Orthodox Women Rabbis: A Response to the Blogosphere and a Vision for the Future
By Rabbi David Wolkenfeld
Rabbi David Wolkenfeld is the incoming rabbi at Congregation Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel in Lakeview, Chicago. For five years, he and his wife Sara directed the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Princeton University.
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer, a rabbinic coordinator at OU Kashrut, has recently published an online essay, “What Part of Mesorah Do You Not Understand” reacting to an op-ed in the New York Jewish Week written by Zelda Stern and Elana Sztokman celebrating the first graduating class of Yeshivat Maharat. Rav Gordimer makes two central arguments opposing women rabbis; the first is an assertion that women rabbis offend Orthodoxy’s “traditional communal norms.” The second is that women rabbis are fundamentally forbidden by halakhah itself for three reasons that Rav Hershel Shachter explained in a 2011 essay published in the journal Hakirah. However, Rav Schachter’s halakhic arguments are unconvincing and an argument based on “traditional communal norms” is more subtle than Rav Gordimer admits.
Rav Shachter has a stellar reputation for the sharpness of his lomdus, and for independent and creative analysis of halakhic topics. In designing an eruv for Princeton University I relied upon some of Rav Shachter’s leniencies in Hilkhot Eiruvin without hesitation – placing my community’s shemirat Shabbat into his hands. Unfortunately, the three arguments that Rav Shachter presents in opposition to women rabbis are weak, perhaps reflecting his well-documented and idiosyncratic antipathy towards Jewish feminism.
The first argument that Rav Schachter presents in opposition to women rabbis is that women rabbis violate “serarah” a prohibition found in the midrash halakhah and codified by Rambam, that it is forbidden to appoint women to any position of authority within the Jewish community. There are several responses to this argument:
Rav Schachter presents the halakhic prohibition of women exercising serarh using the words, “the Tanna’im understood the pasuk in Chumash as implying that women may not be appointed to the position of King” as though it were a well attested and universally accepted halakhic position. In fact, this halakhah is found nowhere in the Talmud, is mentioned by Rambam alone among the rishonim, and is not codified by the Shulhan Arukh (Rav Soloveitchik’s hiddush in Hilhot Shechitah notwithstanding). As an added element of irony, the entire profession of the rabbinate is entirely illegitimate according to Rambam, who categorically forbids earning a salary for teaching Torah. Since the entire Orthodox rabbinate rejects Rambam’s position on whether rabbis and Torah teachers can be paid for their work. How can we present Rambam’s purported opposition to women rabbis as though it were the only halakhic voice? Rav Aaron Lichtenstein shlita, has written about the need for rabbis to present halakhah in all of its complexity and nuance. And to not ignore that complexity, even in the interest of a seemingly compelling short-term polemical or policy interest.
Furthermore, Orthodox women do in fact exercise serarah in significant ways including serving as members of legislatures and the judiciary in Israel and elsewhere, serving as principals of Jewish day schools, and supervising staff in professional contexts. The onus is on Rav Schachter to explain why these well accepted and common ways that Orthodox women exercise leadership are different from serving as a rabbi, especially in a modern context where a rabbi is hired by a board, works cooperatively together with congregational lay-leadership, and serves only so long as the congregation retains his services Finally, this argument against women rabbis does not apply in situations where a rabbi does not exercise serarah such as an assistant rabbi, a chaplain, or a teacher in a day school.
The second argument that Rav Shachter presents in opposition to women rabbis is rooted in Rav Schachter’s theory of tzniut. According to this theory, one I remember hearing in person from Rav Schachter fifteen years ago, tzniut is an absolute preference for being private and, at least initially as a way to imitate God’s own hiddenness, tzniut applies equally to men and women. However, since someone has to compromise on the value of tzniut for the sake of a community that needs public leadership, it is better, according to Rav Schachter, that men take on public roles so that women can maximize their tzniut.
This argument constructs a theory of tzniut that, however plausible it may be, is entirely irrelevant to the way that contemporary Orthodox Jews live. Do men with prominent communal positions experience their public leadership as though it were a painful but necessary sacrifice? Is it even true that contemporary Orthodox women refrain from speaking in public or serving the community in a visible and public way?
Orthodox women are scholars and teachers who lecture before crowds of hundreds. They are prominent in the professions and shape the world in all of the ways that men do. Women Torah scholars give lectures each year at the annual convention of the Rabbinic Council of America. Rav Schachter’s theory of tzniut is incompatible with the choices that pious Orthodox Jews, men and women, make each day.
Rav Schachter’s final argument is the most interesting one. Citing Rabbi Dr. Saul Liberman, Rav Schachter explains that the original “Biblical” semikhah implied the eligibility to sit on the Sanhedrin as a dayan. Since women are disqualified from being dayannim, so too they cannot be rabbis since contemporary rabbis serve as a sort of “imitation” or “carryover” to the original form and function of Biblical semikhah.
