Editors’ Note: The Orthodox Union’s recent statement regarding professional roles for women in Orthodox synagogues has sparked heated debate for the sake of heaven. In the hopes of contributing to that ongoing conversation, Lehrhaus has convened a symposium to reflect upon the statement. Over the course of the next week we will post further installments, so please check back frequently. Each contribution will contain links to the other pieces in the symposium.
Symposium Contributions: Sara Wolkenfeld, Tzvi Sinensky, Shmuel Winiarz, Leah Sarna, Rivka Press Schwartz, Matt Reingold, Laura Shaw Frank, Chaim Twerski, Chaim Trachtman, Shayna Goldberg, Shaul Robinson, Todd Berman, Jeffrey Fox, Elli Fischer, Jeffrey Woolf, Zev Eleff & Ari Lamm
The OU’s recent rabbinic statement on women and synagogues has generated a tremendous amount of discussion, mainly around the issue of whether women may be ordained as rabbis or not. Lost in much of the discussion has been attention paid to the very positive – arguably groundbreaking—endorsement of professional roles for women. Some cynics may argue that these sentiments are only meant to distract attention from what is a very negative document. Time will tell if this document will be used only to apply pressure to communities contemplating hiring women rabbis, or represents a commitment to help create a new model of halakhically acceptable women’s leadership in shuls.
For some synagogues and communities, the discussions around the OU’s rabbinic panel may be almost totally irrelevant—perhaps a topic for Shabbat table discussions, but no more than that. But for some communities, the Lincoln Square Synagogue, in particular, the recent statement is of critical importance. Ours is a shul where we have, for the longest time, witnessed the blessings of women in positions of meaningful Torah leadership.
The Importance of Women’s Leadership
As a rabbi in an urban congregation that is, thank God, home to a rapidly growing community of young couples, the OU’s document is urgently relevant. The importance of women’s professional involvement is, to my mind, not about envelope-pushing and egalitarianism, feminism, etc. It is about a simple statement. It is simply impossible for a male rabbi in this day and age to be as close to the female members of his shul as he is to the males. The rabbinate is no longer a formal, “on a pedestal”-type of position. Even in the 12 years that I have been at Lincoln Square, I have witnessed a huge change in what it takes to relate to a new generation of Modern Orthodox people. The bald fact is that the Modern Orthodox graduate of day school, a year or two in Israel, even a Yeshiva University college degree, is not an automatic shul-goer, much less an attendee at shiurim and seeker of rabbinical guidance.
I have found that it is impossible to grow a congregation without developing a genuine friendship, a closeness with the young men in our community that would be simply inappropriate with the women. Young Modern Orthodox Jews are looking for a figure more akin to a yeshiva rebbe, someone with whom they can genuinely bond.
Many on the religious right cannot understand the preoccupation with creating new roles for women in shuls. The only answer I can offer is that failure to provide role models, mentors, guides, and teachers who can create an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual bond with women in a way that would be forbidden for any man, will be a disaster for our community.
I have, additionally, three main observations to make about the OU’s rabbinic statement.
Rabbis and Yo’atzot
The first is the nature of psak against women rabbis. Many people have debated—some respectfully, some not so respectfully—the methodology of halakhic decision making. How, namely, can we derive that it is against halakhah to ordain women? Moreover, some have also questioned the credentials or the fitness of the seven rabbinic scholars to rule on the matter.
And I reject both critiques. First, we should not doubt their qualifications. The OU selected talmidei hakhamim of the first order. If, heaven forbid, there was a case of agunah, or some most complex issue of personal status or life and death, it is to these rabbis we ought to turn. In fact, as a congregational rabbi, I do turn to them.
More importantly, we are not dealing with a local issue, something relevant to the practice of one shul or another. These are matters that impact the historical development of Orthodox Judaism. Frankly, stature, in instances like this, matters very much.
According to the Talmud (Bava Kama 102a), “whomever changes, the burden of proof is on him.” Whatever the reason might be—halakhic, historical, or sociological—women have not received ordination throughout the annals of Jewish history. If a group wants to change this, it is on them to prove that it ought to be changed. I am left unconvinced by the supporters of this change effort. The OU’s selected panel offered cogent arguments, of the kind that the opposition has not yet put forward, I believe.
Of course, many people have reacted very negatively to the panel’s decision. Truth be told, I understand the upsetness of those who feel that the halakhah should be moving towards a greater egalitarianism. I don’t necessarily share those views, but I completely understand it, and I would never question the Orthodoxy or the sincerity of those who disagree with me.
However, I confess that I was dismayed by the only half-hearted endorsement of yo’etzet halachah. These are women trained to answer questions and guide in the area of niddah and mikvah. Lincoln Square Synagogue is proud to have been the first shul in Manhattan to endorse and hire a yo’etzet.
I know from countless interactions—with yo’atzot and with congregants—the profound enhancement to the observance of these holy laws for which these women are responsible. In my opinion, a great opportunity was missed by the seven scholars in failing to endorse this movement wholeheartedly.
Coherence and Clarifications
Having said that, I find important parts of the document puzzling and in need of clarification. The rabbinic statement read: “For the reasons stated above we believe that a woman should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position, even when not called a rabbi.” This is problematic for two reasons. First of all, “clergy” is an English word, not a halakhic term. The panel was responsible to outline parameters. For instance, Lincoln Square Synagogue had the privilege of employing a Community Scholar for many years. The rabbinic authors refer to something like this in their statement, but it is still unclear.
