Why The Modern Orthodox Are Not Always Modern: Understanding the OU’s policy on female clergy

The Orthodox Union’s (OU) recent announcement that it will begin to enforce its policy against female clergy has raised some ire within Open Orthodox circles and mostly praise within mainstream and right-wing elements of the community. This development, one of many in the OU’s relationship with Open Orthodoxy, raises several questions concerning gender roles in Orthodox Judaism. Why, after all, despite adopting so many modern trends, are Orthodox Jews so averse to ordaining women as rabbis? Does the OU’s entrenched position mean that it is stifling women’s religious participation, or is there something that Orthodoxy can teach all Jews about being successful as traditionalists in a modern context?


Both the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America have banned their members from ordaining or hiring women as rabbis. One recent survey disseminated in more liberal elements of the Modern Orthodox community still found that most respondents oppose formal female clergy roles. This despite the modern lifestyles lived by most Modern Orthodox Jews in most other respects, and despite any obvious halakhic restriction on the practice. Women have, after all, seamlessly become scholars, teachers, principals, professors and communal leaders in the Orthodox community. Why such strong resistance on this issue?

On a technical level, the OU consulted with a rabbinic panel that provided a variety of Jewish legal reasons for Orthodox policies concerning gender separation and male ritual leadership in synagogue services. But on a more basic level, the traditionalist stance is quite simple. At least since the time of the destruction of the first Temple, Jews have thought of their synagogues as what the prophet Ezekiel called small temples. Many aspects of the synagogue are therefore inspired by the Temple. Judaism was unique in the ancient world in disallowing female clergy. Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Hittite, Phoenician, Greek and Roman religions all gave women formal status as clergy. Early Christianity, when presented with the challenge of integrating biblical principles with pagan norms, compromised by requiring priests to be men but allowing women to be nuns. Over time, Jews and Christians would dispute proper seating in services, with many churches seating men and women together, while synagogues were attended by men only or included balconies for women or mechitzah partitions.

The underlying assumptions behind these practices involve not a unique lowering of women’s status, but just the opposite – a unique elevation into a status of a higher source of inspiration for whom men should sacrifice and devote themselves. This understanding, rooted in the early unique biblical assumption that God Himself (not a mere army of men, as in Homer) fights for a captive woman (when Sarah is kidnapped twice), sharply contrasted with the low position that woman occupied in ancient mythology. It is the root of what Christians would later develop as chivalry, and impacted positive developments in the West such as property ownership and women’s education. This does not demote women but promotes their spiritual status (“And God said to Abraham… ‘Whatever Sarah says to you, listen to her voice’”). It is no coincidence that Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Modern Orthodoxy’s leading rabbi, emphasized the fundamental equality of men and women, supported similar religious studies curricula for men and women, and married a woman – Tonya Lewitt – with a classical education and doctoral degree from a prestigious German university. Yet he took vigorous traditionalist stances on the issue of separation in the synagogue and the need for an exclusively male clergy.

In both cases – female clergy and synagogue separation – the OU has found itself defending societally unpopular policies. For years, it insisted, along with Rabbi Soloveitchik, that Orthodox synagogues have a mechitzah separating men and women, and now it addresses the criteria for clergy. In both cases, Jews are not permitted to adopt religious practices of non-Jewish religions.


Liberal trends in Judaism rejected both assumptions. Instead of seeing women as elevated sources of inspiration, modern feminism demands a reoriented view: not equality of value but equality of roles. These differing points of view form one of the key distinctions between Orthodox Judaism and other denominations.

Not all Orthodox Jews feel comfortable defending religious practices based on such out-of-style understandings. As was true with the separation of the sexes in the synagogue, many Orthodox Jews seek to downplay the distinctly Jewish impetus for male clergy, seeking to either tolerate or advocate for it. For many, this change is coupled with other changes in unpopular and burdensome Jewish traditions, like belief in Revelation at Sinai or the notion that sexual relationships belong only in the traditional family context. Yet while Open Orthodox leaders have issued rulings and declarations calling for changes in these and other areas, their pronouncements are incompatible with Jewish law and are rejected by Orthodoxy’s respected scholars and lay members alike. Open Orthodox institutions have placed their graduates in only a small number of mainstream pulpit positions. Their fundamentally non-Orthodox worldview is confirmed by their reliance on enormous financial grants from outsiders, such as the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation, who are trying to change Orthodoxy from the outside by supporting those within Orthodoxy who would like to change their denomination’s norms.


This is really a shame, because traditionalist Orthodoxy has been a positive demographic and cultural force in American Judaism for quite some time. And just as Protestant Christian denominations have seen egalitarian religious practices closely correlate with declining membership, the survey mentioned before indicates that only about half of Open Orthodoxy’s children remain at least as observant as their parents, unlike the vast majority of traditionalist Modern Orthodox. The abandonment of traditional views for theological egalitarianism strongly corresponds with religious decline, particularly due to a sharp drop in male attendance and involvement.

It is understandable why Open Orthodox leaders wish to change Orthodoxy to accommodate a more liberal generation. But perhaps it is unapologetic traditionalism that has kept Orthodoxy strong. And Orthodoxy has helped, and will help, keep American Judaism strong. Instead of trying to undermine the traditionalist views that make Orthodoxy successful, we should seek to learn from it. There are other denominational alternatives for those who are seeking theological approaches more in line with modern trends.


This is not to say that Orthodoxy is perfect. Most of the OU’s recent statement emphasized its hope that Orthodox women will become more involved and take on greater leadership roles within the denomination. But this must come from internal deliberation and consensus, not from divisive moves to imitate others at the expense of our community’s traditions. The schism that Open Orthodoxy has created has made it more difficult to focus on important and meaningful opportunities in Jewish women’s education, such as graduate programs – including new doctoral level programs – that do not currently exist. Instead of divisive debate over titles in the one area – synagogue ritual – where Judaism uniquely emphasizes the importance of encouraging men to be proactive, Orthodoxy needs to develop in a way that will avoid the difficulties that other struggling denominations, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have faced when they jettisoned traditions for the sake of modernization.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Mitchell Rocklin is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Princeton University's James Madison Program. He is also a Chaplain in the New Jersey Army National Guard with the rank of Captain, and the President of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty. He lives in Teaneck, NJ with his wife and two daughters.
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