R. Lieberman’s concern can be overcome with a simple “heker” – a distinguishing feature that makes it easier to separate between two things with different halakhic statuses. Male rabbanim are indeed receiving an imitation semikhah that is a carryover to the original Biblical semikhah, whereas women who serve in positions of spiritual leadership can be given another title to make clear that they are not eligible to serve as dayyanim (or to perform any other ritual role that halakhah limits to men). Indeed, R. Lieberman was opposed to the Conservative Movement ordaining women with the title “rabbi” – but Orthodox women have gravitated towards uniquely female titles (yo’etzet, maharat, hakhamah, rabbah etc.) that do not carry any of the connotations that concerned R. Lieberman.
The most significant barrier to Orthodox women serving as clergy is not purely halakhic but concerns what Rav Gordimer called “traditional communal norms.” This is, presumably, what the RCA had in mind when it referenced the “mesorah” in its public statement condemning Yeshivat Maharat’s graduation. Rav Gidon Rothstein’s criticism of Yeshivat Maharat was based on that same idea. Indeed, being part of Orthodoxy, even its liberal wing, like being part of any family, means respecting the sensitivities and concerns of other members of the broader Orthodox community. Rav Gordimer is undoubtedly correct that most Orthodox Jews remain instinctively uncomfortable with women rabbis. But there are several crucial caveats that cannot be overlooked.
-Over the past fifteen years diverse Orthodox communities have grown increasingly comfortable with women performing rabbinic functions in schools and congregations. Merely avoiding the title “rabbi” seems to be sufficient in many cases to overcome Orthodox discomfort with women clergy.
-Sometimes “traditional communal norms” coalesce in opposition to phantom threats. The Hassidic movement as it spread in Eastern Europe introduced halakhic innovations, liturgical changes, and promulgated an ideology that was reasonably interpreted as undermining the value of Torah study. In turn, many of the greatest rabbinic minds of Europe devoted tremendous energy towards a futile effort to eradicate the movement. And yet, no one today can question the halakhic faithfulness of Hassidim and their communities. Ha-Po’el HaMizrahi, the Mizrahi Workers Party, is another interesting historical example of a fringe group of activists, with little or no support from the rabbinic establishment, who broke off from the Mizrahi, and then established the crucial institutions for Religious Zionism to thrive in Israel (such as B’nai Akiva and the religious moshavim and kibbutzim), leading to the original Mizrahi being eventually absorbed into the one-time splinter group.
-Traditional communal norms can change very rapidly. One does not need to consider the acceptance of rabbinic sermons in the vernacular; congregational singing during tefilot, or clean-shaven men, for there has been a perceptible shift in the Orthodox community about this very issue during the four years that Yeshivat Maharat has been training students. The controversy over women’s ordination swept through the American Orthodox community four years ago with a strength that seems to have surprised Rav Avi Weiss. In contrast, the first graduation ceremony at Yeshivat Maharat was received with excitement and enthusiasm by hundreds of spectators, bolstered by the news that there were more Orthodox communities seeking to employ graduates than there were graduates of the program seeking positions.
The graduation of Yeshivat Maharat’s first class comes in the context of a several programs, some ensconced in the heart of Orthodoxy, others occupying places at its periphery, that are working to open the doors of the beit midrash to women as students and teachers of Torah. These schools have different educational visions, different halakhic orientations, espouse different religious worldviews, and are promoting different visions of leadership. I consider myself very fortunate to have had students from several of these institutions as my teachers and colleagues. Contemplating the diversity of responses to the need for women’s Torah scholarship and religious leadership fills me with optimism for the future of Orthodoxy.
From my vantage point as a supportive spectator, I have deep respect for the determination on the part of Yeshivat Maharat to professionalize their model of women’s religious leadership and link the systematic and supervised study of halakhah to a title. Those unique contributions of Yeshivat Maharat to the movement of women’s Torah education deserve emulation.
The mainstream Orthodox community has created opportunities for women to achieve formidable accomplishments as Torah scholars and has created entry-level positions where those women can use their scholarship and passion for Judaism to the benefit of Klal Yisrael. The examples closest to my heart are the women who, together with their rabbi-husbands, direct the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus programs at sixteen North American universities. These women (a group that included my wife) teach shiurim, provide Jewish mentorship, offer halakhic guidance, and serve as resources for students, faculty, and others on campus who are seeking Torah knowledge or religious support. But, without a title, their Torah scholarship is not acknowledged and the reliability of their religious guidance is un-credentialed. The many women who have served as interns at Orthodox congregations are another revealing example. For what profession and for which positions are these women interning? When moving beyond entry-level positions, Orthodox women have difficulty competing with ordained rabbis for jobs that they are fully qualified to perform. Orthodox women face this employment discrimination even outside the Orthodox community where professionals have degrees attesting to their training and religious guidance and “Judaic gravitas” is provided by rabbis.
The lack of a defined career path for Orthodox women to serve in positions of spiritual leadership and Jewish education, the lack of a broadly accepted title to honor their commitment and scholarly achievements is both a disgrace to the Torah that women study, and is complicit in a catastrophic waste of talent that the Orthodox community cannot afford. With so many models of Orthodox women’s leadership and so many programs educating and training women, it is too soon to predict what the landscape will look like when the dust settles in ten or twenty years. But all of those on the front-lines have my respect. The Orthodox community, and Klal Yisrael as a whole, needs them to succeed.