Like other major congregations, Lincoln Square has different types of staffs. We have maintenance staff and administrative staff. We also feature a religious leadership: the clergy. We naturally counted our Community Scholar as a member of the clergy because that is how we designate our religious staff. Indeed as an employee of this nature is eligible for parsonage we were advised to designate them as clergy. It’s an issue that may be regarded as semantic, but in fact is of critical importance. Because if we are to create meaningful professional roles for women (see below) then they have to be positions for which a person would want to train and to devote the best years of their lives to; positions that would be properly respected. It is one thing to envision a recent college graduate filling a position that is basically akin to an internship, but what then? How would we recognize and accord respect to the truly talented women who have the potential to bring enormous benefits to congregations?
There is more confusion. For example, the panel forbade the “regular practice of delivering sermons from the pulpit during services.” Does that mean, as some have suggested, that visiting scholars would be OK, but the same women may not regularly speak in shul? Some members of the rabbinic panel have informed me that their statement did not intend to comment on women speaking at the conclusion of the service. In fact, they intended to permit this, even regularly. Their proscription regarded sermons before musaf. I look forward to a public clarification of this and other vague points.
Female Leadership and Scholarly Empowerment
Despite the above criticism, I believe the rabbinic statement should be warmly—and actively—embraced. Some of its content is remarkable. I refer, in specific, to the historic endorsements of professional roles for women, and the role of women in Orthodox Judaism. This portion, I fear, has not received anything like the credit it deserves.
The authors are clear: “Women should most enthusiastically be encouraged to share their knowledge, talents, and skills—as well as their passion and devotion—to synagogues, schools and community organizations.” They listed teaching ongoing classes and shiurim, and delivering lectures, serving as a visiting scholar-in-residence, serving as a synagogue staff member in the role of community educator or institutional scholar to supplement synagogue rabbis in enhancing the community’s educational opportunities, and serving as a synagogue staff member in the role of professional counselor to address the spiritual, psychological, or social needs of the community.
For the first time the leading poskim of Modern Orthodoxy have explicitly and warmly endorsed tapping women with the sacred duties of teaching Torah and offering spiritual and pastoral guidance of our communities. What is more, they write:
We encourage our communities to address these genuine aspirations in a manner compatible with halakhah and consistent with Torah values. For example, care should continue to be taken to construct mechitzot that not only follow halakhic requirements, but are also sensitive to the degree of engagement with the services that can be felt from the ezrat nashim. Similarly, women seeking greater involvement in synagogue prayer services should be encouraged to come to shul for weekday and Shabbat minyanim, and the ezrat nashim should be inviting and available for their attendance. Each synagogue should be encouraged to reach out to women—and particularly single women when applicable—to create meaningful ways to involve them in synagogue life.
This is of dramatic importance. I submit that there is something very unfair about the way Orthodox Judaism tends to look at women’s aspirations. Consider the following incident. A number of years ago, I was invited to serve as a scholar-in-residence in a community outside of New York. One of the topics I suggested for a presentation was “Women and Judaism.” The rabbi was uncomfortable. “Look,” he said, “I don’t allow discussion of women’s roles in my shul. I have no intention of giving ground on any issue, so what is the point of any discussion, and why should I be regarded by the other rabbis in town as a left winger?” I thanked him for his candor. Privately, though, I was shocked. Were women in his shul, I wondered, fully engaged? What did they think of being denied the ability even to discuss these matters?
The past decades have seen revolutions in women’s issues sanctioned by rabbinical authorities of impeccable credentials—the Hafetz Hayyim’s support for Bais Yaakov, the Seridei Eish’s endorsements of bat mitzvah ceremonies, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s teaching of Talmud to women, the London Beth Din’s psak allowing women synagogue presidents, and many more such examples. Despite all this, discussion on women’s role in synagogue all too often generates unnecessary—even irrational—hostility. For instance, when we recently changed the mehitzah in the Lincoln Square beit midrash so that women would be able to see the service, one congregant informed me that he was leaving the shul—not because he thought the mehitzah wasn’t kosher—but because I had “given into the women!”
There is a unique and unfair opposition to women. It is simply not considered Orthodox enough—frum enough, perhaps—to care about women’s access to Torah and leadership. Let the record show that seven leading rabbis and poskim have explicitly endorsed and encouraged the importance of enhanced roles in shuls for women.
The Unanswered Question
The critical question is whether or not the OU will get behind its own document. The issue of expelling synagogues who fail to comply with the ruling against women rabbis is occupying the attention of many. But to mind that is the least important issue. The rabbinic statement represents an endorsement and encouragement for a greater role for women in shul life than is currently offered by the vast majority of its member shuls. The OU needs to take responsibility for actualizing the terms of this statement. This national organization should help support the training and employment of women Torah teachers and community scholars. I pray that they not delay in their commitment to identifying suitable and honorable titles for such women.
Further, the OU must see its responsibility to actively educate the wider Orthodox community about the possibilities of professional roles for women in Synagogues. After all, the OU hailed their efforts with the following press release title: “OU Opens Doors to Women Leaders.” Having seen the incredible blessings to the level of observance and Limmud Torah in a congregation that such positions can bring, I desperately hope that the OU will devote its energy, resources, and influence to enforcing everything that is positive and encouraging about its psak. If they indeed do so, the OU rabbinic statement will be regarded as a moment that changed the face of Orthodox Judaism in America, for the better.