To many Jews, a ban on Orthodox female rabbis probably doesn’t sound like news — Orthodoxy has never permitted women to serve as clergy.
But when the Orthodox Union recently adopted a policy barring women from serving as rabbis or performing equivalent duties, it was headline news, with many outlets calling the decision “unprecedented.”
The ruling, which applies to OU’s hundreds of congregations across the U.S., comes as an increasing number of modern Orthodox congregations — including Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. — have hired female rabbis or put women into distinctly rabbi-like leadership roles.
In addition, New York-based yeshiva Yeshivat Maharat has graduated 14 female Jewish clergy — all of whom identify as Orthodox. And in April of last year, Lila Kagedan was featured on CNN as the first female rabbi to ever head up a U.S. Orthodox Jewish congregation.
Kagedan was one of the speakers at last month’s Jewish Orthodox Feminist Association (JOFA) conference, which drew more than 1,200 participants. The conference’s opening plenary session was titled, “From Vision to Reality: Orthodox Women Rabbis and the Woman Who Willed it Into Being.”
While the Rabbinical Council of America passed a resolution against female Orthodox rabbis in 2015, the Orthodox Union had been silent on the issue.
In a statement explaining the ruling, the OU leadership noted that it was partly an increase in activity that prompted its investigation.
“More women than at any prior time in Jewish history are learning and teaching Torah, with passionate commitment and at unprecedented levels of scholarship and professional achievement,” they wrote.
“Similarly, highly qualified and dedicated women are increasingly assuming leading roles in Orthodox communal life, both as professionals and within the laity. These positive developments have transformed the face of synagogues and the Orthodox community.”
At the same time, the OU said, “over the past several years, certain synagogues have chosen to have women assume rabbinic roles and responsibilities, or rabbinic-like titles, never before practiced within Orthodox Judaism. As a lay body it was our impression that the issues presented were perceived, certainly by segments of our community, as aspects of Orthodox communal practice not necessarily governed by halacha. … The need for halachic and hashkafic guidance was clear.”
So OU convened a panel of rabbinic scholars to consider two questions: “Is it halachically acceptable for a synagogue to employ a woman in a clergy function?” and “What is the broadest spectrum of professional roles within a synagogue that women can perform within the bounds of halacha?”
The panel’s decision invoked historical precedent as one of the key reasons women should not be rabbis.
“We feel that the absence of institutionalized women’s rabbinic leadership has been both deliberate and meaningful, and should continue to be preserved,” it said.
The rabbis also noted that the Torah “clearly and consistently speaks of role differentiation” among women and men.
“Our group believes that the combination of these two considerations, precedent and halakhic concerns, precludes female clergy,” they wrote. “Given the status quo that we feel is meaningful and intentional, the burden of halakhic proof rests on the side of changing the established practice.”
The ruling allows women to teach Torah, lead study groups, advise on family purity concerns and serve as lay leaders.
The ruling has drawn criticism from more liberal Orthodox groups.
“We are confused as to why this is being raised now after women have been serving as halakhic spiritual leaders in OU synagogues for well over a decade,” JOFA said in a statement. “This statement fails to acknowledge the vast number of Modern Orthodox Jews and communities throughout America and Israel that already have female leadership.
“Orthodox Judaism is diverse in practice, religious outlook, and day to day milieu. While we appreciate that an halakhic authority might conclude that women clergy are forbidden, others have arrived at different conclusions.”
The New York-based International Rabbinic Fellowship, comprised of Orthodox rabbis, released a statement affirming its support for female rabbis, saying, “Observant and committed Orthodox women who are learned, trained and competent should have every opportunity to fully serve the Jewish community.”
In Jerusalem, Ramban Synagogue’s Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Lau — who last August hired Rabbanit Carmit Feintuch as the first female synagogue leader in Israel — condemned the ruling, saying on his Facebook page that it demonstrated fear and weakness.
He also said it was too late to stop the integration train: “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.”
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, spiritual leader of D.C.’s Ohev Sholom, told The Forward, “The OU should stick to tuna fish.”
But the ruling attracted praise as well, much of it found in online comments that questioned the need to reaffirm the obvious. The Orthodox Union reported that reaction has been mostly positive.
Rabbi Gil Student praised the OU’s procedural methods in a Jewish Press editorial titled “Orthodox Union Gets It Right on Woman Rabbis.”
“The OU followed the right path. It did not turn to poskim in Israel, who might not fully understand the situation in the U.S. It turned to poskim in the U.S. — rabbis who lead their own shuls and/or visit communities across the country,” Student wrote. “They received written and oral input from leaders of many different communities. And after reaching a decision, they communicated it to the public in a lengthy document explaining their reasoning and providing their sources.”
Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer, rabbi of the Young Israel of Orange County and member of the RCA’s executive board, also celebrated the ruling in an op-ed for Arutz Sheva.
“The movement to ordain women rabbis does not and never did bubble up from within halakhic Judaism,” he wrote. “Rather, it is the classic case of not adhering to the mitzva b’chukoteikhem lo teileikhu (‘Do not follow in the ways of the Nations.’) It was a movement that stemmed entirely from outside Judaism, from people who do not believe in the G-d of Israel and in His Torah.”
For the Philadelphia area, there are no Orthodox congregations led by women. But the region does have a rich history of female ordination, from Philadelphia native Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first female Conservative rabbi to Philadelphia native Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, the first female Reconstructionist rabbi.
Sasso, who is rabbi emerita at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indiana and director of religion, spirituality and the arts at Butler University, told the Exponent she found the OU decision “disappointing.”
“I have had the privilege of coming to know some of the new Orthodox women rabbis,” Sasso said. “They are gifted and wise and serve our communities with grace and distinction. I am honored to call them colleagues.”
Rabbi Marcia Prager — named by The Forward as one of America’s 50 most influential female rabbis — is director and dean of the ALEPH Ordination Program and rabbi of the P’nai Or Congregation of Philadelphia. She also was disappointed.
“Times change,” Prager told the Exponent. “Halachic norms of past eras are not all carried into the future, and surely many are no longer part of the fabric of contemporary Jewish life. Halacha is not static.”
Rebbetzin Dr. Adina Shmidman, an educational psychologist who serves the Lower Merion Synagogue Orthodox community, had no problem with the ruling.
In her role as Rebbetzin, she said, “I fulfill meaningful spiritual roles. In these capacities I mentor, counsel, guide and teach.”
Aside from her duties as rebbetzin, “I participate in the Chevra Kadisha, the ritual burial society which prepares the deceased for burial; the synagogue’s Chesed committee, which provides rides and meals for those in need; and as a Mikvah attendant, accompanying women in the ritual bath process,” she said. “All these are opportunities for religious fulfillment.”
And she’s raising her kids, too.
“Of all the above-mentioned roles, what is most personally satisfying is raising my children in accordance with the Torah values.”
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