The Orthodox Union statement on women’s ordination, revisited

A few days ago, Rabbi Avi Shafran published an opinion piece in the Forward about women’s ordination. In it, he states:

“For these reasons, the OU is correct in insisting than Orthodox Judaism is not compatible with female clergy. But not everyone agrees, and now the OU faces the decision of what, if anything, to do about five member synagogues that insist on retaining women clergy.
“Some rabbis of OU-affiliated congregations feel that expelling those synagogues that flout the rabbinic decision is inadvisable, and that there is no need for the organization to do anything more than what it has already done by issuing the decision.
“Others, though, assert that a clear rabbinic decision is not something a group pledged to halachic standards can ignore, even if it means taking painful steps.
“Unity and comity, to be sure, sometimes require ‘looking the other way,’ and not pressing even pressing issues. But standing up to a Zeitgeist-fueled innovation rejected by halachic authorities is the essence of Orthodoxy – and always has been.
“The OU is in fact Orthodox, and stands proudly for halachic integrity, in both the kashrut and congregational realms, even when doing so may be unpopular and buck contemporary mores.
“It has every right and reason to expect its congregations to display the same courage.”

Perhaps I am not reading this correctly, and I am sure Rabbi Shafran will correct me if he is not in fact encouraging the Orthodox Union to expel member congregations which do not conduct themselves in accordance with the responses of the rabbinic panel that the Orthodox Union convened.

When the Orthodox Union statement on women’s ordination and the accompanying responses of the rabbinic panel were released earlier this year, I chose not to comment publicly on the documents until such time as I had read them closely, and reflected on the issue. Based on Rabbi Shafran’s opinion piece, which is only the last in a series of misrepresentations and distortions about the content of the Orthodox Union statement, I now feel compelled to speak out on the issue.

First off, I will note that Rabbi Shafran is the Director of Public Affairs and Spokesman for Agudath Israel of America. Last I checked, Agudath Israel of America is not “Modern Orthodox” and it baffles me as to why someone like Rabbi Shafran would weigh in on what is essentially a Modern Orthodox issue.

Be that as it may, I will also note that Agudath Israel of America enacted an Internet ban a while ago, so perhaps Rabbi Shafran can be excused for not having read the entire Orthodox Union statement nor the entire rabbinic response – maybe he read it on the sly in a hurry, or maybe he read a “reader’s digest” version furnished by one of his askanim.

I will reproduce the relevant parts of the statement and the rabbinic response here.

From the Orthodox Union statement:

“We therefore urge all segments of our community to recognize and focus upon what unites us. As articulated by the Rabbinic Panel, women can and should teach Torah, including at advanced and sophisticated levels; give shiurim and divrei torah; assume communally significant roles in pastoral counseling, in bikkur cholim, in community outreach to the affiliated and unaffiliated, in youth and teen programming; and in advising on issues of taharas hamishpacha, in conjunction with local rabbinic authority, when found by a community’s local rabbinic and lay leadership to be appropriate. Let us focus our energy and communal creativity on increasing and enhancing the contributions that women make to our shuls and communities, rather than being consumed with limitations.”

Note that Rabbi Shafran has decided to ignore the Orthodox Union statement which encourages communities to focus on “what unites us” and, as an outsider, has decided to exploit those issues internal to the Modern Orthodox community on which there is disagreement to sow further discord and destroy that community.

The sentiments in the Orthodox Union statement are also expressed in the rabbinic panel response:

“That being said, female role models are, of course, absolutely critical for the spiritual growth of our community. Communities depend, and have always depended, upon women’s participation in a wide array of critical roles, both lay and professional, that are wholly consistent with Torah’s guidelines. Women should most enthusiastically be encouraged to share their knowledge, talents, and skills – as well as their passion and devotion – to synagogues, schools and community organizations. The restriction on assuming a clergy role has not precluded, and need not preclude, women from making vital and substantial contributions to the Jewish people.”

Rather than focusing on the one divisive issue addressed in the Orthodox Union statement, one hopes that the Orthodox Union will commit to doing the following, particularly within those Modern Orthodox communities and synagogues which are its constituents:

  • Encourage member synagogues to begin offering shiurim and classes for women that are on the same intellectual level as those offered for men. These shiurim need not be coed; they ought to be, however, on the same level. For someone who prepares a shiur or class, giving the class a second time actually helps to refine the material presented. On this 40th anniversary of the Rav’s opening shiur on Talmud for women at Stern, this ought to be a no-brainer; the reality is that many communities still offer daf yomi or gemara for men and parashat hashavua for women, which simply cannot do for any community which calls itself Modern Orthodox.
  • Encourage member synagogues to develop schedules, at least on Shabbat, such that services are scheduled to enable both parents of small children can attend the entire Shabbat morning service. Communities which offer a “main” minyan at around 9 am and do not offer a hashkama minyan much later than 7 am ought to do some serious cheshbon hanefesh as to what message they are sending not only to parents of young children, but also to the young men and women that they expect to lead children’s groups or the like.
  • Encourage member synagogues to move Shabbat morning drashot from before musaf to after Adon Olam, to afford equal opportunities for both learned men and women to give divrei Torah to the entire community. This change makes it clear that the devar Torah or drasha is not at all part of the Shabbat morning service and would obviate any objection to having a woman address the community from the pulpit.
  • Encourage member synagogues to design and/or redesign sanctuaries and prayer spaces such that they are “women friendly” and afford adequate and equal space for women, with mechitzot that are designed to halakhic standards yet afford clear sightlines of the aron, the pulpit, and the shulchan, so that women can feel the same intimacy and immediacy of a prayer space that men do, rather than feeling like spectators. Encourage synagogues to include an equal number of women on design/redesign committees rather than just one or two to be “yotzei” on having “consulted the women.” While women are not normatively understood to be halakhically eligible to lead prayers, they certainly are men’s partners and equals when it comes to sharing a prayer space and they ought to have equal say in the aesthetics of any such space, at the very least.

I am sure that were we to put our minds to it, we might come up with any number of additional meaningful suggestions. The above list is not meant as an exhaustive list of suggestions; it is meant as a positive starting point for implementing the recommendations in the Orthodox Union statement.

I am personally disappointed that the Orthodox Union felt compelled to take any position on women’s ordination, since I believe the Orthodox Union has put itself in a no-win situation by doing so. Nonetheless, I laud the Orthodox Union for encouraging the Orthodox community to focus on what unites us, and I offer the above suggestions as a positive way to do just that.

About the Author
Daniel Geretz grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the founding rabbi of Maayan in West Orange, New Jersey. Daniel was awarded semikha by YCT Rabbinical School, and besides continuing to serve as the rabbi of Maayan, he works for the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest NJ as a chaplain at Morristown Medical Center in Morristown, New Jersey.
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