Debating a ban

Debating a ban

Orthodox Union ruling that women rabbis are treif is defended and challenged

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, left, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, and Pamela Scheininger
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, left, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, and Pamela Scheininger

After the Orthodox Union issued a statement last week, saying that women rabbis aren’t kosher, Orthodox advocates for women’s ordination insist that they will continue to answer to a higher authority.

“It’s not going to eliminate the need or desire by people in our community to serve Hashem in the best way possible,” said Pamela Scheininger of Teaneck, a vice president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

But Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Ahavath Torah in Englewood said he was “very comfortable” with the statement.

“It is in line with the thinking that many of us have been working with, which is that every effort should be made to encourage and enfranchise women within the community who are interested in higher levels of learning and communal participation,” he said. “However, there is a red line when it comes to ordination of women.”

The OU’s statement was issued by an ad hoc panel of rabbis the OU set up to answer two questions: Is it 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 may be performed by a woman?

The panel was composed of seven male rabbis, most of whom teach Talmud at Yeshiva University. Three of them are from northern New Jersey: Rabbi Daniel Feldman of Congregation Ohr Saadya in Teaneck, Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger of Congregation Beth Abraham in Bergenfield, and Rabbi Benjamin Yudin of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn.

The panel included two of the most prominent legal authorities affiliated with the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America: Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva University’s seminary, and Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, head of the Rabbinical Council’s beit din, or court.

The Rabbinical Council announced its objections to women as rabbis in 2015. Rabbi Schachter has been arguing against changes to Orthodox practice that he calls feminist for more than three decades, at times likening feminism to Christianity, Sadduceeism, and other heresies.

The ruling therefore broke no new halachic ground. Five OU member synagogues have women serving as clergy; none said they would change their practice. (See related story.)

“This feels as if it has added very little to the conversation,” Ms. Scheininger said. “To those of us who feel it personally, it was hard. It was disappointing. It felt very divisive in a way that no one needs.”

“There’s definitely room to take a much more permissive attitude than the OU panel did,” Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot said. Rabbi Helfgot leads Teaneck’s Netivot Shalom, an Orthodox synagogue not affiliated with the OU, and he is a leader of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, which includes male and female members.

The fellowship issued a statement reiterating its previous support for women in positions of religious leadership. Saying that it did not find the OU arguments “compelling,” it affirmed that “women can serve as clergy within our communities. The broader Orthodox community will be similarly enriched by welcoming talented women to serve as spiritual leaders and clergy in its synagogues and communal life, including as clergy.”

The statement concluded with a reminder of the burning halachic debate a century ago: Should women be allowed to vote? Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the chief rabbi of Palestine, was among the many Orthodox voices opposing women’s suffrage in the 1920s. The fellowship recommended instead the counsel of Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, who wrote: “Let us allow history to pass and make the decision.”

The OU statement did not directly address any of the responsa that have permitted women as rabbis. Rabbi Amnon Bazak of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel is among the statement’s critics. He wrote that its approach to jurisprudence reflects a charedi, or ultra-Orthodox, approach to Jewish law, rather than a religious Zionist approach. Religious Zionists — the Israeli equivalent of America’s modern Orthodox movement — has, despite Rabbi Kook’s objections, long accepted women in leadership positions, he argued. He also accused the OU statement of misquoting sources.

Rabbi Goldin rejected the claim that the OU statement was divisive.

Instead, he said, it was feminists who threatened to divide the Orthodox community.

While charedi Judaism argues that modern Orthodox Judaism is illegitimate, “the fact is that charedi individuals come and daven at my synagogue,” he said. “They may not agree with everything I say, but nothing I do has crossed a line that makes them uncomfortable in my community. Unfortunately, individuals in the Open Orthodox community take positions that mean I can’t go into their services, things like partnership minyans.” Partnership minyans allow women to lead certain parts of the synagogue service that do not require a minyan, and they allow women to read from the Torah. Rabbi Schachter condemned those minyans in a 2014 statement that the RCA published.

Through such innovations as partnership minyans and women’s ordination, Open Orthodox halachic rulings “are dividing the community irrevocably,” Rabbi Goldin said. “That’s unfortunate. I don’t think it’s necessary.”

He praised the OU for encouraging women “who are interested in higher levels of learning and communal participation.”

The OU statement gave a divided message on the position of yoetzet halacha, saying that those women, who are certified to answer halachic questions about menstrual issues and other questions about the Orthodox approach to sexuality, “provide a valuable service,” but indicating that some members of the panel feel “halakhic and meta-halakhic concerns outweigh the benefits.”

Rabbi Goldin said he is proud that his community was one of the first to employ a yoetzet. “I think this is a perfect example of where a communal need is being met in a wonderful way and at the same time we’re making use of talented women to meet that need,” he said. “In a community like mine, there are many women who might not feel comfortable coming to a rabbi with the intimate questions that might surround observance of taharat mishpacha,” or family purity. “Having a woman has been very helpful,” he added.

He accused Yeshivat Maharat, which began ordaining women in 2013, of splitting the Orthodox community, “which was moving in a very positive direction with the yoatzot and women serving as scholars on the staff of synagogues. This was an evolving process.

“The OU and the RCA have a responsibility to our constituent rabbis and synagogues to assist them in creating standards that are uniform and help them respond to challenges they may receive in their communities concerning their standards. It is very helpful if they have the backup of the organization and the roshei yeshiva” — the YU Talmud faculty members — “who are saying that this is the line.”

He cautioned that envelope-pushing changes to Orthodox practice, such as partnership minyans, may not be sustainable.

“Let’s assume for a moment that a partnership minyan enables women to lead the service at particular points that in their halachic estimation is acceptable,” he said. “Sooner or later those women are going to turn around and say you’re only letting me lead the parts of the service that aren’t that important. You’re not going to satisfy those demands.”

He said that the demands of Orthodox feminists have moved beyond what he and some congregants can support.

“I used to be comfortable going to JOFA conferences and speaking,” he said. “When I saw that they were becoming not a forum where these issues were being discussed, but rather advocacy for a particular point of view I couldn’t agree with, I couldn’t go any more. I would ask those who would accuse the OU statement as dividing community to take a look and see who is dividing the community.”

(Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin of Teaneck, a member of the RCA’s executive committee, has written an op ed on this question.)

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