Mesora and making room: A journey to women’s spiritual leadership

“Mesora” is commonly associated with the giving and transmission of Torah. For some, there is a past tradition that must be taken into account.

June 27, 2013 14:55
Haredi men in Jerusalem

Haredi men in Jerusalem 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)

In response to Yeshivat Maharat’s celebration of its first “ordination as clergy” of three women, the Rabbinical Council of America expressed its dissatisfaction. Without offering any specific halachic criticism, they declared it a “violation of our mesora.”

“Mesora” is commonly associated with the giving and transmission of Torah. For some, it is a metahalachic concept; that is, regardless of what the Halacha says, there is a past tradition that must be taken into account.

Now, of course past tradition, consideration of time-honored practices, is of tremendous import, as the Torah states, “Ask your father and he shall tell you; your grandfather and he shall say to you” (Deuteronomy 32:7) Or as Proverbs writes, “Listen, my child, to the discipline of your father and do not forsake the instruction of your mother” (Proverbs 1:8).

But that’s only half of the equation. One would be seriously mistaken to think that mesora only means that everything we do is cemented in the past. The Talmud makes this point when it records that unlike his predecessors, Rebbe (a talmudic scholar) did not obligate that tithes be taken on fruits and vegetables grown in Beit She’an, maintaining that Beit She’an was outside Israel.

His brothers were incensed: “a place where your ancestors acted prohibitively, will you act permissively?” Rebbe responded: “makom hinihu li avotai lehitgader bo,” “My ancestors left room for me to distinguish myself” (Hullin 6b,7a). In other words, it’s been left over for the next generation.

No generation can do all of the work that is necessary. It is not only the right, but the obligation of each generation lehitgader bo – to distinguish itself. Not to distinguish itself in an arrogant sense, but in the sense of continuing the work of not being frozen in the past and thus taking halacha to even greater heights.

Interestingly, Rebbe used the word lehit’gader, from geder, or “fence.” Although permitting the produce without tithing, Rebbe declares, “I have done so within proper parameters.”

It follows, then, that mesora is not solely rooted in the past. Rather our mesora is, that within proper parameters, we ought innovate to address the issues of our time and continue the work. This innovation is not straying from mesora, it is demanded by it. This involves two steps.

The first step is to assess a law and evaluate whether it is in conflict with other central principles of Torah.

Consider, for example, the Torah’s position on polygamy, slavery or yefat to’ar (the laws of female war captives).

These laws seem in conflict with other values of Torah, values like tzelem Elohim (every human being created in the image of God), or kavod habryiot (human dignity), or kedoshim tihiyu (and you shall be holy).

If conflict exists, mesora includes a second step: a systematic means by which Halacha can evolve. The Torah makes this very point when it declares that in every generation, when challenging issues arise, one is to go to the judge of his or her generation (Deuteronomy 17:8-9).

Mesora includes a sophisticated network of rabbinic law, some interpretive (dinin shehotziu al darkei hasevara) and some legislative (takanot ugezeirot).

After an extensive, in-depth analysis of the law, new applications may be possible.

When making this analysis it is important to recall the teaching of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook: “There is no prohibition to permit the permissible, even though it was not practiced in the past.”

Here, Rabbi Kook contradicts the notion that if something has not been done, that negative becomes a minhag, or custom.

This analysis of mesora is evident when assessing women and Halacha. There was a time when a husband could unilaterally divorce his wife; there was a time when most women did not study Torah; there was a time when the very same Rabbi Kook argued that women should not have the right to vote. And women were basically shut out of lifecycle events: no simhat bat for an infant girl, no bat mitzva, no role for women to spiritually lead in a wedding ceremony.

If mesora only encompassed one half of the equation, the half that insists that what was must continue to be, these practices would still be in place. Yet, today, this is not the case.

In the 11th century, Rabbenu Gershom decreed that no divorce (get) can be given against a wife’s free will.

