By Elizabeth Kratz
The Orthodox Union (OU) this week issued an unprecedented statement announcing the establishment of a far-reaching policy regarding women and leadership positions in synagogue life.
Citing extensive research by a rabbinic commission, the OU concluded that its member synagogues may not employ women as rabbis, but strongly encouraged other types of leadership positions for women. The organization noted that it has established an office of women’s initiatives to advance this agenda, and distributed the statement widely to its hundreds of affiliated synagogues.
In addition to stating outright that women can and should teach Torah, including on advanced and sophisticated levels, the OU statement also encourages women to lecture on Torah topics and share Torah insights; to assume communally significant roles in pastoral counseling, in bikur cholim (visiting the sick), in community outreach to the religiously affiliated and unaffiliated, and in youth programming; and to advise on issues of taharat hamishpacha (family purity), in conjunction with local rabbinic authorities, when a community’s local rabbinic and lay leaders deem that step to be appropriate.
According to the statement, “The failure to fully embrace the talents of women and encourage women to assume greater lay and professional roles is a tragic forfeiture of communal talent. We should focus on creating and institutionalizing roles for women that address the needs of Orthodox Jews today, by removing barriers that impede women from further contributing to our community, in halachically appropriate ways. We should fully utilize their talents and commitment, thereby fostering shmirat hamitzvot (observance of mitzvot), enhancing limmud Torah (Torah learning) and expanding the richness and vibrancy of Jewish life.”
The statement followed an intensive study of the subject by a panel of seven influential American Orthodox rabbis, including Rabbis Daniel Feldman, Yaakov Neuburger, Michael Rosensweig Hershel Schachter, Ezra Schwartz, Gedalia Schwartz and Benjamin Yudin. The OU posed two questions to this panel: “Is it halachically acceptable for a synagogue to employ a woman in a clergy function?” and “What is the broadest spectrum of professional roles within a synagogue that may be performed by a woman?” The rabbis responded with a 17-page study exploring their nuanced analysis of the issues in question.
The OU had commissioned the rabbinic study in the aftermath of a resolution passed last year by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) that forbade the RCA’s member rabbis from ordaining women as clergy. At that point, the OU appointed a committee to determine a process for how to address the issue of female clergy in the national organization’s member synagogues. This committee of lay leaders selected the panel of rabbis and presented them with the aforementioned questions. The OU said that the committee chose rabbis who each have “an exceptional national reputation for scholarship and integrity.”
Last summer, the OU invited feedback from a number of community leaders – both men and women – so that the rabbis writing the study could hear different perspectives on the issues. The rabbis reportedly heard from a wide array of women on the topic. In his reporting on the subject, Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week newspaper in New York, indicated his belief that the OU committee on female clergy was formed fully or partially in reaction to the 2010 establishment of Yeshivat Maharat, a sister school to Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a rabbinical school formed by Rabbi Avi Weiss that advocates for a more “open” Orthodoxy and reinterprets certain well-established Orthodox practices, particularly in relation to women and LGBT issues.
But this week’s OU statement on women in synagogue life did not mention Yeshivat Maharat. Instead, the statement addresses how women now have more access to high-quality Jewish education than at any other point in history, and how women with the proper qualifications should be formally welcomed to work within Orthodox synagogues to serve not just as passive learners and educators, but also in other leadership roles. Such women, according to the statement, “seek not only to learn, but to teach and inspire others. Similarly, highly qualified and dedicated women are increasingly assuming leading roles in Orthodox communal life, both as professionals and within the laity. These positive developments have transformed the face of synagogues and the Orthodox community.”
The OU statement did name one institution, Nishmat, the Israeli seminary that trains yoatzot halacha – women who serve in an advisory capacity on family purity issues for local Jewish communities.
“While the rabbinic panel did not unanimously encourage the institution of yoatzot, they concluded that a yoetzet halacha may be employed with the approval of the community’s rabbinic and lay leadership, and, where employed, should continue to work in close consultation with the community rabbi(s),” says the statement. “We believe that the recommendation of the rabbinic panel that the utilization of yoatzot halacha continue to be evaluated by poskim (Jewish legal decision-makers) and communities alike, is a useful one that will foster greater exposure to and awareness of the importance of this institution, and recognition of the significant role of yoatzot in many of our communities.”
The rabbinic response clarified the OU’s position on mesorah, which is commonly translated as tradition. The rabbis, however, essentially rejected the notion that mesorah is merely “tradition.” In the realm of deciding on such an important change, mesorah includes the background, reason and spirit of halacha. The rabbinic response says, “The idea of mesorah is often mistaken as a mere historical record of Jewish practice. That misunderstanding, combined with both the absence of historical uniformity of normative practice, and the gradual evolution of halacha, can be misconstrued as compromising the authenticity of mesorah. Authentic mesorah is rather an appreciation for, and application of, tradition as the guide by which new ideas, challenges and circumstances are navigated.”
In light of their nuanced definition of mesorah, the rabbinic panel explains the reasons underlying its conclusion that women should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position, invoking legal sources, precedent and what the panel calls “halachic ethos.” The panel’s legal sources include a prohibition against appointing women to communal positions of authority, a longstanding and documented tradition against such appointments, the ineligibility of women to serve as court judges, and a heightened need for gender separation in the synagogue.
Additionally, the Jewish community has been blessed with many female Torah scholars over time – none of whom were ordained. This has established the precedent of not ordaining women.
“The rabbinic role has traditionally been male, which cannot be changed,” Rabbi Gil Student, a popular commentator on issues relating to Orthodox Judaism, tells The Jewish Link of New Jersey. “However, new roles are innovations, which offer great opportunity for women. Particularly in this age of decentralized religion, entrepreneurial women can pave completely new paths in communal leadership.”
Elizabeth Kratz is associate publisher and editor of The Jewish Link of New Jersey and The Jewish Link of Bronx, Westchester and Connecticut.