There was a breakthrough event that took place a couple of weeks ago. On Sunday March 21st, 2009, Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss conferred Semicha upon Sara Hurwitz.
She studied the same material, passed the same tests, and received the same ‘degree’ as a man would - Yoreh Yoreh. Although Ms. Hurwitz was not called Rav or rabbi by Rabbi Weiss, she has nevertheless become one – lack of that nomenclature not withstanding.
Perhaps that was his way of conceding to tradition – or maybe he thought calling her 'rabbi' was going too far. But tradition was in fact shattered here.
I want to be clear. I do not think that there was any technical Halachic violation. Semicha as we know it today is nothing like the original Semicha handed down from Moshe Rabbenu generation after generation. That type of actual ordination was lost about the time of the Gemarah. What we have now is really a Heter Hora’ah: permission to disseminate Halacha - and be a preacher and teacher in Israel. There is no special sanctity to it. It is a post rabbinic era degree.
So I see nothing Halachicly wrong with a woman of fine character who has spent many years diligently studying Gemerah and Poskim taking the requisite Halacha courses, being tested, passing those tests and being rewarded with recognition in the form a ‘degree’ called Yoreh Yoreh.
And yet I am opposed to it. There are situations that even though Halachicly permissible should not be entered into because of other reasons. It is not only Halacha that is important. There are Hashkafa issues to consider too. So even though I do not believe Rabbi Weiss crossed any Halachic lines - and even though I firmly believe him to be a sincere and Halachic Jew - just as Orthodox as me or even Rav Elyashiv - I do believe he crossed some serious Hashkafic lines. He has opened up a Pandora ’s box of potential problems that can easily lead down a slippery slope that could cross Halachic lines as well. I realize Rabbi Weiss would never do that. But he has opened up the door for others who will.
The slippery slope argument has already been demonstrated by another of his own innovations. In Open Orthodoxy he has parted with his Rebbi, Rav Soloveitchik, and promotes participation in cross denomination theological discussions with heterodox movements.
One of his Musmachim, Rabbi Darren Klienberg, has taken that to another level. He officiated with Reform and Conservative rabbis in a conversion. And though Rabbi Klienberg defended his action on Halachic grounds, he admitted that he would have participated in it even if it wouldn’t have passed Halachic muster.
To their credit, Rabbi Weiss and his Yeshiva separated themselves from their Musmach on that issue – even without Rabbli Klienberg’s non Halachic caveat. But I think this demonstrates very clearly how the best of intentions of even the most Ehrliche Jew can quickly lead down forbidden paths.
There is another problem – one I have discussed in the past. I believe that the motivation by women who want Semicha stems from an unholy source: what I will call extremist feminism.
I consider myself a feminist. I believe that women should be treated equally in the workplace. Equal pay for equal work. Anything else is discriminatory and unjust. I also believe in treating woman as equals socially. Simple Kavod Habrius teaches us that we must respect our fellow human beings. One’s sex does not give one superior or inferior status.
Now I am not saying that Rabbi Sara Horowitz is an extremist. I highly doubt that. Nor do I believe she is even necessarily a feminist. But I do think that the current cultural obsession with feminism has played a role. There are some feminists who agitate for equality between men and women in every single area of human existence.
That is their highest value. In their minds it supersedes any religious consideration. For them a woman receiving an Orthodox ordination is a hard fought battle won! Religious values are at best secondary. If they conflict with feminist notions of equality they are discarded. It is just one of many areas they seek to ‘conquer’. It is all about women’s rights.
But as I said many times - and I echo Rav Soloveitchik - Judaism is not a religion of rights. It is a religion of obligations. Mitzvos are not rights. They are the means God gave us - His chosen people - to serve Him. We serve God best when we utilize those means in the way God intended.
This is why I am opposed to feminist innovations like Women’s Teffila Groups (WTG). They may be OK according to the strict letter of the law, if care is taken to do it properly. But it is at best a secondary way for women to serve God.
Although women may participate in many Mitzvos that are specifically for men , the Gemarah tells us: Gadol HaMetzuvah V’Oseh L’Mi She Aino Metzuvah V’Oseh – greater merit is due to the one who is commanded to do the Mitzvah than to the one who was not commanded to do it. I am sure that in most cases the women who particiate in WTGs are spiritually motivated and actually feel inspired there. But being inspired is not enough. Being inspired by doing a Mitzvah that has only secondary relevance does not make it greater in the eyes of God than the Mitzvos God has required of you.
I truly believe that female rabbis falls within those lines. Being a rabbi is primarily a man’s domain. Important areas of the rabbinate are Halachicly closed to women. A woman cannot Halachicly be a congregational rabbi except under the most awkward of circumstances. The Halachic requirment of separating the sexes in a synagogue prevents that.
If women continue to get Semicha what will the next step be? What traditional convention will be broken next? How long will it be before woman ends speaking at a podium in front of men after the Torah reading on a Shabbos? Is there a technical violation for that? I’m not sure – since it is not technically during Teffila. What’s next after that?
It is a very slippery slope between staying technically within Halacha and straying just outside of it. And once Halacha is breached –the game is over. That is what has happened to the Conservative movement. Until very recently they claimed to be a Halachic movement. Now - at best - that description is debatable even among its leaders. And that is what will likely happen to Rabbi Darren Klienberg if we are to believe his own words.
Rabbi Weiss has opened up a Pandora’s box here and no matter how determined he is to stay Halachic – someone at some point will cross the line in his movement’s name – no matter how much he will protest.