Wednesday, August 01, 2018

What God Wants - Not What We Want

Maharat Hadas Fruchter will be opening a  new Shul in Philidelphia (JTA)
I recently had a conversation with an Orthodox woman who asked me a question I had difficulty answering. She asked me the question despite the fact that she agreed with me on the issue. She too opposes the idea of ordaining women for religious leadership positions. But the question was one asked rhetorically of her by a graduate of Yeshivat Maharat who had recently taken a rabbinic position in her town.

The question was: If an Orthodox Jewish woman believes she has a calling to lead an Orthodox Jewish community, what avenues are open to her Halachicly? If not as a spiritual leader in a synagogue, where else?    

I was caught off-guard and did not immediately have any good answer for her other than the knee-jerk retort of, ‘Why does she feel the need to lead?’ Following my lead of answering a question with a question she retorted, ‘Why does a man feel the need to lead?’   Men have an avenue to fulfill their calling. Why can’t women have the same opportunity to fulfill their calling?

Neither of us were inclined to continue what might have been a lengthy discussion. And since we both agreed that Orthodoxy does not permit women to become rabbis, we ended it there. But I regret leaving that question hanging.

First the idea of a calling should never be made without understanding whether that desire is based on what God wants or on what we want. The purpose of Judaism is to serve God. How we do that is determined by a variety of factors - all of which ultimately stem from the Torah – God’s written word.

Just to take an extreme example to make the point, if one sincerely believed their calling was to serve God through the medium of some form of idolatry - that would obviously be a mistake on their part. The fact that virtually all Poskim across the spectrum of Orthodoxy (with the exception of rabbis on the extreme left) reject the idea – places into question whether her desire to lead a congregation of Jews  really is a calling.

The same thing is true for a man. He might make the same mistake and see his desire to lead as a calling. Although he may legitimately pursue the rabbinate, that does not necessarily mean he is doing it because he believes that is what God wants him to do.

How do we know exactly how to interpret God’s Torah? That is what the major Poskim are for.  

The basis for not permitting a woman to be a spiritual leader has absolutely nothing to do with her natural abilities, intelligence, knowledge, or temperament. It is primarily based on Halacha, precedent, and Mesorah (tradition) as outlined in an OU statement that addressed this issue.

Breifly there is a concept called Serarah (communal leadership) from which women are excluded. It is based on a ruling of the Rambam (Hilchos Melachim - 1:5). Which he bases on the Sifri commentary on the Torah (Devarim – 17:15) forbidding women to be  appointed king. The Rambam (based on the Gemarah - Yevamos 45b), extends that exclusion to all positions of communal leadership. To quote from the OU:
(Rav Soloveitchik) assigned great significance to the ruling of the Rema (Yoreh Deah 1:1) barring a woman from being appointed as a community shochet as being representative of a general preclusion of women from all formal religious appointments (minuyim) over the community at large. The Rav explained that during the times of the Rema, appointment as the community’s shochet required the earning of a formal “license” (kabbalah) from a chakham. When the position of shochet became an official religious appointment in the community, it became restricted to men.
Surely that same logic applies to becoming a rabbi. Even though Semicha (ordination)  does not grant the same authority it did in pre Talmudic times, logic dictates that if it is to have any meaning in our time it should be treated the same way.

Furthermore the role of precedent has always been given heavy weight in Halachic decisions. (As it does in the legal rulings of the American judiciary.) There is no precedent for giving a woman Semicha despite the fact that there were women in Jewish history that were very knowledgeable in Halacha. They were recognized for their scholarship but were never ordained. That sets the precedent for our time.

This is also where mesorah comes in as noted by the OU statement:
Authentic mesorah is…  an appreciation for, and application of, tradition as the guide by which new ideas, challenges and circumstances are navigated.
The OU has therefore made the decision to not allow membership to any Shul that hires a woman as their rabbi - regardless of what title she uses.

But even leaving aside the ruling of these OU (and other) Poskim, I have made arguments against it on practical grounds. The idea of a woman leading a Shul from behind the Mechitza is like a conductor trying to conduct an orchestra from the balcony instead of instead of doing it in front of the orchestra. It might be possible but it would be both awkward and laughable. Is this any way to execute one’s calling?

This is however how an ordained woman will be performing her duties as a rabbi in a new synagogue. From JTA:
A woman ordained by the Orthodox Yeshivat Maharat is opening her own synagogue in Philadelphia.
Rabbanit Hadas Fruchter, 28, announced Saturday that she will open a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Philadelphia…
Fruchter, the granddaughter of a rabbi, told the Post that she dreamed as a teenager of marrying a rabbi because she did not think she could ever be one.
She told the newspaper that her synagogue is “going to be traditional, halachic: fully in line with Jewish law in terms of Modern Orthodox understanding.” This means that she will have to give her sermons from the women’s side of the mechitzah and will not count in a minyan, a prayer quorum of 10 men.
Start-Up Shul, founded by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld and Steven Lieberman to create gender-inclusive Orthodox synagogues, will fund two synagogues this year and plans to increase to four or five new synagogues a year down the line, according to the Post.
How sad it is that Rabbi Hertzfeld feels qualified to defy virtually all Orthodox Poskim and create a synagogue that will be rejected by mainstream Orthodoxy. How sad it also is for Rabbanit Fruchter to believe that her calling is to lead  a congregation of Jews that will surely be marginalized if not actually be ostracized by the rest of Orthodoxy.  

That synagogues like like this are popping up now does not mean they will last. No matter how idealistic one thinks they are by defying all the major Orthodox Poskim, Jewish history has not treated kindly those that have defied religious authority.

Even great movements like the Conservative movement which was believed by many people to be the wave of the Jewish future in America by not a few of its renegade Orthodox founders - is likely to become extinct in one or two generations. Does Rabbi Herzfeld really believe his new synagogues will fare any better?  What a shame that sincere women like Rabbanit Fruchter are being led astray by rabbis that ought to know better – well intentioned though they may be.