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The Department of Women’s Initiatives explicitly affirms the importance of women as community leaders

The Orthodox Union (OU) made a significant announcement earlier this week. The newly-formed Department of Women’s Initiatives, which will launch November 1, is a program that follows through on many of the goals outlined in their February 2017 statement, on how best to increase women’s opportunities for participation in Orthodox settings. The announcement amplifies and clarifies a number of positions the OU has taken over the past year.

Back in February, the OU statement, which represented a significant shift in official policy toward learning and community service opportunities for Orthodox women, included the following language:

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.

At that time, many members of the Orthodox community were concerned that this language might be only lip service to soften the rabbinic panel’s and the OU’s rejection of women in rabbinic positions. Those doubts were firmly laid to rest by the OU’s announcement on Monday, which clearly articulates that women are men’s intellectual and spiritual equals, and ought to serve in equal leadership capacity in any halakhically-sanctioned role.

The Orthodox Union serves a very wide range of communities that self-identify as Orthodox. The Department of Women’s Initiatives is a positive development because it is consistent with best practices in engaging diverse communities, such as can be found by a quick perusal of the Orthodox Union list of member congregations.

How do we know this type of “best practice” engagement works for diverse membership communities? We can take a look at Hillel International as a model of how to serve a diverse community of Jews and keep them engaged. Hillel provides a pluralistic space which it staffs with leaders from all major Jewish denominations (at least on campuses where there is a large enough Jewish student body to make it economically feasible to do so.) By using this model, Hillel is able to engage a large number of Jewish students. The Hillel organization recognizes that not all college students will connect with their Judaism through the same modality, and sets up an environment with sufficient diversity to engage their entire Jewish student body. Hillel recognizes that their primary mission is to provide a Judaism that is warm and embracing and offers options which can individually facilitate that type of experience for the maximum number of students. Hillel has thus far been successful with this model, and is now the pre-eminent organization serving Jewish students on US college campuses.

The OU has already recognized the fundamental effectiveness of such a model by their placement of JLIC couples on a number of college campuses, where they work side-by-side with Hillel professionals to engage a large number of students. By placing these JLIC couples on campus in Hillels, the OU in no way is issuing an approbation of all that goes on within Hillel; it is a pragmatic recognition that students must be served and engaged how and where they are.

In truth, it is not only college students who must be engaged. As we age, and as life takes its inevitable toll through illness, loss, and struggle, we periodically need to be re-engaged. As we grow old and mature intellectually, we may need to be engaged in different ways than when we were young. While I am not suggesting adopting a pluralistic, “anything goes” attitude for engagement within Orthodoxy, I am suggesting a “pluralistic Orthodoxy,” that is, an Orthodoxy that recognizes that one size does not fit all. Such an Orthodoxy recognizes that to be successful, communities need to use multiple modalities in order to reach all potential members of that community at all stages of life and to build a strong, diverse community. (It is worthwhile to note that historically, Sephardic communities have been much more pluralistic, at least concerning level of observance. Many individuals of Sephardic descent who are older bemoan the encroachment of more exclusivist Ashkenazic-Litvish attitudes, and feel that community members of the younger generation look down their noses at those who are less observant in a way that their elders did not.)

Our mesorah embodies a long tradition of pluralistic attitudes towards halakha and practice. Not tolerance, which means that “I will suffer your deviance but you should know that you’re wrong,” but true pluralism — I might be right, or you may be right, or perhaps both of us are right in different ways. This attitude is a natural check on rabbinic excess, and is embodied in a number of talmudic principles (a non-exhaustive list of examples might contain “eilu v-eilu,” “puk chazi,” “lezakot et harabbim,” and “halakha v’ein morin kain”).

