When staying in Jerusalem, I frequently visit the Ramban shul in Katamon. It’s a large, Modern Orthodox shul, but with a difference. Its rabbi, Binyamin (Benny) Lau, comes from a well-known and politically-connected family (his father was the late Naftali Lau-Lavi, the Israeli Consul General in New York, and his uncle is R. Yisrael Lau, a former chief rabbi) and he has earned a well-deserved reputation for scholarship and communal activism through his many books and communal projects. He also has a reputation as a religious maverick by virtue of the roles women play in his shul. At his insistence, a “rabbanit”, or woman rabbi, serves alongside him (they alternate in giving Shabbat drashot and consult each other on halachic questions). For their bat mitzvoth, girls read the Torah at a separate, all women’s minyan (and they read it again at an all-women’s minyan on Shavuot). Women also regularly lecture from the podium to the entire congregation between Shabbat Mincha and Ma’ariv.
I thought about the Ramban shul and its rabbanit when reading about the latest kerfuffle in the Bergen County Jewish community. Its local rabbinic organization, the RCBC, which is charged with overseeing the community’s Kashruth and conversions, recently adopted a by-law that would have had required the expulsion of a Teaneck rabbi whose shul employs women rabbinic interns. The by-law change was meant to be kept secret, but the secret came out with the predictable outcome; many in the lay community were outraged, while one rabbi, R. Steven Pruzansky of Teaneck’s Congregation Bnei Yeshurun and an RCBC member, came out in strong support and tried (unsuccessfully) to whip up support from the RCA and other Orthodox rabbi. Most other RCBC rabbis went into hiding.
R. Pruzansky laid out his position forcefully in an article in the Jewish Press: the “mainstream” Orthodox community (evidenced by its representative institutions, the OU and the RCA) had definitively concluded that female clergy are “incompatible with the Mesorah”. Banning female clergy was “normative Orthodoxy”. The only ones pursuing female clergy were the “Open Orthodox”, whom R. Pruzansky labeled “neo-Conservatives” who were attempting to “repeat the mistakes of the Conservative Jewish movement a century ago” and were “knowingly separating themselves from the Torah world”. They were “no different from all the movements in the past that had what they thought were grand ideas to reform, conserve, secularize or modernize Judaism”.
We’ve heard all of this before, albeit from Haredi spokespersons, not Modern Orthodox rabbis. There’s the appeal to an all-wise, all-knowing religious magisterium that somebody, somewhere, somehow decided should police how we practice our Judaism. There’s the rejection of diversity, whereby complex and hotly debated communal issues must necessarily be resolved in only one “right” way. There’s the polemical claim to a mythical, heterogeneous, like-minded Orthodox community, which apparently is achieved by banishing anyone who is not of that mind. There’s the fear mongering, with the opposition portrayed as radicals seeking to overthrow nothing less than the Mesorah itself. Opponents are tarred with a common brush and associated with failed historical movements with whom, in reality, they share nothing in common. And, of course, there’s the labeling and name-calling, the smugness of certainty, the dishonest declaration – repeated again and again – that a communal question has been definitively resolved when it very obviously has not.
As Modern Orthodox Jews, we philosophically reject this type of thinking. We reject the notion of infallible popes, rabbis or any religious magisterium. We believe that communal leadership and policy require the consent of rabbis and congregants. We embrace a diversity of views and practices, which stems from our core belief in the dignity of all people. We therefore accept that some of our shuls will choose to practice one way and others will choose to practice another. We find value, not threat, in communal debate. We relish in the glue of family and community, and therefore resist (sometimes while grimacing) the impulse to banish even our “wayward” children. We treat ideological opponents with respect even as we debate them. And, perhaps most importantly, we understand that, in the words of R. Aharon Lichtenstein, ztz”l, “Halacha does not offer facile solutions”. We negotiate our halachic lives as if walking on a tightrope, always questioning ourselves, never satisfied that we have the “right” answer – or that, indeed, there is one “right” answer.
But thinking again about the Ramban shul, I realized that none of this huff and puff really matters. Because the Ramban shul is a Modern Orthodox shul probably not all that different from R. Pruzansky’s. The members of both, I am sure, observe Shabbat and Chagim, Kashruth and Taharat HaMishpacha, with similar punctiliousness. The members of both flock to shiurim and lectures on Shabbatot and during the week. The members of both are passionately committed to the State of Israel although, of course, at the Ramban shul, the members and their children also serve in the IDF.
But the Ramban shul is notably different in one respect. Come to shul at the beginning of Shabbat Shacharit and you will see the women’s section is crowded and filling fast. Women dare not be late or they’ll have no seat. It’s not much different at Friday night and Shabbat Mincha. And at Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, the shul is literally overflowing with hundreds of men and women who come to share Torah learning throughout the night. I don’t know how it is at R. Pruzansky’s shul, but at my community’s Modern Orthodox shuls, women are largely absent. They’re almost never there on Friday night, at Shabbat Mincha or at Tikkun Leyl Shavuot. They may show up to pick up their husbands and kids at the end of Shabbat Mussaf, but they are otherwise missing. Because, for many of our educated, professional, accomplished women, Modern Orthodox shuls are not a Beit Tfilla or a Mikdash Mi’at; they’re an indignity.
The Ramban shul is not a utopia and its policies towards women have not been free from conflict. Unexpectedly, R. Lau recently announced his resignation to pursue other unannounced interests. This has produced the inevitable questions about succession, and the future of the current rabbanit will likely be revisited in the context of that succession. But given the success of its policy, including the number of women it has attracted, the shul is likely to continue to have a rabbanit or similarly situated woman functionary. Indeed, although I am unaware of any other shuls in the Katamon area that have their own rabbanit, many now have access to yoatzot halacha and on their websites pointedly encourage women to assume leadership roles on their shul’s governing bodies.
At a weekday Shacharit at the Ramban shul, I watched a family celebrating a traditional brit milah. The father joyfully recited the berakha at having entered his son into the Covenant of our father, Abraham, and the audience gave the traditional response, “just as he entered into this Covenant, so too may he enter into Torah, marriage and a life of good deeds”. At the Ramban shul, with its rabbi and rabbanit, the Mesorah is doing just fine.