By Elizabeth Kratz
The Orthodox Union (OU), after a year of discussions with various stakeholders and in the face of some opposition, has established parameters for a three-year period during which the umbrella body for American Orthodox congregations will work to bring its member synagogues who employ female clergy into compliance with OU standards, which stipulate that a woman cannot serve as a rabbi.
According to a new statement issued by the OU, women can (and already do) work in OU member synagogues in other roles, including as high-level Torah teachers, scholars, yoatzot (family purity advisers), social workers and pastoral counselors; those roles have been expressly delineated in previous OU statements.
While the ordination of female rabbis is accepted by Reform and Conservative Judaism and is not a controversial issue in those movements, the debate on women clergy has long been the source of heated disagreements within the Orthodox community.
Last year, an OU rabbinic panel released a 17-page report on women serving as clergy in member synagogues. The panel concluded that it is not permissible under Jewish law for women to serve as rabbis, and that OU member synagogues should continue to not employ women in that position. But in a departure from previous statements, it defined a range of leadership roles that are acceptable for women in synagogue and community life, with the caveat that those positions must be acceptable to the rabbis working inside each specific community.
In the intervening time, the OU, at the rabbinic panel’s suggestion, has established a department of women’s initiatives and hired Dr. Adina Shmidman, rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) of the Lower Merion Shul in the Philadelphia suburbs, as its director. The department’s areas of focus include defining women’s leadership roles, developing lay leadership and training opportunities, initiating learning groups, promoting and providing opportunities for female scholars to serve as speakers and scholars-in-residence, creating events for young women for Torah and secular learning opportunities, wellness, developing ways for capturing community feedback, and understanding and optimizing synagogue usability.
In the case of four OU member synagogues who employ women in rabbinic capacities—Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx, N.Y.; Beth Shalom in Potomac, Md.; B’nai David-Judea in Los Angeles; and Ohev Sholom in Washington, D.C.—the OU explicitly stated it would make no move to eject synagogues or individuals from its network, though all the women in question have received rabbinic degrees from Yeshivat Maharat, Rabbi Avi Weiss’s rabbinic degree-granting seminary for women, which grants a rabbinic degree that is often at odds with the standards of other OU communal and partner institutions.
Allen Fagin, executive vice president of the OU, said the emphasis of the new parameters “is not on this handful of OU shuls [who employ women as clergy], we are talking about less than 1 percent of our shuls. We have said definitively that if you want to be an OU member shul you have to be in compliance with OU rules. There is a narrow exception for a handful of shuls that currently employ female clergy and did so prior to the enunciation of our policy a year ago.”
“With respect to those shuls, we are making clear that the responses of the rabbinic panel are our standards,” he said. “We want to put a process in place to work with those shuls, in the hopes that they will modify their practices so that they will come into compliance with the responses of the rabbinic panel. That will take time; we will work with them for a three-year period. Our fervent hope is that they will come into conformity.”
The OU said in its new statement on the issue, “Each of the four shuls has had female clergy in their employ for a considerable period of time—and certainly well before the issuance of the rabbinic responses and the OU statement. Moreover, we are taught that communal unity and darchei shalom (ways of peace) are significant core Jewish values that must be weighed, advanced and nurtured; in this regard, we were guided by the views expressed by our rabbinic panel…we will not take action with respect to these congregations based on their existing arrangements in the employment of female clergy. This determination is not—and should not be viewed—as an endorsement of such arrangements. To the contrary, we will continue to urge these synagogues to modify their practices out of respect for the guidelines we have adopted.”
The synagogue umbrella organization added, “Our dialogue with these congregations will continue, and we will share with them the alternative approaches we have identified (and will, in the future, continue to identify) to maximize the participation of women within the ranks of synagogue professionals in a manner consistent with the responses of our rabbinic panel.”
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, leader of Washington’s Ohev Sholom, one of the four OU congregations employing female clergy, said he believes the OU “does not get to define what is Orthodox” and called the organization’s latest statement “horrible.”
“These men in the leadership of the OU don’t want to give proper credit and respect to women. When they came to our office, and spoke to the maharats (the designation for women granted by Weiss) and asked them to change their title. The chutzpah. I feel that there is very weak leadership at the helm of this organization,” said Herzfeld.
Regarding his hope for what would happen at the conclusion of the OU’s newly established three-year period for member synagogues with female clergy, Herzfeld said, “They said that they will reevaluate in three years. I pray that in these three years, the OU will be reevaluated, that there will be new leadership that will not be so narrow-minded and shortsighted, and that they can grow and be a more open and inclusive organization.”
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, leader of Congregation B’nai Yeshurun in Teaneck, N.J., said that it was important for the OU to note that there are synagogue-based roles that can be performed by women and that “the Jewish people lose when we cannot in a formal way access the talents and brains of half our population. But since women cannot, according to halacha (Jewish law), fulfill many important functions of the rabbinate, the ascription of that title and those roles to women serve ultimately to diminish the very essence of the rabbinate.”
“The survival of the mesorah (oral tradition) requires that past and future merge in the present,” added Pruzansky. “That is why radical changes are always spurned. It is why the infiltration of modern cultural norms into a Torah environment is so harmful and those norms are naturally rejected. A Judaism that is unrecognizable to the ‘remnant of the scribes’ is not authentic. We are at an inflection point with this new movement and I hope they (advocates for female clergy) take this guidance to heart.”
Elizabeth Kratz is the associate publisher and editor of The Jewish Link of New Jersey and The Jewish Link of Bronx, Westchester and Connecticut.