A “pluralistic Orthodox” ethos has been largely lost in recent decades, and that is the reason I think that this latest OU project is so significant: It recaptures our traditional and historic “Orthodox pluralistic” ethos. The OU’s announcement about the Department of Women’s Initiatives affirms the fundamental correctness of Rabbi Avi Weiss’ decision to found Yeshivat Maharat eight years ago. It explicitly recognizes that women are men’s intellectual and spiritual peers, must be treated as such, and must be enabled and encouraged to serve communities in leadership positions within the entire ambit of halakhic space. Having an “Orthodox pluralistic” ethos allows for vigorous and healthy debate to determine the exact boundaries of that halakhic space and to make well-informed, real-world decisions about those boundaries.

I will note here the pervasiveness of how Modern Orthodoxy has been influenced in ways both large and small by our more right-leaning friends and neighbors. In the announcement, OU President Moshe Bane states that a woman should not be “the face of the synagogue.” The idea of a charismatic rabbinic leader as the “face” or exemplar of a synagogue actually has its antecedents in a more Haredi version of Orthodoxy where gedolim are revered for their almost God-like qualities. Indeed, many Modern Orthodox synagogues in larger communities may employ a number of male and female professionals: A rabbi, a preschool director, an assistant rabbi, a yoetzet halakha, a youth director couple, and the like. To each different constituency within the synagogue, each of these male and female individuals may be a “face” of the synagogue, and the “face” of the synagogue may change as an individual congregant moves through life. This is good because it allows for a maximal opportunity to engage a diverse and changing end-user base. Certainly, if our holy Torah has seventy faces, our synagogues can have multiple faces, too.

As Modern Orthodox Jews, we look to the Rabbi Joseph B. Solveitchik zt”l as a model: the Rav’s greatness was in his humility in admitting that he did not know everything and his willingness to learn from his talmidim’s points of view. The Rav recognized that multiple approaches could be consistent with halakha and could be recognized as such. This is an authentic and consistent Modern Orthodox way of adjudicating halakha, and is different from the approach of those who look exclusively for guidance from a specific gadol for da’at Torah. While those who identify in principle with Modern Orthodox perspectives and practices may not agree exactly what roles women ought to serve, we do agree that some set of such roles exist and it is important that women be treated as equals to men when filling those roles (including pay and benefits equity.)

The OU’s creation of the Department for Women’s Initiatives fundamentally affirms the “Open Orthodox” philosophy that was first espoused by Rabbi Weiss 20 years ago, emphasizing halakha, intellectual openness, a spiritual dimension, a broad concern for all Jews, and a more expansive role for women. (I do not wish to engage in a semantic debate about labels; only to note that semantic debates about labels distract from the true important issues at hand and that labels are fine as long as they are not used to define a set of individuals for exclusion from a discussion.)

In the announcement, Moshe Bane states, “It’s difficult to expect that when men are the primary communal leadership that they’ll understand and appreciate the roles women play and should be playing, and the needs they have[.] I think there’s a recognition in the Orthodox Union that the world is changing rapidly, and people’s expectations are changing rapidly.” In his quote, Bane makes it clear that the OU needs to be more focused on the end-user than it has in the past, and that “market forces” are an important factor that needs to be taken into account, in addition to halakhic and meta-halakhic concerns. Since the OU has adopted a position laid out by Rabbi Weiss twenty years ago, it logically follows that Open Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy are very, very similar. In fact, they are so similar that they are the same. Modern Orthodoxy does best when it is true to its roots, rather than trying to be something it is not.The OU announcement is a welcome return to those roots.

In conclusion, I laud the OU for this affirmation of all that is good within Modern Orthodoxy, and their recognition that Modern Orthodoxy must work to identify common ground for its member institutions so that we can not only be more unified, but can focus on crucial issues affecting all Jews. The OU is well served recognizing that they must be more responsive to constituents and model a “pluralistic Orthodoxy” to increase our odds of engaging the diverse set of individuals who inhabit our communities.

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 as a Spiritual Counselor at Center for Hope Hospice in Scotch Plains, NJ, and a Chaplain Intern at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, NJ.
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