological implications, which are “eternal.” Mesorah, for him, is not simply a matter of familiar custom and practice but rather a body of laws which even most Orthodox Jews do not understand.

Gordimer makes a rather stunning admission: “a shockingly large number of our observances could be dismissed and discarded due to lack of apparently compelling source or halachic mandate,” but we do them because they are required by an authoritative tradition, a mesorah. In other words, there are any number of Jewish practices that are not specifically codified in Jewish law, but must be observed as if they were because of the tradition.

And who has the ability to explicate this mesorah which is “beyond our local perception”? Who has the “near-omniscient understanding of this eternal practice” of mesorah? To Gordimer, only the greatest and most learned rabbis of the day, the Torah Giants, the leading poskim, have the wisdom, knowledge, and prudence not only to make changes to tradition but also to fully understand it in the first place.

These rabbinical authorities are against ordination. Why? In Gordimer’s argument they have their reasons; they could cite us some authorities, but ultimately reasons do not matter because we will never have their understanding. So whatever their reason(s), we, the unwashed, should simply defer to them. By contrast, Rabbi Avi Weiss, the leading proponent of women’s ordination, believes that mesorah can evolve, saying, “Today, the debate concerning women’s ordination is not halachic, but rather sociological.”

There is a long, venerable tradition in Judaism which reveres the opinion of the most learned rabbis of the age. While local rabbis are empowered to answer communal questions, only the Torah Giants can opine on the major ones. Anything else, as Gordimer writes, is “hubris.” And while Avi Weiss is a knowledgeable rabbi, he is not considered one of the giants by Gordimer, Student, Pruzansky and others, so therefore, his opinion that women can be ordained is not only wrong, it is an act of supreme arrogance in that it usurps interpretative authority from those who should truly have it.

For traditionalists, what is at stake is not only women’s ordination in and of itself but the authority of the leading poskim over Orthodox Judaism. What is at stake is who is in control of what Orthodox Judaism is and means. One can understand, then, the shock, anger and even bewilderment from Gordimer as supporters of ordination took to the internet with heartfelt blog entries and change.org petitions to argue their cause. This is not how we do it, responds Gordimer; the attitudes and practices of actual Orthodox Jews simply do not matter in the face of what the poskim decree and those non-poskim who think their opinions do matter are not really Orthodox (or at least are not practicing Orthodox Judaism).

But there is shaky footing at the core of this mesorah argument. Says Gordimer, “The reasons expressed by the preeminent poskim who have addressed the issue of semicha [ordination] for women and ruled it out of bounds may very well form the basis for the Mesorah that women are not ordained as rabbis.” Here, he says quite clearly, that the reasons expressed by these poskim “form the basis” for the mesorah that women are not ordained. In other words, their own reasons, whatever they may be, are not only determinative, they form the actual basis for the tradition.

While the leading rabbis of any age deserve a loud, perhaps the loudest voice in any discussion of Jewish law, they do not have the only voice. Judaism is a religion which is largely practiced by the individual. We do it in our homes, when we are eating, when we are with our families. Jewish law is lived in the most intimate of ways. Decisions about how Judaism should be practiced cannot only be the province of scholars. The day-in, day-out experiences of the amcha, the people, must also be taken in account. If they are not, Judaism runs the risk of becoming a religion of rules without spirituality, of ritual without intent, of scholars talking to each other and no one else. This is precisely the phenomenon which Avi Weiss seeks to prevent when he asks, “is our focus on boundaries, fences, high and thick — obsessing and spending inordinate amounts of time ostracizing and condemning and declaring who is not in — or is our focus on creating welcoming spaces to enhance the character of what Orthodoxy could look like in the 21st century?”

When we are told we must accept certain rabbis’ opinions, that they have the force of law even when those opinions are based upon an amorphous and seemingly unknowable tradition, a tradition which only these few rabbis understand and can speak about intelligently, then we no longer have rabbis, but priests. We no longer have explicators of tradition, but espousers of a religion. We no longer have interpreters of sources, but new original sources themselves.

We have elected a few to rule as voices from heaven. This runs contrary to the notion of a covenantal community where each Jew is to understand that he or she was present at Sinai when God’s word was revealed. This is not to suggest that every opinion is correct or that there is no proper way to distinguish between competing interpretations of ritual and practice. It is only to suggest that the arguments “because I say so” or “it’s never been done and we’re not starting now” do not suffice, no matter who says them.

About the Author
Judah Skoff, one of the Jewish Week's 36 Under 36, is a lawyer and writer. He was a Berrie Leadership Fellow and a Fellow at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. His plays have been performed in New York, London and at numerous theatres across the United States. His awards include the National Playwriting Competition, the New Jersey Playwright's Contest, and two Governor's Awards in the Arts. He graduated from Brown University and cum laude from Boston University School of Law where he was named Edward S. Hennessey Scholar and Paul J. Liacos Scholar. The views expressed are strictly his own.
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