The Jewish community in Teaneck is not embroiled in controversy, despite what some media outlets are reporting. No one has been expelled from the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County (RCBC) nor is anyone being threatened with expulsion.
My esteemed colleague, Rabbi Netanel Helfgot – whose decision to hire a female clergy-in-training sparked a new RCBC by-law excluding from membership any rabbi who hires a woman in a clergy capacity – remains a member in good standing of the rabbinic council. Before the vote was taken, there was a full airing of views and opinions, and the by-law only goes into effect in September so as to not prejudice the woman who was retained temporarily in the clergy role. The choice whether or not to comply is his; I hope he does.
More significantly, to spare Rabbi Helfgot any disrespect, it was agreed that the RCBC’s decision would not be broadcast to the public. The RCBC didn’t even publicly respond to the announcement of the hiring of the clergy-in-training. It is lamentable that this courtesy was not reciprocated and that proponents of female clergy ran to social media to protest.
The RCBC, like any professional organization, sets standards for admission and membership. In 2006, we passed by-laws against officiating in a shul without a mechitza or at a funeral without tahara and tachrichin. We also declared that “no RCBC member synagogue may permit women to receive aliyot to the Torah in any form or in any circumstance.” At the time, nobody even dreamt we would have to spell out the inadmissibility of female clergy in our shuls, so it was not addressed.
Since then, of course, the issue has become highly relevant, and over the last several years, the mainstream Orthodox community has made its position crystal clear. The Rabbinical Council of America has pronounced that female clergy is incompatible with the mesorah, as has the Orthodox Union. These are Modern Orthodoxy’s representative institutions. That the larger charedi-yeshivish world rejects female clergy goes without saying.
It is now well established that female clergy is simply not a Torah concept, and no amount of aggressive lobbying or aggrieved social media posts will change that. Torah doesn’t work that way. Over the last decade, this topic has been exhaustively deliberated. The discussions have been held, the papers have been written, the research is complete, the decisions have been taken, and the issue has been settled. Now the time for choosing has begun: On which side of the mesorah do you wish to situate yourself?
For almost all traditional Jews, the choice is obvious. The small minority that tragically chooses otherwise are knowingly separating themselves from the Torah world, no different from all the movements in the past that had what they thought were grand ideas to reform, conserve, secularize, or modernize Judaism. They are knowingly cutting themselves off from the life force of Torah Judaism, rejecting the almost unanimous views of halachic decisors of today.
It is an enormous tragedy, and one that can still be averted. The patron of a restaurant declared treif by 100 rabbis and kosher by one should be well aware of what he or she is eating.
Some habitants on the political/religious left – especially millennials – seem to believe that if they don’t get their way, a full and honest discussion of the matter at hand clearly was not conducted and “conversations” must continue until everyone else comes around to their viewpoint.
This attitude is not only intellectually dishonest; it is intellectual bullying. And the younger generation of rabbis must learn that, occasionally, advocacy for Torah requires forcefulness and decisiveness. No one should seek conflict but nor should rabbis ever viscerally shy away from it because their critics will be loud and frequently abusive; that too is an essential part of leadership, especially when the mesorah is under attack.
Teaneck is unique among Jewish communities for its homogeneity. Many people are members in several shuls. Teaneck rabbis and laymen are comfortable in the Western world, have higher education, harbor a strong commitment to halacha, and identify as religious Zionist. None of our shuls are outliers, and almost everyone would be comfortable davening in any shul.
We don’t want that to change. Many Orthodox Jews would not daven in a shul that has female clergy, just like many rabbis would not want to be part of a rabbinical organization that condoned female clergy.
Some voices have suggested that the RCBC decision was an act of disunity at a time when Jews need greater shows of unity. That, too, is a polemical, not a substantive, argument, but nothing could be further from the truth. We always need unity, even as it has been an unachievable quest since Sinai. But who has acted here in a disuniting and disruptive way? The ones who breached the consensus or the ones who preserved it?
In a world in which Torah values are challenged by the zeitgeist, those who hold firm and clarify the ideals of the mesorah should be applauded, not lambasted. Even the august principle of rabbinic autonomy has limits. Few would justify the “autonomy” of a rabbi who defied community consensus, choosing to ignore social and religious sanctions against a recalcitrant husband.
The RCBC’s decision does not detract from the importance of women’s Torah study or the invaluable contributions women make to Jewish life. But every role or endeavor is subject to the constraints of halacha and mesorah.
I urge my colleague and his shul to respect the will of the majority and remain part of our greater community. But if a colleague decided to remove the mechitza in his synagogue, no one would question the automatic resignation from the RCBC that it would entail.
Female clergy is the “mechitza” of our generation. It is critical that we elucidate to our community that lo zu haderech – this is not the proper way. Undermining the mesorah has never kept Jews in the fold, all good intentions to the contrary notwithstanding.