Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Ascendancy of Female Rabbis in Orthodoxy

Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter, current assistant spiritual leader at Beth ShalomUpdated

The wave of the future in Orthodoxy is the Traditional Movement. That was the thinking in Chicago back in the 60s when I was a teenager. Rabbis getting Semicha at HTC were taking positions in droves in those new Shuls. Shuls that were basically Orthodox except that they had no Mechitzos. Men and women sat together. They also used microphones that were turned on before Shabbos.

There was a reason for that. These rabbis were all Orthodox… observant in every way. People whose lifestyles were the same as any other Orthodox Jew back then. Their children attended day schools and Yeshivos. All of whom are today among the finest of Orthodox Jews that would never set foot into a Shul without  Mechitza. 

Those rabbis took those pulpits because they were urged to do so by a legitimate Posek of that time, Rav Chaim Dovid Regensburg. He was at the time the most respected Rosh Yeshiva in HTC… a Gadol trained in the finest of pre-Holocaust European Yeshivos. 

His reasoning was that the spirit of that time had created a Hora’as Shah - a time of existential threat to Judaism that required action. Most of Chicago’s Orthodox Jews in that era lacked a basic yeshiva education. But they were still observant and many were active in their Shuls. When demographic changes took place moving Jews from the West side to the North side they rebuilt their Shuls there. But they wanted to ‘Americanize’ their Shuls and build them without Mechitzos. Albeit still remaining Orthodox. 

So they looked to HTC for rabbis to take such Shuls. But they wanted mixed pews more than they wanted Orthodox rabbis. So that if Orthodox rabbis would turn them down, they would turn to Conservative rabbis trained at JTS.

Rav Regensburg Paskined that his Musmachim needed to take these Shuls so that they would not fall into the hands of the Conservative movement – which he correctly identified as heretical and non Halachic. (Despite protestations to the contrary by Conservative leaders.)

He said that by doing so, those Shuls would remain under the guidance of rabbis trained in Orthodoxy. In every other way (aside from having no Mechitzos and using microphones) those Shuls would be Orthodox. He added that these rabbis would also be in a position to influence their membership to send their children to Orthodox day schools and high schools. 

So these newly minted rabbis took those Shuls and were actually relatively successful in those goals. Including getting many of their members to send their children to Orthodox schools. Who otherwise would have surely been lost to Orthodoxy had they not been there.

One might think that in this case the ends justified the means. Certainly that is what Rav Regensburg believed. But his Psak was universally condemned by all other major Poskim of that era. These rabbis were mostly shunned by the rest of the Orthodox world. Orthodox rabbis across the country spoke out forcefully against them. Despite the fact that a legitimate Posek Paskined that those rabbis must take the Shuls.

One of the reasons Rav Ahron Soloveichik took the position as the Rosh HaYeshiva of HTC in the mid 60s was to fight the Traditional Movement. He sought the advice of the Gedloei HaDor at the time about  becoming the Rosh HaYeshiva there and they urged to take the position so that he could lead the fight against that movement.

I believe this fight – along with some other issues – cost Rav Ahron his health.

Fast forward to today. Traditional Shuls that were once believed to be the wave of the future have all but disappeared. Rav Ahron contributed mightily to their downfall. But they were all doomed to eventual failure in any event. The original members aged and died. Those of their children who attended the day schools and high schools refused to attend those Shuls. The rest of those children are mostly not religious and very likely don’t attend any Shul.

Today we are witnessing the same thing in terms of accommodating the spirit of our own time. The siren call of modern day feminism has entered the hearts and minds of modern Orthodoxy on the left. Which has generated schools of thought that support innovations based on that spirit. We are now in the era of female rabbis taking pulpits in Orthodox Shuls. Including the establishment of a Yeshiva that ordains women.

Rabbis in that category argue that we must cater to the spirit of the times for the same reason rabbis of the 60s argued they needed to cater to the spirit of their times. They fear losing their members to non Orthodox movements if they don’t. They believe by giving women the right to take a pulpit within the parameters of Halcha as they understand it - they would prevent that from happening.

Noble goals. But just as wrong now as the Traditional Movement was then. Only this time they do not  have a single Posek anywhere near the stature of Rav Regesnburg. Every Posek anywhere near Rav Regensburg’s stature opposes what they are doing. So much so that no Orthodox organization (other than those of their own making) will permit them to be members. .

None of this is new, But it bears repeating in light of the increasing numbers of Shuls that are violating those parameters. Some in spirit as was the case discussed here recently. And some in actuality. Such as Congregation Beth Sholom that already has a female spiritual leader.

If I understand correctly, the OU has allowed member Shuls to be ‘grandfathered in’ if they had already hired a woman as a rabbi (or whatever title she uses in that capacity) before they released their new guidelines forbidding it. I believe they have given them some time to correct the situation. (3 years?) Until them they can remain a member in good standing. 

But Beth Sholom is losing their first female spiritual leader, Rabbanit Hadas (Dasi) Fruchter. Although they believe to be in compliance with the OU guidelines, I see looking at Zissy Turner and Aliza Sperling - 2 female applicants for that  position, one of which attends Yeshivat Maharat - as embracing modern day feminism and not following the OU guidelines. 

I have no animus against this Shul. They are entitled to do as they wish. They believe they are doing the right thing by hiring a woman as a spiritual leader. But they cannot be part of Orthodoxy if they do. Even if they are meticulous in every other aspect of Halacha. 

They have no stature to say that all the other Poskim are wrong. They do not even have a Daas Yahcid like Rav Regensburg to Paskin for them. And it wouldn’t even matter if they did. As was demonstrated by how the Orthodox world reacted to his Psak. (Ironically none of these Shuls would today ever consider taking out their Mechitzos!)

I have said this more than once but it bears repeating. When hiring female rabbis has been so widely condemned by Orthodox leaders and their institutions, they cannot legitimately be called Orthodox if they do. Not any more than the Traditional Movement could call what they do legitimate. No matter how much good they are doing - perceived or real. Good intentions are not what defines Orthodoxy. That can only be determined by the great spiritual leaders of our time. And they have all spoken.

This is not to blame anyone for doing what they think is right. I have had some e-mail exchanges with Beth Sholom’s rabbi, Nissan Antine, and found him to be a thoughtful man who is strongly devoted to Halacha and doing the right thing. But we differ on what the right thing is with respect to egalitarianism in Orthodoxy. And in this case so do all Orthodox Poskim and may mean expulsion from the OU.

I don’t say this happily. I actually like Rabbi Antine and feel badly about what might happen to him and his Shul. But as I see it  they are crossing lines. and thereby defying the directives of the Poskim. And this phenomenon is catching on. Right now they are a small movement. But the left wing rabbis supporting it and their institutions (e.g.  YCT and Yeshivat Maharat) are not going away. Their numbers seem to be increasing.

There are those that say, live and let live. Why is it my business? Why condemn those you disagree with if they believe they are doing the right thing? 

The truth is I don’t. They can grow and thrive. Just as heterodox movements have. (Although they too are now dying.) But they cannot do so as part of Orthodoxy. Not any more than the Traditional Movement could. And I expect the OU will either prevail upon Beth Shalom to stop or they will do so out of Orthodoxy.

Please note: After discussing this post with Rabbi Antine I have corrected and apologize for making some factual errors he made me aware of.