Women as Rabbis: It’s Time

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), an association of Orthodox rabbis, last week issued a very strange declaration to prohibit ordination of female rabbis. [1]

Strange because, for all practical purposes, it is internally inconsistent.

It reaffirms a resolution from 2010, so the rabbis had plenty of time to think about it. If a group of smart people write something inconsistent, chances are that they know it. Orthodox rabbis are usually smart people.

The RCA says it’s overjoyed that women are studying Torah:

The flowering of Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women in recent decades stands as a significant achievement …

And it supports having women in:

… a diversity of halakhically and communally appropriate professional opportunities … in the service of our collective mission to preserve and transmit our heritage.

However, out of respect for “sacred continuity:”

… we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.

So women can be leaders. And teachers. And Torah scholars. They can perform the functions of rabbis as long as nobody calls them “rabbi” or anything similar. The RCA says it’s fine, as long as nobody shows them the respect that they’ve earned.

Tradition, Not Jewish Law

The RCA doesn’t claim its position is dictated by Jewish law. Instead, it says it’s an issue of sacred continuity. In other words, “That’s how we’ve always done it, so that’s how we must continue doing it.”

Let’s be fair to the RCA. The “sacred continuity” argument is not entirely without merit. Not entirely. Part of what binds us together as a people is our continuity across time and space. We say the same prayers as Jews across the world and across the centuries. We observe the same rituals and holidays. We look to the Torah and Jerusalem. We look to each other. That strengthens us.

As an appeal to the past, the RCA’s argument would be more credible — though less persuasive — if it really did support continuity with the past. But that would require it to argue that women should not study Torah, nor be in any positions of judgment or authority outside the home. The RCA says it’s fine with all that. It just doesn’t want them called “rabbis.” That’s pretty thin gruel for sacred continuity.

Change Is Possible

Even if it were a matter of Jewish law, Orthodox Judaism could change its position about ordaining women as rabbis:

In Deuteronomy 17, God authorizes the judges of each generation— later called ‘rabbis’ — to interpret and apply those laws … rabbis throughout the ages have used their authority to stretch the law to apply to new circumstances so that it would not become irrelevant and inoperative.” [2]

Jewish law is like the U.S. Constitution: it’s where our legal reasoning begins, not where it ends. The American founders would be astonished by 21st-century interpretations of the Constitution. Moses would probably consider the RCA to be a group of wild-eyed liberals who changed the revelation at Sinai into something unrecognizably modern.

But it’s not even a matter of Jewish law. It’s a matter of tradition.

If the law can be reinterpreted for new attitudes and circumstances, then traditional practices can certainly be changed. The rabbis’ hands are not tied, and neither are ours.

Change Is Needed

Let’s grant the RCA another point: Change merely for its own sake is unwise. We should change things only if they need changing. Even then, we should do it slowly and carefully so that we don’t inadvertently make the situation worse.

In this case, change is in fact needed. Let’s start with the obvious:

Qualification

Jewish men and women who have the ability and interest are equally qualified to become rabbis. There’s no reason to exclude women on that basis, nor to deny the title of “rabbi” to women.

Individualism

Contemporary society and moral attitudes are heavily influenced by Enlightenment-era individualism, which tends “to enthrone the individual as the center and creator of meaning, truth, and even reality.” [3]

Of course, individualism can be carried too far — as in a statement by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence.” [4] No matter what we think about it, God is still God. But respecting individual rights, dignity, and accomplishment should be a primary goal. Tradition for the sake of tradition must be in second place.

Choice

In The Republic, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato said that human society was the human soul writ large. In many ways, he was right. Social attitudes and priorities reflect those of people in the society.

At the individual level, we each have a hierarchy of needs: for food, safety, love, respect, and if all the other needs are satisfied, for self-actualization. [5]

Similarly, the World Values Survey finds that as countries become more affluent, their people — having satisfied their basic needs — place more value on self-expression and individual choice than in countries where people struggle to get enough to eat. They look at traditional ways of thinking and ask: “Why?” [6] That’s simply a fact.

The ground has shifted under the rabbis’ feet. For better and for worse, our world is different from the world of 18th-century Europe. The only question is whether the RCA will choose to recognize the fact. As Eliot Dorff observes:

Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash … held unequivocally that a Jew must observe the Torah’s laws. They also held, though, that the Torah was not given once and for all at Sinai but rather must be interpreted and applied anew in each generation. Only if that happens can the Torah continue to be an important concern of Jews, a program for living. The alternative is to let it petrify into a relic of history. [7]

Judaism must never petrify into a relic of history. We will not let that happen. Nor I suspect, eventually, will the RCA.

Works Cited

Bloom, A., translator (1991), The Republic of Plato. Basic Books, New York.

Dorff, E. (2013), The Unfolding Tradition: Philosophies of Jewish Law. Aviv Press, New York. Kindle edition.

Kramnick, I., editor (1995), The Portable Enlightenment Reader. Penguin Publishing, New York. Kindle Edition.

Footnotes

  1. RCA Policy Concerning Women Rabbis,” October 30, 2015.
  2. Dorff, E. (2013), loc. 561.
  3. Kramnick, I. (1995), loc. 257.
  4. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992).
  5. Burton, N., “Our Hierarchy of Needs.” Psychology Today, May 23, 2012.
  6. World Values Survey, “Findings and Insights, 2010-2014.”
  7. Dorff, E. (2013), loc. 1093.
About the Author
N.S. Palmer is a graduate student in Jewish Studies at Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He has degrees in mathematics, economics, and philosophy. He is currently writing a book about Judaism and the role of religious belief in society.
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