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The Incredibly Shrinking Rabbinate

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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.

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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