Rabbis pray at the gravesite of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.
(photo credit: ADAM BEN COHEN / CHABAD.ORG)
Even organizations have to follow rabbinic guidance. Last week, the Orthodox Union (OU) announced it would enforce its ban on women rabbis in member synagogues.
Current member synagogues that are not in compliance have three years while all other current and new member synagogues may not have women in clergy positions.
The OU is a 120-year old synagogue organization that transformed American Orthodoxy by, among other things, making kosher food widely available, maintaining vibrant youth programs, pioneering Jewish outreach, bringing joy and accomplishment to disabled Jewish children, lobbying for Orthodox political concerns including day-school relief, and serving at the forefront of Birthright follow-up. The organization’s recent announcement follows multiple developments over the past few years.
In 2009, Rabbi Avi Weiss ordained a woman and established Yeshivat Maharat to train more women for the rabbinate. In response, the Modern Orthodox community gathered its leading Torah scholars to discuss the issue and decide whether this move was consistent with the Torah tradition as understood and accepted in the Orthodox community. The result was a 2010 resolution of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) rejecting the ordination and recognition of women as rabbis.
As I understand it, this resolution encourages women’s Torah scholarship and leadership but also seeks to preserve traditional gender roles.
Contemporary society has become increasingly gender neutral. In contrast, Judaism recognizes both theologically and practically the differences between men and women. A Jewish woman has a unique role in the family and the community. As women explore new roles in these confusing times, we as a community need to allow them room to find their paths while avoiding the temptation of adopting secular values of gender neutrality.
Four years after the 2010 resolution, as Yeshivat Maharat celebrated its first graduation, the RCA reiterated its position and expressed its regret over this “violation of our mesorah [tradition].”
In 2015, the RCA issued another resolution (which I sponsored as a member), this time forbidding its own members from hiring women rabbis.
This was necessary because matters of Jewish law that affect the community need to be decided by experts, not journalists or activists. On this issue, the leading Torah scholars of the day agree that this development is unprecedented and contrary to Torah tradition.
Currently, four synagogues belonging to the OU employ women in rabbinic roles. This prompted the synagogue organization to gather a panel of leading rabbis to advise the OU on Jewish law and tradition. After long deliberation and meetings with a variety of leaders throughout the Orthodox community, the rabbinic panel issued its report in February 2017.
The panel concluded that “a woman should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position” but did not turn away women who want to serve as communal leaders. The panel offered examples of roles women can and should fill in the community, such as teaching Torah and counseling individuals.
As women explore new ways in which they can contribute to, and lead, the community, they must continue within the tradition and not break outside of it.
This conclusion put OU leadership in a difficult position. It had asked a question of its rabbinic guides and received an answer that conflicted with practices in some of its synagogues.
For the past year, rumors have been circulating about what the leadership will do. From time immemorial, Jews have asked leading rabbis questions on religious practice and followed the response. We have records of such responses dating back over 1,000 years. Even the Torah discusses this: “If a matter arises which is too hard for you to judge... and you shall come to the priests the Levites, and to the judge who will be in those days and inquire of them... You shall do according to the sentence which they pronounce on you” (Deuteronomy 17:8-10).
Imagine the outcome if the leading Orthodox organization failed to follow its own rabbinic advisers. The abandonment of the halachic process would be an abdication of communal responsibility. It would teach all our children that we only have to follow religion when we like it. It would say that Judaism is not a call to obligations from above but a religious description of our own preferences.
That is not Orthodox Judaism. The Torah is demanding. It requires sacrifice of time, opportunities and much more. We follow the Torah even when it conflicts with our deepest desires – especially so – because a religion of comfort is a religion of pleasing ourselves, not God.
Like Jewish communal leaders throughout the centuries, OU leadership sent a multi-faceted question to leading rabbis and received a thoughtful and respectful response.
This recent organizational announcement reflects the carefully considered implementation of that response. In following this process, the OU models proper Orthodox behavior and joins Jewish communal leaders throughout the ages.
The author is a rabbi and the editor of TorahMusings.com. He is a member of the executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America but this essay represents only his own opinion.