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Orthodox Women Clergy?


You may applaud the idea of ordaining women rabbis, or you may recoil in horror at the prospect, but the simple fact remains that women already serve the Orthodox world in clergy-like positions.

Women teach Torah in various settings, answer questions of Jewish law on many matters, provide guidance on issues of Jewish theology to individuals and otherwise function as “clergy.”

All Orthodox Jews ought to agree that these women deserve the best training possible. We certainly should recognize that they are entitled to parsonage under the Federal tax code.

The best way to accomplish this is for our community to start many different training programs for Orthodox women who wish to work as clergy.

Titles do matter, of course, and the title of this article was picked with some care: “Clergy,” a term broader than “rabbi,” is defined by Webster’s as “the group of men and women who are ordained as religious leaders and servants of God.” (In the Catholic tradition, for example, nuns are certainly clergy, though they do not perform sacraments and cannot provide communion, the central rite of Catholicism.)

Women Studying Torah: A Brief Overview

Jewish law generally does not change in terms of its core principles, at least not as understood by the Orthodox community. Change is effected in only three real ways: Innovative re-understanding (chiddush); rabbinic decree (takanah) and emergency decrees (hora’at sha’ah). Each of these has, at various times and places, altered the very face and form of Jewish law and community.

The first two, while not the focus here, are nonetheless worthy of brief explanation.

Throughout Jewish legal history, scholars of halacha have advanced novel understandings of classical sources – understandings that have changed the practice of Judaism, from Boaz’s assertion in the Book of Ruth that a Moabite woman may marry a Jew, to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s recent assertion that in cases of surrogacy the DNA mother (rather than the birth mother) is considered the mother according to Jewish law.

So too, change through rabbinic decrees prohibiting that which is otherwise permitted has transformed the face of Jewish law: consider, for example, Rabbeinu Gershom’s decrees prohibiting polygamy and coerced divorce and their dramatic impact on Jewish law and society.

Neither of these mechanisms, however, is as far-reaching or as powerful as exigent decrees (hora’at sha’ah), the rarely used power to abrogate Jewish law and do that which is prohibited in order to allow Judaism to survive. As the Talmud recounts with regard to the decision to take what had been an exclusively oral tradition and record every aspect of that tradition in writing, “it is the time to act for the sake of God, to avoid destruction of God’s Torah.”

Women’s study of Torah was the subject of exactly such a process one century ago when a group of famous rabbis – led by the Chofetz Chaim and the Admor from Gur – decided to encourage women to study Torah. The Chofetz Chaim wrote (Likutei Halachot, Sotah 20b):

It seems that all of this [prohibition against women learning Torah] applies only to times past when all daughters lived in their fathers’ home and tradition was very strong, assuring that children would pursue their parents’ path, as it says, “Ask your father and he shall tell you.” On that basis we could claim that a daughter needn’t learn Torah but merely rely on proper parental guidance. But nowadays, in our iniquity, as parental tradition has been seriously weakened and women, moreover, regularly study secular subjects, it is certainly a great mitzvah to teach them Chumash, Prophets and Writings, and rabbinic ethics, such as Pirkei Avot, Menorat Hamaor, and the like, so as to validate our sacred belief; otherwise they may stray totally from God’s path and transgress the basic tenets of religion, God forbid.

This approach, which reflects the needs of the times and the dangers of under-education in the modern world, stands in direct contrast to the formulation of Jewish law found in Rambam and Shulchan Aruch, which apparently prohibits such study. It is important to note that while the Chofetz Chaim’s formulation has the appearance of being less than ideal (bedi’eved), in reality, his construct – like the change from a purely oral Torah to an oral Torah that is written down, as Rav Yehuda HaNasi mandated – is really an adaption to changing times.

Even those who paint a slightly less radical story of this change and maintain that the statement of halacha was a case of innovation (chiddush), as women were always technically allowed to study oral law (the Rambam’s formulation of “tzevo chachamin,” used to prohibit women’s Torah study, does not create a formal issur), agree that for centuries the practice was not to allow women to study Torah and so the change was still quite radical.

Problem With the Status Quo

We all agree that a dramatic change has taken place in the last fifty years. By and large we live in a society where many women are studying Torah intensively and participating extensively in a plethora of professional capacities, including many different roles in Jewish communal life: Women teach our children, found and run our schools, counsel troubled adults, run social service agencies, lecture on Torah topics and texts and serve as outreach professionals.