In the 20th century, the Hafetz Haim insisted women should study Torah, and 50 years later Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik led the march to have women study the Oral Law – the Talmud itself.

In modern-day Israel, the Religious Zionist rabbinate supports the right of women to vote. I have no doubts that were Rabbi Kook now alive, he would support this right. And today, a simhat bat, bat mitzva, and women reading the ketuba (marriage contract) or sharing words of Torah under the huppa, or marriage canopy, are commonplace in Modern Orthodoxy.

Our community is now dealing with the question of whether women can become involved in spiritual leadership; specifically, can they be ordained? It’s an important question as Jews are searching for a spiritual message. What is desperately needed are committed, caring spiritual leaders who can teach and touch these myriads of souls. It doesn’t make sense to tap only 50 percent of our community to assume this role.

The halachic system unequivocally proclaims that women today can be spiritual leaders. Biblical personalities like Sarah, Miriam, Deborah and Esther served as supreme spiritual leaders. In our century, Sarah Schneirir was the founder of the Beis Yaakov school network in Poland. More recently, Chaya Mushka Schneerson, wife of the Lubavitcher rebbe, served as religious mentor to countless women in Lubavitch leadership.

Today, haredi women lead their schools; a woman heads the SAR High School Talmud Department; women serve as presidents of Modern Orthodox synagogues; and women are serving as full-time members of the clergy in Orthodox synagogues in New York and Chicago.

AND WOMEN can be ordained. Ordination today is not Siniatic ordination. That line was broken in the time of Hillel the Second in 360 CE. Rather, as the Rema codifies, “ordination [semichut] today certifies that one has the ability to be a decisor of Jewish law... with the permission of one’s teacher” (Yoreh De’a 242:14).

This means that ordination is the recognition that a person has mastered a particular area of Halacha and can be a decisor of law in that area.

Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, the former Sephardi chief rabbi, writes that “women can be the gedolim [the greats] of the generation and serve as halachic decisors” (Responsa Binyan Av 65:5).

Throughout history, there have been women experts in psak, like two late medieval decisors: Marat Osnat, who served as religious head of the Yeshiva of Kurdistan, and Marat Hava Bacharach, whose knowledge of psak was lauded by her grandson the Havat Yair, Rabbi Yair Haim Bacharach.

In contemporary times, too, yoatzot halacha give guidance and direction to women who ask the most intimate questions concerning the laws of family purity.

Today, the debate revolving around women’s ordination is not halachic but rather sociological.

Here, I believe, the Orthodox community is split.

While those on the Orthodox Right say we are not ready, others, in the more open camp, disagree.

The fact that graduates of the first class of Yeshivat Maharat have been placed in synagogues in Montreal and Washington, the fact that a senior student has received a fellowship to serve as a spiritual leader in a synagogue in St. Louis, the fact that Yeshivat Maharat students will be interning in other synagogues next year, indicates that we have identified a real need – our community is ready.

In the wake of the inaugural graduation, it is important for the Open Orthodox community to have faith in itself. Too often we lack confidence in ourselves. Deep down, too many of us do not think we are authentic, and look over our shoulders to the right for legitimacy. It shouldn’t be this way.

We should feel confident in our positions, now shared by many Open Orthodox synagogues and organizations.

Indeed, after the RCA issued its statement, the International Rabbinic Fellowship, the new Modern and Open Orthodox international rabbinic organization, congratulated the women completing the program, wishing them only the best.

Our mesora does not reject the idea of women’s ordination. Quite the contrary, the mesora rooted in the past, while emanating light into the future, says quite the opposite.

The time has come to breathe life into the words of Rav Kook: “the old will become new, and the new will become holy.”

With humility and respect for our detractors: with deep feelings of ahavat Hashem and ahavat Yisrael, with conviction and proud commitment to mesora, we declare: the time has come.

May these women be blessed. ■

The writer is senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. He is the founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat. His new book, Holistic Prayer, is scheduled to be published by Maggid Press this summer.

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