Liberal Orthodox rabbis oppose OU ban on female religious leadership

"We should welcome it and guide it within the halachic framework," says Beit Hillel rabbi

February 6, 2017 19:32
2 minute read.
Beit Hillel says women are fully permitted and able to give rulings in Jewish law

Beit Hillel says women are fully permitted and able to give rulings in Jewish law. (photo credit: YUVAL BEN-YEHUDA)


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Several institutions and rabbinical leaders from the liberal wing of the religious-Zionist community in Israel have questioned the wisdom of the OU’s recent decision not to allow women to give rulings in Jewish law or otherwise participate in the clergy or positions of public spiritual leadership.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Yehudah Gilad, a member of the board of directors of Beit Hillel, started by saying he believed elements of the OU decision were a step forward, including its embrace of women participating in pastoral roles within Jewish communities as teachers and lay leaders.

Although insisting that it was not Beit Hillel’s position to criticize decisions of Jewish communal organizations in the US, Gilad said that there were aspects of the OU’s rabbinical position paper on the issue with which he disagreed personally.

In particular, he pointed out that the OU’s document did not bring any concrete sources which ban women from undertaking one of the most critical functions of a rabbi, issuing rulings on Jewish law, halacha.

“The reason is that it is very hard to find an authoritative source who banned women from issuing halachic rulings,” Gilad said simply.

“The phenomenon of women who are arbiters of Jewish law is growing and we should welcome it and guide it within the halachic framework.”

He noted that Beit Hillel issued a position statement two years ago specifically endorsing the legitimacy of women to give halachic rulings, although noting that the organization nevertheless does not endorse women leading communal religious services, being part of a prayer quorum and other functions which Jewish law does prohibit.

“But we should welcome and support women carrying functions in rabbinical position which do not contradict halacha as long as it does in a moderate, delicate way and with consideration with of the community,” said Gilad.

Women serving in such a manner in synagogue communities as assistant rabbis was an example of how they could fulfill such roles, he said.

Rabbi Benny Lau, who heads the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem that recently appointed a female spiritual leader to serve alongside him, described the OU’s position paper as expressing “weakness and fear,” instead of welcoming the adoption by women of communal spiritual responsibilities.

“On every page of the document (14 pages!) one can discern worry about bringing in women to positions of communal spiritual leadership, as if there is some kind of competition over hegemony and control,” wrote Lau on his Facebook page.

“This train of the integration of women in the work of spiritual leadership of the community has already started its journey and is not waiting for the position papers of organizations to approve or prohibit this journey. The question is if those organizations will be relevant for the next generation or if they will be left on the side of the tracks by the old, forgotten train station.”

The Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah organization said that it welcomed debate on the issue of female communal leadership, but said that it was saddened by the OU’s efforts to delay the integration of women as spiritual and halachic leaders.

“We are aware of these big challenges, but the right way to deal with them whether in Israel or the US is by trusting the desire of women, and our desire, to be a driving force in the service of God,” the group said in a statement to the press.”

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