It appears to be unanimous. The rejection of female rabbis by virtually all Orthodox religious authorities and institutions is apparently complete. The Orthodox Union (OU) has just released a statement that bars women from serving in a rabbinic capacity in any of their 400 member synagogues. Regardless of the title they use in that capacity.
A lengthy Teshuva (responsum) written in English was issued by seven rabbinic leaders associated with Modern Orthodoxy whose Hashkafos are largely based on those of their mentor, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik. The statement is unequivocal. Women may not be rabbis. I am not going to go into details. One can read the Teshuva for that. I will just mention the Halachic methodology they used in arriving at their decision, in their own words, “There are three primary factors that may be considered by a halakhic decisor when developing a ruling: legal sources, precedent, and a relevant halakhic ethos.”
I should add that many of the points raised in this Teshuva are points I and many other Orthodox rabbis have made; and that I largely agree with everything they wrote.
That being said, I am not here to debate the legitimacy of their decisions. That is beside the point of this essay. Which is to reiterate what I have said many times. I can’t predict the future, but as things stand now, the mainstream Orthodox leadership will never accept women as rabbis.
With this Psak (Halachic decision), the OU has joined the ranks of many other Orthodox institutions that have arrived at the same conclusion. Those institutions include but are not limited to, the Agudah Moetzes, the Israeli Charedi rabbinic leadership, the Rabbinical Council of America, Young Israel, the Israeli Chief rabbinate, and the Conference of European Rabbis. In short, there is not a single established organizational Orthodox body that will accept a woman in the position of rabbi.
Of course JOFA – the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance has rejected this as have those rabbis that identify with Open Orthodoxy. They will point to a grassroots movement that is already underway and growing. There are two institutions – Yeshivat Maharat in the US and Beit Midrash Har’el in Israel – that have been established for exactly that purpose: ordaining women as rabbinic leaders.
There are also a few Orthodox synagogues that have hired some of these graduates to serve in a rabbinic capacity. While JOFA has expressed disappointment, there has been some unfortunate disparagement by at least one Open Orthodox rabbi, Shmuel Herzfeld, who said about the OU that they should ‘stick to tuna fish’.
I know he’s angry. His synagogue hired Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman as his assistant. But anger is hardly a substitute for a cogent response using the same criteria used in the Teshuva.
And yet I understand his frustration. His objection is sincere. He believes that Orthodoxy has room for female rabbis and that women can add tremendously to the quality of communal observance and spirituality. As do many members of JOFA.
I agree that women can and do add tremendously to Judaism in a variety of ways. Their contributions have no less value than those of men. But charging ahead in the face of near universal opposition does not in my view contribute to it – no matter what the cultural ethos of the time dictates. In my view it does the opposite by dividing us.
I have never doubted their sincerity. Not those rabbis of Open Orthodoxy nor those women who have been ordained. But neither have I doubted the wisdom of all the rabbinic leaders that have rejected it. Arguments in favor of ordaining women have not convinced me or any of the rabbinic authorities that lead all of the above-mentioned organizations to reject that innovation.
Sincerity is not enough. There has to be acceptance by the rabbinical leadership. Leadership does not include the few renegade rabbis that believe the time is right to factor the cultural ethos of our time into our own religious structure. But, as many others have noted, Rav Soloveitchik rejects that notion completely: From the Teshuva:
The same is true of the Rav’s nuanced embrace of secular knowledge and modern civilization. Based on his Torah weltanschauung… (he embraced) the inner logic of halakhah as a source of values (as) the sine qua non for navigating this engagement with society in a manner that is in consonance with the Torah. Our community’s mandate to understand both the world Hashem created, as well as the society in which we live, must never blind us from recognizing that there are frequently societal trends which run counter to the ethos of the Torah.
As I have mentioned many times, men and women have different roles in Judaism. Egalitarianism by definition wants to eliminate these differences completely. Although egalitarianism is a noble goal it does not override our religious mandate. When the two ethical concepts collide, the Torah must not only prevail but we ought to be proud of the differences. Being Jewish is almost by definition being different. We have our own ethos and ought to wear it with dignity, not deny it or try to change it.
As an aside, I am happy to note that the OU sees a role for women as Yoetzet Halacha. Although there was some disagreement about it among individual signers of that Teshuva, it clearly allowed for it in certain circumstances for reasons that I have discussed in the past.
The question remains however, what happens now that there is an increasing number of female ordainees and synagogues that are hiring them. There is little anyone can do to change the tide. Just like there was little anyone could do to change the tide of the growth of Reform and Conservative Judaism in their heyday – despite the best efforts of the Orthodox establishment of their day.
Nor did the opposition to removing the Mechitza (partition between men and women in synagogues) change the direction many Traditional synagogues of the 60s took in removing them. Time will take its toll on this new phenomenon as it already has on those Traditional Shuls. And as it has to the non Orthodox segment of American Jewry which the respected Pew Research organization has shown to be the case. Meanwhile the mainstream will continue to grow. Understand that I am not being triumphant. Nor do I wish to disparage those who disagree with me. I actually honor their sincerity even as I vehemently disagree with them. I’m just making a prediction based on historical precedents.
This new phenomenon of questionable innovations by the left that is being rejected wholesale by the mainstream will – for the movement – continue grow. But it is clear that – like it or not – it will be outside of Orthodoxy. I believe that there may be an emerging acknowledgement of that by supporters of female rabbis as indicated by Bnai David’s Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky’s rejection of the OU Teshuva. But if past is prologue their growth will be short lived. If Jewish history has taught us anything it has taught us that Jewish movements that have departed from the mainstream do not last.