Many people think that a woman serving as a rabbi in Orthodoxy is a relatively recent idea. But the fact is that it is not new. Over 45 years ago when I was in the process of studying for Semicha, I actually penned an article in favor of female rabbis in Chicago’s now defunct Sentinel. It was my response to a highly critical article of that concept by a Charedi Rosh Yeshiva in a previous issue of that same magazine.
I made the following argument. Since the word rabbi really just means teacher, why couldn’t a woman do that? I have obviously changed my view on this subject because I have gotten older and wiser. There is a lot more to consider than whether a woman can be a rabbi because it just means ‘teacher’.
The truth is that – as I have said many times in the past, the title ‘rabbi’ in our day has no Halachic significance. It is nothing more that a Heter Hora’ah – granting an individual the right to inform people what the Halacha is when asked a question about it. A right gained by having studied the relevant portions of the Shulchan Aruch. The rabbis of today are not a masoretic continuation of the rabbis of old who received Semicha in a direct chain - one rabbi to another - all the way back to the time of Moshe. Moshe literally placed his hands upon Yehoshua in transferring rabbinic authority to him by the order of God. That ended many centuries ago.
Those people who argue that there is no Halachic reason not to grant today’s version of Semicha to a woman have a point. That’s why - although there are some Halachic issues with it - the debate is mostly about how important it is to fallow Mesorah – tradition. And Open Orthodox rabbis have decided on their own that tradition is basically worthless in our day. As did Open Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky at a panel discussion between 4 rabbis each representing a different denominations (post denominational, Conservative, OO and MO). From the Jewish Journal :
(T)he whole concept of “tradition” has become problematic. “It’s become a polemical word. It has no meaning, it has no substance, it has no content, and if we want to have an intelligent conversation, we have to stop using it,” he said.The debate over whether Orthodox women should serve in clergy positions, the refrain that has come out of the [Rabbinical Council of America] is that it is a violation of our sacred masorah [tradition],” Kanefsky said. “It is code: ‘I cannot think of a single reason why it is not halachically permissible but I know I don’t like it.’ ”
This was followed by Conservative Rabbi Adam Kligfield and ‘Social Justice’ Rabbi Sharon Brous agreeing with him.
Modern Orthodox Rabbi Pini Dunner disagreed and argued that tradition should not be discarded and continues to offer guidance in our time.
I don’t think there is any question that OO has more in common with heterodoxy than it does with Modern Orthodoxy. How ironic that that the 3 rabbis in favor of female rabbis essentially make the same argument which was best expressed by Rabbi Brous:
‘There is a fundamental lack of creativity and lack of moral courage in engaging the tradition, so what we have seen, particularly [recently], are a number of emerging leaders and rabbis, lay leaders, individuals and communities throughout the country who are forming a non-Orthodox approach to Judaism and [who] say, ‘We will not engage in a perfunctory run through of the tradition…’
Is there any real doubt anymore whether OO is really Orthodox if they think along the same lines that Conservative and ‘social justice’rabbis do? Yes, OO follows Halacha. But so too did the Conservative Movement in its founding days. And still claim to!
The fact is that tradition has always informed each generation how to proceed. Tosephos (Menachos 20b) says Minhag Avoseinu B'Yadenu. The customs of our fathers is our hands (to follow). There is even a Yiddish expression that says the following: A Minhag Brecht a Din – custom is so strong that it can override Halacha. How to apply that is outside the purview of this post. But this clearly shows that tradition has a very high place in Judaism and should certainly not be discarded just because you live in an era that no longer respects it.
That Judaism places a high value on traditions means that rabbis who do not have the vast depth and breadth of Jewish knowledge necessary to break a tradition don't have the right to reject it. Let alone all of tradition. Knowledgeable though they may be, they are not knowledgeable enough. Breaking tradition is reserved for Rabbis of high stature and recognized as such. And those rabbis have historically never changed tradition unless they believed there existential reasons to do so.
But none of this really matters. Even if one were to agree with Rabbi Kanefsky that tradition doesn’t mean anything anymore - what really matters is what Orthodox rabbinic leaders will accept and what they won’t. As I have said many times, based on the vehement opposition by all Charedi rabbis and Centrist (RWMO) rabbis - I think I can safely say that female rabbis do not have a chance of being accepted in mainstream Orthodoxy in my lifetime - or even the lifetime of my children and grandchildren.
If Open Orthodoxy flourishes on its own (and it may) it will be outside of Orthodoxy. There may be many Orthodox Jews who agree with the OO argument saying that the right has not made its case. It may grow on that basis. But since Charedi and Centrist rabbis do not and accept them as Orthodox and likely never will (even the young ones) - they will not grow in an Orthodox context. Furthermore since Charedim and Centrists comprise the largest and fastest growing segment of Orthodoxy they cannot be ignored or written out of Orthodoxy by the left. Anyone that thinks that just isn’t being realistic.
As I have said many times - I can’t predict the future. I concede it is very possible that OO may grow in huge numbers someday. ...that many modern young Jews will be attracted by its claim to Halachic fealty, its egalitarian spirit; and its willingness to engage in theological dialogue with heterodox rabbis and clergy form other religions. Many new ‘facts on the ground’ may well arise - and arise quickly. Just as was case with the Conservative movement in its heyday. But numbers do not define Orthodoxy nor do they determine acceptance by the mainstream. I find it amusing that so many people think this will change.