Thursday, June 11, 2015

On the Ordination of Women in Orthodoxy

Rahel Berkovits & Meesh Hammer-Kossoy on the eve of their ordination (TOI)
I desperately want to retain these misguided Jews under the umbrella of Orthodoxy. They are sincere and highly motivated. But I can’t. Because whether they realize it or not, they are participating in the formation of a new movement. One which will never be accepted by the mainstream. One that is outside of Orthodoxy.

In yet another step towards a new denomination, Rabbi Herzl Hefter has thrown away all pretenses and is now fully ordaining women. He is giving them Semicha and calling them rabbis. At least he is being honest about what he is doing. Others who essentially are doing the same thing have been twisting themselves into a pretzel trying to come up with titles for these women so as not to be accused of actually ordaining them.

Rabbi Avi Weiss tried substituting the name Rabba – changing the last latter in the word rabbi from an “i” to an “a”. He explained that he just feminized the word rabbi feeling it more appropriate for a woman. For this he was threatened with expulsion from the RCA by his peers. He promised not to ordain female rabbis anymore. So he went back to his original title Maharat. Which is Hebrew acronym for spiritual leader. Well… a  rose is a rose. You can call female ordainees any name you want. But they are rabbis. Rabbi Hefter recognizes that. And has the courage to give them that title.

The problem I have with female rabbis has been discussed to death here in the past. I will just briefly say that in my view one cannot be a rabbi if the traditional functions of a rabbi are limited by Halacha. Or are so oddly applied in order to comply with Halacha - that it is at best awkward to serve in such a capacity. 

Just to cite one example among many – a pulpit rabbi’s duties are first and foremost as the rabbi of his Shul. He should at the very least be able to participate in the quorum required for the primary function of a Shul - public prayer. A woman is prevented from doing this by Halacha. The requirement for public prayer is to have a minimum of 10 men. 9 men and a woman will not work. Public prayer may not be performed even if there were 9 men and a hundred women.

While it is true that woman can perform a great many other duties of a rabbi, operating under these handicaps should in my view disqualify her from becoming one. It isn’t only about taking tests and passing them. It is about what you do after that. At risk of using an analogy, it would be like hiring a cop that could not fire a gun. While there are other duties he can perform a cop would be under a tremendous handicap if he was unable to do that. And he should not be one. Even though technically he could serve as a cop at a desk job.

I have heard all the arguments in favor of ordaining women in Orthodoxy. Many of which are mentioned in an article in the Times of Israel about 2 women ordained by Rabbi Hefter. But even if one could accept their arguments and push the boundaries of Orthodoxy enough to allow women to become rabbis, they will never be accepted by the right wing of Orthodoxy.

The argument against that is, “Who cares?” “As long as everything is well within the limits of Orthodoxy, let women spread their wings!” “Let them contribute in ways that men cannot.” “Allow the sorely missing feminine voice into the rabbinate.”

Well, I care. And so should anyone that cares about unity and preserving Orthodoxy. It isn’t only the right that opposes it. So too does Centrist Orthodoxy. The RCA has clearly rejected the notion of ordaining female rabbis. As mentioned above they threatened to revoke the membership of Rabbi Weiss if he continue to do that. He backed down because he too wants acceptance. He wants to be a movement from within Orthodoxy. Not from without. But in fact he only backed down from using the name Rabba. He is clearly ordaining women. He’s just using a different title.

Even the laity of mainstream Orthodoxy consisting of moderate Charedim and Centrists will not accept it.  They tend to follow the norms of Orthodoxy and eschew the kind of radical change that female rabbis represent.

With the increasing numbers of female rabbis in Orthodoxy now in the offing - we are in my view witnessing another step towards the creation a new denomination. Try as they might to want to remain in Orthodoxy, rabbis like Herzl Hefter, Avi Weiss, and Shlomo Riskin are not going to achieve that. Even with the best of arguments for their cause - they are breaking the chain of tradition. That is something that cannot be done lightly. It requires an existential threat and the deliberation of the greatest Halachic minds of the generation.

It would require people like a R’ Moshe Feinstein; or a R’ Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik. Does anyone seriously think that either of these two Gedolim would approve of ordaining women? Or buying the arguments in favor of it put forth by the rabbis doing it? Like the one using the biblical Shofetess, Devorah to prove that a woman may lead the Jewish people? Yes, she did. But she was accepted by the vast majority of the Jewish people of that era. That is far from the case today.

This is going to happen. There will be Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionst, Open Orthodox, and Orthodox. Those will be the denominations. Open Orthodox arguments and motivations of today mimic those of the founders of Conservative Judaism. They wanted to be more inclusive. Their innovations were designed to attract the masses away from Reform Judaism. So they tweaked Orthodoxy to make it more acceptable to the spirit of their time. At heart they wanted to ‘conserve’ Judaism – as the name implies. And keep it Halachic.

Orthodox rabbis at the time rejected them. They understood that bending to the times is not the way to preserve Judaism. And now 100 years later we see the fruit of their well intended labor. The Conservative Movement is dying. The way to preserve it is to not break away from tradition for non existential reasons. And even when changes are made for that reason - it is done with great caution and as minimally as possible.

I know that none of the female ordainees want or need my sympathy. They probably disagree with my analysis and prediction; and resent my take on it. Perhaps even vehemently so. But I do have sympathy for them. They are serious and bright women motivated by a will to use their brains and talents for the betterment of Klal Yisroel. They studied; they learned; and they know. They have gained knowledge and want to use it.  

And they should. There are ways to do that which are acceptable. Like becoming teachers, high school principals, and seminary heads. They can be pastoral counselors. They can be scholars and authors.  They can be Halachic advisers.

But they should not do things in a way that will break us up. A way that will at the end of the day, never achieve the goal of leadership in Orthodoxy they seek. They may become leaders and rabbis. But they will not be doing it in the context of Orthodoxy.