Photo Credit: Ohr Torah Stone
Rabbi Riskin giving a plaque to Rabbanit Amira Ra’anan naming her a "Morat Hora’ah U’Manhigah Ruchanit."

Last week, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin conferred the title of Morat Hora’ah U’Manhigah Ruchanit – “Halachic Authority and Spiritual Leader” – upon three women who completed the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL) program at Midreshet Lindenbaum/Ohr Torah Stone in Efrat.

Aware of the controversial nature of ordaining women, Rabbi Riskin and WIHL made sure not to call these graduates “rabbis.” But isn’t this just a game of semantics? is there any real difference between a “rabbi” and a “Morat Hora’ah U’Manhigah Ruchanit“?

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Moreover, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest Orthodox rabbinical organization in the United States, stated in an unopposed April 2010 resolution that it “cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title” (emphasis added).

This RCA resolution, including its precise wording, was endorsed by such major rabbanim as Rav Hershel Schachter, Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz, and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. The RCA affirmed its position again in 2013 and in 2015, and it has been unanimously agreed to by the highest levels of rabbinic leadership throughout the world, including the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox Union, the Conference of European Rabbis, and Igud Ha-Rabbonim/Rabbinical Alliance of America.

Furthermore, less than a year ago, leading Religious Zionist Israeli rabbis, including Rav Shlomo Aviner and Rav Baruch Efrati, specifically criticized the WIHL for ordaining female rabbis.

In response to Rav Aviner’s condemnation, WIHL claimed it does no such thing. It explained that “the role of a rabbi is to serve as synagogue leader, by conducting services and reading from the Torah; in contrast, WIHL graduates are not referred to as ‘rabbi’ and do not ritually lead synagogue services.”

But the title “rabbi” in Judaism does not, in fact, denote a leader of services and Torah reader. Rather, it denotes – you guessed it – a halachic authority and spiritual leader, which is exactly the title Rabbi Riskin conferred upon these three women.

A brief glance at the WIHL program demonstrates beyond question that its curriculum is a classic rabbinic one, indistinguishable from that of a male semicha program. Also, Rav Aviner last year quoted a statement from WIHL leadership that it was training women to become, not just rabbis, but “dayanot” – rabbinical judges.

Indeed, prior to Rav Aviner’s condemnation and a subsequent revamping of WIHL’s webpage, it stated the following:

Dayanut: Ten-year advanced training program launched in 2013 for women who have completed the heter hora’ah program, equipping them with the knowledge base to serve as judges for conversion and divorce. For the first time since Devorah served as a judge, Jewish history will once again see women trained for the task, and their very presence will restore – and ensure the preservation of – women’s rights in areas of personal status.

Thus, it is clear that despite WIHL’s efforts at obfuscation, the Morat Hora’ah U’Manhigah Ruchanit program clearly flouts the rulings of the greatest rabbinic authorities of this generation from across the spectrum.

If further proof is necessary, there are these words from WIHL’s ordination ceremony last year said in the presence of Rabbi Riskin: “The inclusion of women in the rabbinic world is able to provide an opening for inquiry and understanding. The inclusion of women in positions of rabbinic leadership progressively creates a space for identification and personal connection…” (emphasis added).

Additionally, in a 2017 interview with JTA, Rabbi Riskin stated that WIHL graduates “teach and direct Jewish law, just like a rabbi” (emphasis added). Rabbi Riskin, incidentally, along with WIHL co-director Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner, is on the advisory board of Yeshivat Maharat, which openly ordains women with certificates containing the traditional semicha text.

Thus, WIHL’s leadership itself has publicly affirmed that its program is rabbinic in nature. And if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

Let me conclude by quoting a few sentences from a statement put out last year by TORA (Traditional Orthodox Rabbis of America) regarding WIHL/Midreshet Lindenbaum:

There is a consensus among the worldwide Orthodox rabbinate that granting semichah to women – in name or in practice – lies outside the contours of our mesorah…. Changes in community practice within halacha are possible, but only when guided by the leading halachic decisors of our nation, none of whom stand behind this move.

“It is deceptive to argue that the recent ceremony at Midreshet Lindenbaum conferred nothing more than recognition of academic success…. This ceremony is part of an emerging and disturbing trend. It comes at a time when others are trying to place women rabbis in Orthodox synagogues in America, in an attempt to circumvent the traditional halachic process.

“TORA asserts that actions such as these are void and not only painfully divide Orthodoxy at a time when the community desperately needs unity, but also diminish the already powerful role played by Orthodox women in education and community service.”

May the inspiration we gained over Shavuos provide us all with Torah clarity and the motivation to practice Judaism according to tradition.

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