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The Orthodox Jewish community is abuzz with discussion of the Orthodox Union’s handling of four member synagogues that have hired women clergy.

The organization decided that these synagogues have three years to find ways to comply with OU policy against women serving in clergy roles at the risk of future revocation of synagogue membership. Additionally, no other current member synagogues may hire women in clergy positions, nor may synagogues applying for membership.

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The debate over the OU’s actions, however, misses the essential nature and very structure of the Orthodox community today.

In response to developments on the left fringes of the Orthodox-affiliating community, the Rabbinical Council of America has issued three resolutions opposing the ordination and hiring of women clergy. The OU convened a panel consisting of leading rabbis and roshei yeshiva, to which it posed these two questions:

1) Is it halachically acceptable for a synagogue to employ a woman in a clergy function?

2) What is the broadest spectrum of professional roles within a synagogue that may be performed by women?

The rabbinic panel issued a 17-page response to the questions. To the first, it said: “For the reasons stated above we believe that a woman should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position.” To the second, the panel offered general guidelines.

No respected halachic authority has concluded otherwise regarding women clergy. Yet despite the lack of recognized halachic support, Yeshivat Maharat, a rabbinical school for women housed in Rabbi Avi Weiss’s OU-member synagogue in Riverdale, continues to ordain women. The school’s graduates are free to select their own title, some choosing rabba, others preferring rabbi, still others opting for a less controversial title like rabbanit. Slowly, some synagogues have been hiring these graduates to work in various functions. Among these employers are OU member synagogues.

What should the OU do when its member synagogues violate rulings of multiple rabbinic bodies and the unanimous opinion of all leading halachic authorities? To my mind, a more important question is: What difference does it make? I don’t mean this sarcastically.

In past centuries, Jewish communal organizations ruled in a literal sense. They had governmental authority to set rules, levy taxes, and punish disobedient members. Sometimes they could even execute criminals.

If a pre-modern Jewish communal body disallowed a synagogue practice, all the synagogues under its authority had to cease the practice immediately or face punishment. People would not dare set foot in a defiant synagogue. In those days, excommunication meant expulsion from the community. It was practically a requirement for someone excommunicated to convert to another religion due to lack of access to basic support structures that were provided by the community.

But the Jewish community is no longer organized in a fashion that allows for excommunication. If the OU expels a synagogue, will that synagogue operate any differently? Will people stop attending that synagogue? Not necessarily. People affiliate voluntarily. They can join whichever community they want, start their own communities, or choose to live a life without a formal religious community. People make their own decisions on how, or if, they observe their religion and which synagogue, if any, they attend.

What this means is that no organization can excommunicate anyone. It does not, however, mean that our communities lack organizing principles. Those principles operate based on individual choice.

People who feel synagogues have crossed a line by hiring female clergy will stay away from those synagogues and their leaders, opting for synagogues compliant with mainstream halacha. Local rabbinical councils will bar female rabbis and their male rabbinic employers. Synagogues will refrain from extending speaking invitations to rabbis who employ female clergy.

Unlike in pre-modern times, this is not an absolute boundary. In the modern era, there have always been gray areas on the border between movements. There are Orthodox parents who, for specific reasons, send one or more of their children to a Solomon Schechter school of the Conservative movement and there are Conservative parents who send their children to Orthodox schools. In some communities, the Orthodox and Conservative synagogues have overlapping membership.

(That does not mean there is no difference between the Conservative and Orthodox movements. And the leading religious authorities of Orthodox Judaism, including, as noted, those identified with Modern Orthodoxy, have made it very clear that the ordination and hiring of women clergy is contrary to their understanding of Jewish tradition.)

In sum, while the OU may revoke the organizational membership of a synagogue with women clergy, it cannot expel the synagogue from Orthodoxy. Community definitions operate differently today from how they operated in the past. They are less obvious and are determined by the people, not by formal leadership. When people follow leading halachic authorities who have forbidden the practice, they – the people – effectively expel those synagogues from Orthodoxy regardless of OU membership.

The OU has acknowledged the religious need to follow the decision of the rabbinic panel it commissioned on this specific matter. Failing to do so would set a terrible precedent for the halachic community. But the communal decision had already been made by the leading halachic authorities and those who voluntarily follow them. Expulsion, for all intents and purposes, already occurred before the OU’s announcement.

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