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The Incredibly Shrinking Rabbinate

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With the constant drumbeat of articles about “Orthodox” female rabbis appearing in the media almost weekly – essentially the same articles making the same points to the same eager audience, all to make the phenomenon of such “rabbis” seem commonplace – it is important to take a step back and examine how we arrived at this destination.

How is it possible that the ordination of women, something that until quite recently was perceived as incompatible with Jewish tradition, should suddenly be construed as acceptable to all, even to the nominally Orthodox but better described as neo-Conservative Jews?

The New Synagogue of Berlin on Oranienburgerstrasse, which today functions exclusively as a museum of German Jewish history, displays the “ordination” certificate of Regina Jonas, purportedly the first woman to receive the title rabbi. She was ordained in 1935 after writing a thesis for the Reform seminary in Berlin on the permissibility of women’s ordination. Naturally, she concluded that women can be ordained. Nonetheless, most of her contemporary Reform rabbis – including Rabbi Leo Baeck, the dean of the German Reform Rabbinate – discounted her thesis and opposed her ordination as violative of Jewish law.

Her certificate was signed by Rabbi Max Dienemann and she served for several years as an assistant rabbi at the Oranienburgerstrasse temple; even they could not countenance a woman as the full-time rabbi. Sadly, Rabbi Jonas was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942 and murdered at Auschwitz in 1944.

For decades she had no successors, and all denominations of Judaism, even those that did not otherwise revere or adhere to Jewish law, assumed that women were not eligible to be rabbis. What changed?

What changed were two distinct yet interrelated phenomena that pervaded the American cultural and civic scene in the 1960s: feminism and anti-authoritarianism. Feminism was an aggressive response to the dominance of what was deemed the “patriarchy” of life – the sense that men ruled, controlled the levers of power, wealth and influence, and thereby suppressed women. Certainly, feminism had some successes, although none that was unequivocal. Women entered the work force in larger numbers, women today outnumber men in colleges and most graduate programs, and women have become much more self-sufficient economically.

Feminism also allowed women greater self-expression, a decidedly mixed blessing for all. For example, feminism empowered women to be as promiscuous and as openly lustful as men, as Pyrrhic a victory as has been seen since King Pyrrhus himself ravaged his own armies in 280 BCE. Marriage has suffered grievously; the latest statistics show that today barely half of America’s adults are married (only 42 percent in New York City), the lowest rate since 1961.

Children, too, have been raised with a “new normal” in which homes are less stable and parental influence less forthcoming. Certainly there are many exceptions, but the culture has changed dramatically. The assault on the patriarchy has succeeded so magnificently – although never enough to please the diehards – that, if anything, real men (in the traditional sense of the term) are said to be in short supply and the shirking of male responsibilities (fidelity to wife, parenting children, supporting families, etc.) is a social epidemic.

By the same token, the turbulence of the 1960s – especially the Vietnam War, the urban riots and the assassinations of respected figures – produced a distrust of government and a pervasive antagonism toward authority. Tradition – both in terms of religion and social conventions – became suspect and required a renewed validation after an independent review of its worth and merits. Politicians were largely reviled, and religious leaders were soon after held in contempt by much of “enlightened” society, especially the media. The entertainment industry typically portrays clergymen as venal, hypocritical, and corrupt, and those are the good ones.

Young people took pride in not listening to their elders and escaping into drugs and alcohol. Oppositional Defiant Disorder entered the psychological lexicon a decade later. “The wisdom of the scholars was reviled, fearers of sin scorned, [objective] truth will disappear, children will embarrass their elders, [and] the old will stand before the young…” (Masechet Sota 49b).

* * * * *

The male rabbinate was “tartei l’rei’uta” – the worst of both worlds. It was limited to men and the loathed symbol of religious (and therefore objective) authority. As such, the male rabbinate was a feminist/anti-authoritarian nightmare, and had to be undermined. In 1972, Sally Priesand was ordained the first female Reform rabbi in the United States.

Yet neither social movement should have had any resonance among religious Jews. Despite the persistent claims of Jewish feminists, Judaism has never perceived itself as a “patriarchy.” We have patriarchs and matriarchs, equally venerated. Jewish identity is transmitted through the mother, not the father. Jewish women frequently worked outside the home, were often the breadwinners, and never suffered the legal disabilities that in other societies limited a woman’s capacity to own property or accumulate wealth. And the very essence of Judaism is the surrender to God’s authority, by assuming the yoke of Torah obligations as conveyed to us through the written and oral law. Traditional Jews revere authority even as modern men (and women) revile it.

To be sure, Jewish law assigns different modes of worship to men and women, as it does to Kohanim, Leviim, and Yisraelim. It even distinguishes between men and women when it comes to the observance of certain mitzvot – although, by far, just a small minority of mitzvot.

