Monday, January 19, 2015

Yoetzet or Rabbi?

Efrat's new spiritual leader, Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an Modern Orthodox Rabbi who does not compromise his principles. He showed his mettle when at age 23 was approached by New York’s Lincoln Square Synagogue (LSS) to serve as their spiritual leader. LSS was a Conservative Shul and did not have a Mechitza at the time. His condition was that they install a Mechitza and the Shul become Orthodox. They agreed and the Shul has been Orthodox since.

Rabbi Riskin has many other accomplishments – including being in the forefront of the movement to free soviet Jewry in the 60s and 70s. An ardent Religious Zionist, he made Aliya in 1982 and settled in the city of Efrat where he serves with distinction as Chief Rabbi to this day.  He prides himself as a student of Rav Joseph Dov Solovietchik who gave him Semicha.

But he is not without controversy.  One of his innovations was the creation of a Women’s Teffila Group at LSS. This is a women’s only prayer group that has taken on some of the modalities of a men’s Minyan. Modalities like Kriyas HaTorah and giving women Aliyos. Even though Rav Soloveitchik was strongly opposed to such innovations, he nevertheless gave Rabbi Riskin guidance on how to set it up Halachicly – realizing that they were going to do it anyway with or without Rabbis Riskin and Soloveitchik.  

But now Rabbi Riskin is involved in a new controversy. And I’m not sure what to make of it. He has appointed a woman as a spiritual leader in Efrat. He is not calling her a Rabbi. But he has clearly given her the duties of one in the area of deciding Jewish law. He said her purpose will primarily be to answer Shailos (Halachic questions) that women might have with respect to family purity. These laws are often embarrassing for a woman to present to a male rabbi. Women might be a lot more comfortable presenting them to a woman.

That is why the Yoetzet was created. A Yoatzet is someone that has studied those laws well and is equipped to answer commonly asked questions. For the more difficult ones they consult with experienced Poskim that will  guide them. This is an innovation I have always supported. That’s because it is a sorely needed niche that will improve Taharas HaMishpacha in many families heretofore too embarrassed to ask Shailos. 

It is not about being a rabbi. It is about being a Halachic adviser to women in specific situations. Much like the Rebbetzins of old  who were able to answer many Shailos presented to them because of their relationship with their husbands who were asked many such Shailos. The only difference is that unlike a Rebbetzin, a Yoeztet is specially trained for it.  Making the appointment of a Yoetzet an overall communal improvement in observing Halacha.

But Rabbi Riskin’s selection of Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld seems to have crossed the line. Dr. Rosenfeld is far more than a Yoetzet. She is being billed as a spiritual leader.  For all intents and purposes she is a rabbi – even though he does not call her that.

If this is the case, he has broken with tradition and his mentor, Rav Soloveitchik. I don’t know if this is his intent. But I don’t see any other way to characterize it.

So I am disappointed. Here is a man who has done so much for his people. A man of principle that will not compromise. A man that I admired… and still do. And yet, he seems to have crossed a line. Same as another principled individual, Rabbi Avi Weiss who ordained Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the first female rabbi - and founded a Yeshiva for that purpose that Rabba Hurwitz heads.

Had Rabbi Riskin just appointed her Efrat’s Yoetzet, it would have been fine. But by calling her a spiritual leader he has gained nothing other than giving Jewish feminists a boost. Which will surely increase controversy in Israel.  And I cannot celebrate that.