Women also study a large variety of Torah subjects and texts – far beyond what was studied a generation ago – at sister institutions of numerous great yeshivot and at many independent Torah institutions. Reflecting these changes, Rav Soloveitchik wrote simply and directly nearly fifty years ago (Community, Covenant and Commitment, page 83) that “not only is the teaching of Torah she’b’al peh to girls permissible, but nowadays an absolute imperative… Boys and girls alike should be introduced into the inner halls of Torah she’b’al peh.

Just as, in order to save Torah from total destruction 2,000 years ago, the oral law had to be put into writing in direct violation of Jewish law, the oral law now needs to be studied by men and women alike if Torah is to be preserved. If that seems like a radical position, consider that today one would be hard pressed to find an Orthodox high school that does not, in fact, teach portions of the oral law to girls.

The above-mentioned changes have created something of a dilemma: What should those women who have studied Torah for several years after high school or college do for a living? I confess to having counseled many such women to “go to law school,” assuring them that if they can master a halachic tome by Rav Moshe Feinstein or Rabbi Y.M. Epstein, they can master a legal work by Benjamin Cardozo or Louis Brandeis. I had given that advice because there were few, if any, good careers in Torah for women, despite the personal realization that this represented a significant loss for the Jewish people.

Training Women as Orthodox Clergy

We all see and sense that there are aspects of the clergy role in which women do better than men, and our community would be deficient if we did not, in fact, have women already serving in quasi-clerical roles. What the community needs is a training process – analogous to the one we have for men – to ensure that women are properly trained in halacha, theology, and pastoral matters and practice in order to best serve our community.

Training people for a job is more prudent that expecting them to do such a job untrained. If they are serving in these roles and servicing our community well, the Orthodox community will grow.

The opening of institutions to train women as members of the Orthodox clergy would be an excellent alternative to law school, and would serve as a logical progression in the development of women’s Torah education in the Orthodox community.

Some will insist that whatever role women clergy play, they may not answer questions of Jewish law. This does not, however, seem to be mandated by halacha. As the Chinuch (mitzvah 152) noted many centuries ago, as a matter of Jewish law there is no issue with a woman answering questions of halacha if she is qualified to do so. Women involved in kiruv regularly answer questions of halacha and hashkafa. Should we not want to see to it that women in this field have adequate training to handle the issues that frequently present themselves?

Indeed, in Israel women are being trained to assist other women in taharat hamishpacha matters as yoatzot halacha and the rabbinical courts of Israel have welcomed women as advocates in the area of divorce as toanot rabbaniyot. Both of these formal programs and the many informal programs in Israel recognize that training is important to those who are in the field.

This does not mean women would or should be called “rabbi.” For reasons ranging from formal authority (serarah) being limited to men, to the title being given only to those who can serve as witnesses or function as chazzanim, to it simply being a matter of tradition, it is reasonable to argue that a different title should be given.

Nor does this does mean training for women in the Orthodox clergy must be identical to the training men receive for the rabbinate. Women sometimes bring different pastoral approaches that require different training. All of this is secondary to the fact that formal institutional training for women who wish to be part of the Orthodox clergy – teaching, preaching and answering questions of halacha and hashgacha – is an improvement over the current lack of any formal training and therefore a good idea. Such programs, granting degrees conferring fitness to be a member of the Orthodox clergy, are a wise idea whose time has come.

Some Objections – and a Reply

Some will no doubt protest that this will all lead down a slippery slope toward egalitarian services. Personally, I think this slope is unlikely to slip. Pastoral and halachic matters undertaken by clergy are quite distinct within Orthodoxy – from the liturgical work of a chazzan to the sexton duties of a gabbai to the rabbinical court responsibilities of a dayan. In England, different members of the clergy (not all of whom even have semicha) go by distinctly different titles, reflecting different roles: reverend, minister, rabbi, and dayan; maybe that is a fine idea worth importing to America.

Others object to this type of training based on their disagreement with the worldview (hashkafat olam) of specific individuals involved in organizing the first training program for Orthodox women clergy. (Let me be honest: I share many of those objections). But the solution to that objection is to open alternate training programs with different faculty, staff, students and worldviews. It would be a shame if a good idea were abandoned merely because some in the Orthodox community think ill of the people who first thought it.

So, yes, certifying people – men and women – as well-trained Orthodox clergy is a good idea, and certainly better than the status quo, which allows essentially untrained women to function in pastoral roles.

In the end, our community can only grow and flourish with well-trained clergy – both men and women – teaching, preaching and counseling God’s Torah. I look forward to all my children – both my sons and my daughters – being scholars and students of God’s living legacy on this planet.

About the Author: Rabbi Michael J. Broyde is a law professor at Emory University and a Senior Fellow in its Center for the Study of Law and Religion.


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