Why would anyone want to ban women rabbis? And why now? As one of the organizers and supporters of what has been characterized as the Rabbinical Council of America’s recent “ban on women rabbis,” I would like to help set the record straight.
This resolution was a response to a schism created by the “Open Orthodox” splinter group. Since 2009, “Open Orthodox” advocates have been channeling millions of dollars of non-Orthodox money to create new “facts on the ground” to pressure Modern Orthodoxy into yielding to certain Reform and Conservative Jewish standards. As “Open Orthodox” proponents have made clear, these reforms include ordaining women as rabbis so that they might serve in a variety of traditional roles, including pulpit rabbis of synagogues.
Over the past several years, leading rabbis in and outside of the RCA have prohibited Orthodox Jews from redefining their clergy in the image of other religions or other non-Orthodox Jewish denominations. Their reasons, some of which have appeared in print, have included halachic (religious-legal) as well as other justifications. Based on these rationales, the RCA’s membership unanimously passed a resolution in 2010 stating that it does not accept women rabbis. The organization subsequently clarified that this resolution applies to “maharat” and other newly-invented equivalent titles.
Recently, several RCA members in Orthodox Union synagogues defied these resolutions by supporting the hiring of women rabbis in their institutions. In response to the confusion this caused, a large group of RCA members proposed a resolution that contained unambiguous and definitive language, clarifying that RCA members are prohibited from supporting the hiring of women rabbis. This resolution was ratified by a general membership vote on October 30.
Judaism leaves a great deal of room for differences of opinion. Yet throughout our history, some religious disputes needed to be resolved with universal rabbinic agreement and clarity. Earlier in Jewish history, all rabbis agreed to follow one uniform calendar so that they would all observe Jewish holidays together. In modern times, a similar decision had to be made concerning the requirement for a mechitzah (partition) and separate seating in synagogue sanctuaries. A final decision was reached by Orthodoxy’s leading rabbis, who ruled that no synagogue can be considered Orthodox if it violates this standard.
The practice of maintaining separate seating partitions is not mentioned explicitly in codes of Jewish law. Like the need to maintain a uniform Jewish calendar, however, the mechitzah requirement was taken for granted as an essential part of Jewish tradition and a distinguishing trait of Orthodox Judaism. Just as Orthodox Judaism cannot exist with separate calendars or synagogue seating requirements, it cannot have different definitions of clergy. Without unity on these issues, Orthodox Jews cannot even pray together.
The phenomenon of separate synagogue seating was not arbitrary or imitative. Nor was the Jewish requirement that only men may serve as the kohanim (priests) and rabbis who preside over temple and synagogue rituals. There is a reason for the lack of Jewish precedent for a female leader of ritual services. Judaism was not imitating its surrounding cultures, as it may have been with its lack of women educators or leaders. On the contrary, the idea of male responsibility for religious ritual was a revolutionary idea in Judaism, one that stood in opposition to the female ritual leadership common in the ancient Near East, the Greco-Roman world, and elements of Christendom.
This distinction is an essential part of Judaism, one that relates to uniquely Jewish assumptions concerning men, women, ritual, and family life. There is no new egalitarian crisis when it comes to Jewish ritual services. Judaism has long been at odds with its neighboring religions when it comes to who should lead public rituals.
Because essential assumptions or ideas are often contained in established ritual practice, traditional change is only legitimate when it occurs due to internal considerations that respond to new challenges or realizations. The considerations that motivate change must never be external if they are inimical to foundational principles.
Traditional change can occur organically, in which case customs shift gradually and with little controversy; it also may be inorganic and urged by leading religious leaders who are universally accepted for their erudition, judgment, and wisdom, and who implement change in order to preserve first principles in the face of new challenges.
This latter type of change usually involves practical decisions, such as women’s education and religious Zionism, but it does not create entirely new principles.
Proponents of women rabbis, frustrated with the slow pace of development in Orthodox Jewish women’s leadership, would like to see radical and inorganic change that is inconsistent with Judaism’s first principles. Yet the concept of a woman ritual leader runs counter to the ancient, unique, and essential Jewish understanding of male-led leadership in the sphere of ritual. Furthermore, there is no single widely accepted posek (authority on difficult problems in Jewish law) who approves of this development. Instead, “Open Orthodoxy” hopes that ordaining “maharats” will create a new reality as women take over synagogue pulpits. One of its leaders even made a misleading claim that former Israeli Sephardic chief rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron permitted women’s ordination. This is incorrect. Rabbi Bakshi-Doron allowed women to answer religious inquiries but did not permit them to become rabbis and preside over synagogue rituals (Binyan Av 65:5).
It is clear that current opportunities for Jewish women’s leadership are inadequate. There are many possible ways to provide far better opportunities for Orthodox Jewish women. For instance, an existing Jewish institute of higher education could establish a school offering a variety of useful and respectable degrees, such as M.Div. or a D.Min. These degrees are commonplace in the non-Jewish world, and would allow an accomplished Jewish woman to be far more respected with the title of doctor instead of maharat. At the same time, these new degrees would not violate traditional and uniquely Jewish understandings of ritual leadership obligations.
Whatever path we choose, it cannot be one that abrogates male responsibility for assuming ritual leadership roles. A radical path may garner a great deal of non-Orthodox (as well as some Orthodox) money and support. But it also alienates most of Orthodoxy.
The Orthodox rabbinate’s membership organizations, including the Modern Orthodox RCA, cannot countenance the disregard of essential Jewish traditions in the name of progress. This position is not taken with malice or prejudice, but with respect and deference to our tradition. There is plenty of room to advance Jewish causes, both within and outside of Orthodoxy. Anyone is free to disagree with the resolution, and to seek to create facts on the ground, as Open Orthodoxy is seemingly intent on doing.
The RCA’s resolution effectively demands that advocates of Open Orthodoxy not mislead the public by calling themselves “Orthodox” if they do not wish to follow Orthodox guidelines, and that they present themselves honestly to the public. The RCA can only establish its own membership standards. It has just done so when it comes to the matter of hiring women rabbis, and its conclusion is now unambiguous, definitive, and binding on its members.