Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Reactions to Orthodox Female Rabbis

There have been some interesting developments with respect to Rabbi Avi Weiss's ordaining women for the Orthodox rabbinate.

For those who do not read this blog regularly or are otherwise unfamiliar with the subject - Rabbi Avi Weiss (pictured leading an anti PLO demonstration) has ordained the first Orthodox female rabbi - Sara Hurwitz. But he has for some reason never called her ‘rabbi’.

He started out with Maharat, a Hebrew acronym standing for Manhiga Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit— a leader in Jewish law, spiritual matters and Torah. He was criticized by the Orthodox left for using this strange name and not being more forthright in calling her by the title she earned, Rabbi. He sort of semi conceded the point and decided to use the term ‘rabba’. He explained that this was merely the feminine word for rabbi. Which he of course entirely made up. There is no such word.

What happened after that was a statement by Agudah condemning this event in the strongest possible terms. So strong were they in their condemnation that they basically threw any shul hiring a female rabbi for any purpose - out of Orthodoxy. Their reasons were that there was no precedent for it and therefore a serious break from our Mesorah – or tradition. Serious enough for expulsion!

This also means that they recognized that there is no Halachic break. But they hold that one may nevertheless not break tradition unless there is an existential threat to Judaism itself.

One can argue whether breaking with tradition without violating Halacha is an offense worthy of expulsion from Orthodoxy, but one cannot argue that this was indeed a break – a very public one and a very big one. One that at the very least will probably marginalize Rabbi Weiss and his female rabbinic graduates.

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) was no less perturbed by this event. There were rumors that they were so upset at Rabbi Weiss that they were considering expelling him from their august fraternity. This was later denied in a public statement by their President, Rabbi Moshe Kletenik. But the fact is that they were not pleased with him and entered into discussions with him about his bold and new innovation. In the end matters were settled by a compromise. Rabbi Weiss agreed to withdraw the term ‘rabba’ and go back to the term Maharat and will be allowed to continue his female rabbinic seminary.

The Agudah made note of that fact by rejecting it. Here is there statement in its entirety:

The leadership of the Rabbinical Council of America and Rabbi Avi Weiss have apparently reached agreement that Rabbi Weiss would no longer confer the title of “Rabba” upon graduates of his women’s seminary, but rather the title “Maharat.”

This superficial move does not in any way change the position of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah that placing women in traditional rabbinic positions departs from the Jewish mesorah, and that any congregation with a woman in such a position cannot call itself Orthodox.

That the leadership of a respected rabbinical organization seems to have capitulated to Rabbi Weiss’ enterprise is deeply dismaying. We trust that this capitulation does not represent the perspective of the principled majority of the organization’s member rabbis.

Agudah has a point. I’ve quoted Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet before: “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. What matters is what something is, not what it is called. That is the point and Agudah is right about that. Rabbi Weiss has committed himself to ordaining female rabbis and has not backed off. The RCA seems to be satisfied with that – as long as the ‘rose’ isn’t called a ‘rose’.

In light of that - the pretense should end. If Rabbi Weiss is as principled as many people say he is, let Sara Hurwitz and all subsequent graduates of his female rabbinic seminary, Yeshivat Maharat, be called rabbi. And let the chips fall where they may. Let him have the courage of his convictions to ‘go the distance’ on this one.

As I said before I am in favor of women learning the material required for an ordination or any other Torah they choose. I am also in favor of somehow recognizing their achievements. But- I am opposed to their ordination for reasons I will not get into here. Been there and done that. More than once.

And though I would not advocate attending such a Shul - I would not however throw a Shul that hires a female rabbi out of Orthodoxy so long as Halacha was not in any way violated. (Not that I have any standing to do so.) I would instead closely monitor the situation to see if these Shuls succumb to social pressures and slide down that slippery slope where Halacha might in the end be compromised. Then of course I would agree that such a Shul should be thrown out.

Throwing someone out of Orthodoxy has serious Halachic ramifications that could affect innocent Jews in serious and very harmful ways. That – in my view makes it too drastic a step.

The RCA has not done themselves any favors with this compromise at all. They have in fact tacitly approved what Rabbi Weiss does by reaching this compromise. That fact has not been lost on Rabbi Weiss. Had the RCA simply ignored it and barred female rabbis entry in to their fraternity, they could have had their cake and eaten it too. But it’s too late for that.

The RCA will in fact not allow any female rabbis membership. They do not even allow Rabbi Weiss’s Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) male ordainees membership. It should also be noted that the Rabbinic Fellowship created as an alternative to the RCA for YCT graduates will denies female rabbis membership too.

This is one of the most fascinating events to happen in Orthodox Jewry in my memory. It strikes at the heart of the definition of Orthodoxy. It is to Orthodoxy what ‘Who is a Jew’(i.e. which converts are accepted) is to Israel’s ‘Law of Return’ – which grants all legitimate Jews automatic citizenship. It will be interesting to see how all this unfolds.