Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Are They Rabbis or Not?

Navit Tzadik (L) and Amira Ra'anan - Rabbis?  (Jewish Press)
I have always supported the idea of recognizing in some official capacity great achievement in Torah study. For men there are many ways to be recognized that way. One of which is being ordained as a rabbi.  But what about women?

As most people know by now, despite a few renegade institutions under the banner of ‘Open Orthodoxy’ or Liberal Orthodoxy’ the ordination of women as Orthodox rabbis is prohibited. This is the view of virtually all of Orthodoxy, from the Charedi Agudah; to the Centrist OU and RCA; to the European Rabbinate; to the Israeli Rabbinate.

While this may not seem fair to the egalitarian eye, it is nevertheless a fact.  However, despite that fact a few women do get some sort of ordination every year. In some cases have been hired by OU member synagogues for rabbinic positions. That of course did not sit well with the OU leadership.

After these hires became public some OU member rabbis protested with a threat to break away from the OU if that was not corrected - by either ejecting the violators or getting them to fire those rabbis.

Ever treading a fine line - the OU came up with a compromise that forbade any Shul from hiring a female rabbi;  no Shul that had a woman in that position could become a member of the OU;  those OU member Shuls that had already hired women had 3 years to correct that situation by complying with guidelines delineated by OU Poskim – on pain of expulsion if at the end of that period they did were not in compliance

Happily that ‘compromise’ seemed to satisfy both sides.

The question is - what exactly does compliance mean? In order to understand that we need to know exactly what role a woman may have in an Orthodox Shul.  That was described in great detail in a lengthy statement issued by OU Poskim which included an explanation of how they arrived at their conclusions.

The short version is that women may serve in a variety of capacities but not as clergy in any way.  They may for example serve as teachers, scholars in residence, executive directors, programming directors, professional counselors, communal spiritual advisers and even Halachic advisors such as Yoatzot Halacha (women that can advise other women on matters of Taharas Hamishpcha).

The question remains, how can we recognize achievement in any of these areas without giving them a title implying some version of being a rabbi? I’m not sure how to answer that question. But I do think that any person, man or woman, who achieves a certain level of expertise in any field, has a right to be recognized. No different than a PhD or Masters Degree is recognition of expertise in a particular field. How to apply that to women without breaking the taboo of calling them a rabbi is beyond my pay grade.

One thing is certain. There is no Halacha stopping any Jew – man or women - from studying Torah to their hearts content and achieving a high degree of expertise in Torah knowledge. It is the title ‘rabbi’ and its implication that is the problem.

I should note that the greatest Torah scholars of our time were not necessarily ordained as rabbis. Famously, the Chafetz Chaim was recognized as a Gadol HaDor (if not THE Gadol HaDor) for his Torah scholarship long before he was ordained. Out of his great sense of humility, he did not need nor care about that title. He was ordained late in life out of necessity (for a technical reason that I no longer recall). Having the title ‘rabbi’  does not mean all that much in terms of recognizing achievement in Torah study.

Perhaps those women that want to be ordained for purposes of being recognized for their achievement can look to the Chafetz Chaim as a role model.

Most Yeshiva students on the right don’t ever bother getting it, unless they need it for a job. In fact there are plenty of ‘rabbis’ that were never ordained and yet use the title in their jobs.  It may very well be the most abused title in Judaism these days.

All of which brings me to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. The Jewish Press recently reported that he conferred titles of ‘spiritual leaders’ and’ teachers of Halacha’ upon 3 women who passed his rigorous exam. (Participating in the ceremony was Rabbi David Stav and Rabbi Kennneth Brander.)  On the surface it seems like he has violated the near universal prohibition against ordaining women. And yet he denies it: 
It should be noted that, despite a misleading headline in Srugim, “On the eve of the giving of the Torah, two more women were ordained as Rabbis,” the title that was awarded the three women stops short of a rabbinic ordination, recognizing them instead as spiritual leaders and teachers of halacha – after they had completed the first and unique program of training women as authorized to rule on halachic issues and to become spiritual leaders. 
But after denying it he goes about explaining why today’s Semicha (ordination) is not real Semicha anyway. Real Semicha actually ended in the 4th or 5th century. As such he proclaims that today’s Semicha is nothing more than a degree recognizing their accomplishment. Which seems to contradict his denial. Why bother explaining that title if that is not what has been given? Furthermore, calling them Rabbaniot hardly a makes his denial persuasive.

It is also not entirely true that there is no connection to the real Semicha. That was noted  by the Poskim of the OU: 
Consideration of the ordination of women also raises questions regarding the nature of semikhah. While contemporary semikhah differs from classic semikhah (as described in the Talmud) in many regards, it must, nevertheless, be viewed as an extension of the original institution of semikhah (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 242:5-6). 
It appears to me that Rabbi Riskin’s intent is to have his cake and eat it too. He seems to want to comply with the prohibition against giving women Semicha and at the same time granting 3 woman a version of it. While I completely understand his motives and explanations – which I believe he bases on his sense of equity and understanding of Halacha, I have to question his execution of them. At the end of the day, his clarifications are anything but clear. And denials notwithstanding he appears to have given a form of Semicha to these women.