The toxic brew of feminism and anti-authoritarianism has caused some women to chafe under these designated roles. This discontent is engendered by the egalitarian obsession of feminism – that men and women are equal, therefore identical, and any distinctions inherently invalid, if not also repugnant – and by the rejection of any objective authority, of the “no one can tell me what I can or can’t do” variety. Both are misplaced, to say the least, as any organization or system can only survive if defined roles are allocated and those roles are carried out faithfully by participants. Obviously, the military could not function if every soldier did as he wished on the battlefield. It is the cohesion of disparate elements that allows the machinery of organization to thrive.

The Reform ordination of Sally Priesand was understandable in the sense that the movement never claimed to adhere to Jewish law and, almost by definition, sought to reform it until it conformed to “modern” values. By the late 1960s, the twin rebellions of feminism and anti-authoritarianism had captured the liberal imagination. It is hard to attribute the reason for the almost four-decade hiatus between the ordinations of Rabbis Jonas and Priesand to anything but sexism. Certainly the Torah was no obstacle in Reform circles. However, it remained absolutely clear to the Torah world, and to the Conservative movement that claimed a nominal fidelity to Jewish law, that ordination of women was impossible.

And then in 1985 the Conservative movement ordained Amy Eilberg as its first female rabbi. Conveniently, the Jewish Theological Seminary waited for its primary scholar, Rabbi Saul Lieberman, to die (1983), as he had adamantly opposed women’s ordination and considered it a nullity. Eilberg’s ordination was the culmination of a series of proclamations – all influenced by the twin cultural forces rampant in American life – that had rejected Jewish law and equalized the role of men and women in worship. Thus, beginning in the 1970s and unfolding in short order, women were first counted in a minyan, first allowed to receive aliyot, first allowed to lead the tefillot and finally allowed to function as rabbis. (More recently, in 2004, women were also allowed to serve as legal witnesses, completing the break with Jewish tradition.)

* * * * *

In the decades since women have begun to serve in the non-Orthodox rabbinate, male attendance at services has declined precipitously and the non-Orthodox rabbinical seminaries have become majority female. But at least those presumably faithful to Torah, its values and traditions, stood firm against this onslaught.

That changed as well in the first decade of the 21st century with the ordination of the first woman, followed most recently by three others. Such was possible not only because of the utter conquest of the left wing of Orthodoxy (by now, neo-Conservatism) by its masters, feminism and anti-authoritarianism, but also by the redefinition of the rabbinate.

Without shrinking the rabbinate and the role of the rabbi – without accentuating certain functions of the rabbinate and minimizing others – such a redefinition would be impossible, or at the very least it would not be possible for its champions to claim with a straight face that they were being faithful to Torah.

Thus, in the traditional American rabbinate, the rabbi looms large in the prayer service – sitting in front, even leading on occasion, and in many communities serving as the reader of the Torah. Those roles are off limits to religious women.

In a similar vein, all male Jews are obligated in Torah study, the daily recitation of Shema, the time-bound mitzvot like tallit and tefillin, public prayer, and other commandments. The idea of a functioning rabbi exempt from Torah study, public prayer or the wearing of tefillin is peculiar, and rightfully so. The rabbi is often perceived as a role model for others in the fulfillment of Jewish law, notwithstanding that all Jews are obligated in the commandments that apply to them. Traditionally, the rabbi serves as a judge in halachic matters, or as a witness to various halachic acts.

What would we call a rabbi who is exempt by Jewish law from a variety of common ritual practices (and in some cases, actually proscribed from fulfilling them), cannot read the Torah, daven for the amud, serve as a judge or a witness – and is forbidden by Jewish law, according to prevailing opinion, from serving in positions of authority? Not much of a rabbi.

It is no coincidence that the concept of serarah (forbidden authority) is rejected by the neo-Conservatives as a definitive aspect of the rabbinate and therefore as grounds for rejection of a female rabbinate according to Rambam and others. The abhorrence of serarah is at the very root of the current rebellion – both in terms of the feminist hatred of the patriarchy and the anti-authoritarian’s contempt for authority.

That is why certain aspects of the rabbinate are emphasized to make it seem as if female rabbis are a natural fit. Do rabbis teach Torah? So do women. Do rabbis counsel the afflicted? Certainly, and of course there are more female therapists today than male therapists. Can women speak at a shalom zachar? Why not – they’re the ones having the babies anyway! So if that is all there is to the rabbinate, why was there ever any reasonable objection to it?

From that perspective, the yoetzet movement also, wittingly or unwittingly, serves the same function of chipping away at the fundamentals of the rabbinate. Certainly it is arguable whether women can decide questions of Jewish law; some authorities permit it, while others (see Shaarei Teshuvah in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 561:17) prohibit it. But the women who will today answer questions of taharat mishpachah, with debatable authority, can tomorrow answer questions of Shabbat, kashrut, eruvin and civil law. That day – if it ever comes – will see the end of the traditional rabbinate. Fortunately, it will never come, because by that time those who have embraced this departure from tradition will have long since left the mainstream Orthodox community. But those are the lines that need to be drawn today, by all Jews who care about the Mesorah and the continuity of Jewish life.

