Sunday, May 02, 2010

No to Female Rabbis in Orthodoxy

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) has spoken. Women are barred from the rabbinate. There was no equivocation. Nothing to interpret. Here is the specific statement from their resolution to that effect:

We cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.

Although many in the left wing of modern Orthodoxy have tried to put a positive spin on this, It seem pretty clear, as prominent Orthodox feminist Ms. Blu Greenberg noted - it represents a step backwards.

From the perspective of feminism I think she’s right. The positive aspects of the RCA resolution – such as the encouragement towards advanced Torah study are ones that have been in place for decades and supported by Rav Soloveitchik . And the fact that many women are already serving in various leadership areas cannot be denied. This is true across the board - even in Charedi circles.

There is nothing wrong in somehow recognizing their achievements in this regard. Even Charedi women are being educated in advanced Torah learning in Seminaries both here and in Israel. Modern Orthodox women have added Gemarah to their course of study. While the Charedi world is not supportive of that - it does not condemn it out of Orthodoxy as it did with ordaining women. So there is nothing new in this resolution other than a clear cut statement forbidding female rabbis.

The decision was apparently reached in consultation with some of the most knowledgeable and brilliant minds in modern Orthodoxy. It has not been disclosed precisely who they were, but I don’t think it would be a stretch to suggest that one of those people was Rav Hershel Schachter. He is quoted as actually objecting to it on a Halachic level - equating the leadership role of a rabbi to Serrara. That is a Halacha that specifically forbids women from taking any public leadership role in Judaism.

What that entails exactly - is a matter of dispute. But clearly Rabbi Schachter holds any variation of a female rabbi violates that Halacha. But his admonition goes even further. His opposition is so strong that he considers it a Yehoreg V’Al Ya’avor. One should be willing to give up his life before ordaining a woman as a rabbi. He reasons that since egalitarianism has become a plank of the Conservative movement platform, the level of Issur has been elevated to that status!

My esteemed cousin Elana Maryles Sztokman has weighed in on this decision. She is a very bright and sincere young woman who has dedicated much of her adult life to Orthodox feminist issues. Her heartfelt views ought not to be dismissed by anyone who values Klal Yisroel. In a Forward article she laments that - because of attitudes like those of the RCA which result in these kinds of decisions - good women who are fully observant and committed to Orthodoxy are nonetheless leaving it. Here is how she put it:

The women who are leaving Orthodoxy are a vibrant group. They are not “off the derech,” or path, as patronizing outreach educators like to call it. Rather, they are smart, competent, accomplished women, who look around at the lay of the land in Orthodoxy and say to themselves, there is nothing here for a woman like me. Smart, passionate, independent-minded women have no place in Orthodoxy. Like the neurosurgeon who is not even allowed to make a speech in her synagogue. “I have done everything they told me to do,” told me, pointing out her hat and skirt, “and I am just a non-person. It’s like I don’t exist.”

While I completely understand my cousin’s disappointment about such things, I have to disagree with her thinking.

Her fear about a possible mass exodus by Orthodox women like the one in her example is a realistic one. It applies mostly to the most left wing of Orthodoxy. I would add that there are many men in this category who probably feel the same way. And they may leave too. Left wing rabbinic solutions to this problem present the very real danger of a split in Orthodoxy.

The left wing may eventually just part ways with the rest of Orthodoxy – so as to continue to pursue what they see as a legitimate Halachic version of egalitarianism. Meanwhile the right wing of modern Orthodoxy continues to move incrementally towards a moderate Charedi lifestyle. This reality does not please me at all. It completely violates my sense of Achdus. But it is a fact of life as I see it.

Before the left tries to buck the entire system and form a new post Orthodoxy as I predict they will - a fundamental question should be asked about the scenario my cousin describes. How can anyone call themselves Orthodox in the first place if the feel that they can walk away it because it doesn’t speak to them?

Judaism is not defined by our level of comfort. It is not malleable. One cannot automatically change important things so as to make people more attracted to it. Judaism is a way of life mandated to us by God for His purposes. It is about our obligations to Him.

While it is true that we can try and make it more attractive sometimes - it is never at the expense of Halacha. And sometimes it should not be at the expense of traditional Hashkafos either. A truly Orthodox individual cannot say, I don't like this religion anymore - pick up and leave. It doesn't work that way. If a Posek like Rav Schachter says it is a Yehoreg V'Al Yaavor and virtually every single other Posek seems to agree, it should be accepted in that spirit - unless there is a Posek of equal stature who says otherwise. As far as I know there is not. The RCA therefore did the right thing.

These are not frivolous issues subject to the whims and desires of individuals upon which synagogue rabbis can adjudicate - no matter how bright or how sincere they might be. Keeping people in the fold by making Orthodoxy more attractive is not the goal of Halacha. Nor is Halacha the only consideration.

There are times when Halachicly permissible behavior should not be done either. This is apparently one of those times - much like forbidding Orthodox shuls without a Mechitza back in the fifties was such a time. And rabbis taking Shuls without a Mechitza actually had a Posek - Rav Chaim David Regensberg who permitted it! We can't just dismiss what all the Poskim (as far as I know) say on an issue so important just because we don't like it. If we do, then we are no different than the Conservative or even the Reform movement.