* * * * *

The growth of Torah study for women in the last century has been a boon to Jewish life, in line with the Chofetz Chaim’s recognition that such was needed to survive spiritually in the modern world. In an extreme minority of cases, such Torah knowledge has encouraged crashing through the barriers of halacha, and that is most lamentable. Torah study should lead to greater humility and surrender to God’s will, not to the conflating of God’s will with whatever secular value is ascendant in any given era.

The only way to accommodate women rabbis is to modify the rabbinate itself, shrinking it by excluding from normative rabbinic practice certain obvious and important elements of the field. The job description itself has to be constricted, much like the physical qualifications for firefighters had to be reduced in order to accommodate female firefighters.

Rabbis who cannot normatively perform significant aspects of the profession (officiate at weddings, for example) are “rabbis” of a diminished stature, graded, as it were, on a curve, whose very limitations underscore their ineligibility. Employing different titles and calling that “ordination” does not change anything. Taking a rabbinical function and re-assigning it to a layman does not make that layman a rabbi.

The rabbinate is more than just the sum total of different tasks. It represents the continuity of spiritual leadership that connects Jews to Sinai of the past and to Mashiach of the future. In fact, the diminution of the rabbinate to a few limited functions implicit in its feminization provokes the intriguing question: what can a woman rabbi do that a non-Jew occupying the same position could not also do?

The diminished rabbinate highlights the rabbi’s pastoral role and minimizes the study of Torah and Jewish law, as if social work is the rabbi’s main task rather than an ancillary function of the rabbinate. It fosters a sense of the Torah as a feel-good document whose laws are not really binding on modern man because they can be adjusted to conform to feminism, egalitarianism and self-expression.

From that perspective, it is certainly understandable why Sally Priesand was an honored guest at the allegedly Orthodox ordination ceremony that occurred last month. Neither halachic methodology nor mesorah figures significantly in the calculations of the neo-Cons. Notwithstanding the professed good intentions of this movement, the conquest by the feminist and anti-authoritarian rebels of the 1960s will continue until the appropriate boundaries are drawn, and surrender to Torah again becomes the prerequisite of divine service.

About the Author: Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author most recently of “Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2009). His writings and lectures can be found at www.Rabbipruzansky.com.


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4 Responses to “The Incredibly Shrinking Rabbinate”

  1. Ch Hoffman says:

    It's a matter of Jewish honor:
    We send girls to day schools; we send them to Jewish high schools; they then go on to schools in Israel or continue their education well into and past the college level.

    They become versed in Jewish Law; they understand halacha; they can trace the development of complex legal issues through 1500 years of layers of decisions and interpretations. They master the texts to a degree that their male counterparts can't even conceive of because they've trained themselves to think in Hebrew rather than in "yeshivish". And they write and do original work to a degree at least equal to their male counterparts.

    And then, the orthodox community tells them – go to the secular world for recognition – get a PhD or a Doc of Heb Letters; but we – the rabbinic establishment – can do nothing to acknowledge your expertise and accomplishments.

    Why? Tradition!
    Tradition?
    Yep; your bubba couldn't do it so you can't.

    That's the only reason left.

  2. Ch Hoffman says:

    It's a matter of Jewish honor:
    We send girls to day schools; we send them to Jewish high schools; they then go on to schools in Israel or continue their education well into and past the college level.

    They become versed in Jewish Law; they understand halacha; they can trace the development of complex legal issues through 1500 years of layers of decisions and interpretations. They master the texts to a degree that their male counterparts can't even conceive of because they've trained themselves to think in Hebrew rather than in "yeshivish". And they write and do original work to a degree at least equal to their male counterparts.

    And then, the orthodox community tells them – go to the secular world for recognition – get a PhD or a Doc of Heb Letters; but we – the rabbinic establishment – can do nothing to acknowledge your expertise and accomplishments.

    Why? Tradition!
    Tradition?
    Yep; your bubba couldn't do it so you can't.

    That's the only reason left.

  3. Well, truthfully, what you have described is a level of learning expected of every intelligent Jew. That does not make someone a rabbi. "Recognition" is not a spiritual goal to be desired at all – so why is there a need for it? Halacha 'recognizes' the merit of learned people, but that does not appoint them as rabbis. When a person comes and says: can you recognize my spiritual accomplishment? – we can answer:
    A. I am not G-d, so what difference does my recognition make?
    B. If you wish honor and respect – a doubtful request in itself – by all means.
    C. If you wish an appoinment as rabbi then I doubt your study has much to do with spirituality.

    Or…. I could say to you as the wizard of Oz said to the scarecrow….

  4. Charlie Hall says:

    David Ben Meir

    Neither you nor Rabbi Pruzansky have addressed the basic question: What does halachah say about women being rabbis? The problem for Rabbi Pruzansky is that there isn't any real source that prohibits it. The gemara itself contains examples of women fulfilling the role of what we now call a Yoetzet Halachah, and there were of course female prophets, a female judge (Devorah) and a female Tanna (Beruriah).

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