The Incredibly Shrinking Rabbinate

(The following appears as an Op-Ed in the Jewish Press, August 9, 2013)

With the constant drumbeat of articles about female rabbis appearing in the media almost weekly – essentially the same articles making the same points to the same eager audience, all to make the phenomenon of female rabbis seem commonplace – it is important to take a step back and examine how, indeed, we arrived at this destination. How is it possible that the ordination of women, something that until quite recently was perceived as incompatible with Jewish tradition, should suddenly be construed as acceptable to all, and even to the nominally Orthodox but better described as neo-Conservative Jews?
The New Synagogue of Berlin on Oranienburgerstrasse, which today functions exclusively as a museum of German Jewish history, displays the “ordination” certificate of Regina Jonas, purportedly the first woman to receive the title rabbi. She was ordained in 1935 after writing a thesis for the Reform seminary in Berlin on the permissibility of women’s ordination. Naturally, she concluded that women can be ordained. Nonetheless, most of her contemporary Reform rabbis – including Rabbi Leo Baeck, the dean of the German Reform Rabbinate – discounted her thesis and opposed her ordination as violative of Jewish law. Her certificate was signed by Rabbi Max Dienemann and she served for several years as an Assistantrabbi at the Oranienburgerstrasse temple; even they could not countenance a woman as the full-time rabbi. Sadly, Rabbi Jonas was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942 and murdered at Auschwitz in 1944.
For decades, she had no successors, and all denominations of Judaism, even those who did not otherwise revere or adhere to Jewish law, assumed that women were not eligible to be rabbis. What changed?
What changed were two distinct yet interrelated phenomena that pervaded the American cultural and civic scene in the 1960’s: feminism and anti-authoritarianism. Feminism was an aggressive response to the dominance of what was deemed the “patriarchy” of life, the sense that men ruled, controlled the levers of power, wealth and influence, and thereby suppressed women. Certainly, feminism had some successes, although none that was unequivocal. Women entered the work force in larger numbers, today women outnumber men in colleges and most graduate programs, and women have become much more self-sufficient economically.
Feminism also allowed women greater self-expression, a decidedly mixed blessing for all. For example, feminism empowered women to be as promiscuous and as lustful as men, as Pyrrhic a victory as has been seen since King Pyrrhus himself ravaged his own armies in 280 BCE. Marriage has suffered grievously; the latest statistics show that today barely half of America’s adults are married (only 42% in New York City), the lowest rate since 1961. Children, too, have been raised with a “new normal” in which homes are less stable and parental influence less forthcoming. Certainly, there are many exceptions but the culture has changed dramatically. The assault on the patriarchy has succeeded so magnificently – although never enough to please the diehards – that, if anything, real men are said to be in short supply and the shirking of traditional male responsibilities (fidelity to wife, parenting children, supporting families, etc.) is a social epidemic.
By the same token, the turbulence of the 1960’s – especially the Vietnam War, the urban riots and the assassinations of respected figures – produced a distrust of government and a pervasive antagonism toward authority. Tradition – both in terms of religion and social conventions – became suspect and required a renewed validation after an independent review of its worth and merits. Politicians were largely reviled, and religious leaders were soon after held in contempt by much of “enlightened”society, especially the media. The entertainment industry typically portrays clergymen as venal, hypocritical, and corrupt, and those are the good ones. Young people took pride in not listening to their elders, and taking refuge (or escaping) into drugs and alcohol. Oppositional Defiant Disorder entered the psychological lexicon a decade later. “The wisdom of the scholars was reviled, fearers of sin scorned, [objective] truth will disappear, children will embarrass their elders, [and] the old will stand before the young…” (Masechet Sota 49b). This was one legacy of the 1960’s, and these two forces soon coalesced.
The male rabbinate contained “tartei l’rei’uta” – the worst of both worlds. It was limited to men and the loathed symbol of religious (and therefore objective) authority. As such, the male rabbinate was a feminist/anti-authoritarian nightmare, and had to be undermined.
In 1972, Sally Priesand was ordained the first female Reform rabbi in the United States.
Yet, neither social movement should have had any resonance among religious Jews. Despite the persistent claims of Jewish feminists, Judaism has never perceived itself as a “patriarchy.” We have patriarchs and matriarchs, equally venerated. Jewish identity is transmitted through the mother, not the father. Jewish women frequently worked outside the home, were often the bread-winners, and never suffered the legal disabilities that in other societies limited a woman’s capacity to own property or accumulate wealth. And the very essence of Judaism is the surrender to God’s authority, by assuming the yoke of Torah obligations as conveyed to us through the written and oral law. Traditional Jews revere authority even as modern men (and women) revile it.
To be sure, Jewish law assigns different modes of worship to men and women, as it does to Kohanim, Leviim,and Yisraelim. It even distinguishes between men and women when it comes to the observance of certain mitzvot, although, by far, just a small minority ofmitzvot. The toxic brew of feminism and anti-authoritarianism has caused some women to chafe under these designated roles. This discontent is engendered by the egalitarian obsession of feminism – that men and women are equal, therefore identical, and any distinctions inherently invalid, if not also repugnant – and by the rejection of any objective authority, of the “no one can tell me what I can or can’t do” variety. Both are misplaced, to say the least, as any organization or system can only survive if defined roles are allocated and those roles are carried out faithfully by participants. Obviously, the military could not function if every soldier did as he wished on the battlefield. It is the cohesion of disparate elements that allows the machinery of organization to thrive.
The Reform ordination of Sally Priesand was understandable in the sense that the movement never claimed to adhere to Jewish law and, almost by definition, sought to reform it until it conformed to“modern” values. By the late 1960’s, the twin rebellions of feminism and anti-authoritarianism had captured the liberal imagination. It is hard to attribute the reason for the almost four decade hiatus between the ordinations of Rabbis Jonas and Priesand to anything but sexism. Certainly the Torah was no obstacle. It remained absolutely clear to the Torah world, and to the Conservative movement that claimed a nominal fidelity to Jewish law, that ordination of women was impossible.
In 1985, the Conservative movement ordained Amy Eilberg as their first female rabbi. Conveniently, JTS waited for its primary scholar, Rabbi Saul Lieberman, to die (1983), as he had adamantly opposed women’s ordination and considered it a nullity. Eilberg’s ordination culminated a series of proclamations – all influenced by the twin cultural forces rampant in American life – that had rejected Jewish law and equalized the role of men and women in worship. Thus, beginning in the 1970’s and unfolding in short order, women were first counted in a Minyan, first allowed to receive aliyot, first allowed to lead the tefilot and finally allowed to function as rabbis. (More recently, in 2004, women were also allowed to serve as legal witnesses, completing the break with Jewish tradition.)
In the ensuing decades since women have begun to serve in the non-Orthodox rabbinate, male attendance at services has declined precipitously and the non-Orthodox rabbinical seminaries have become majority female. But at least those presumably faithful to Torah, its values and traditions, stood firm against this onslaught. That changed as well in the first decade in the 21stcentury with the ordination of the first woman, followed most recently by three other women. Such was possible not only because of the utter conquest of the left-wing of Orthodoxy (by now, neo-Conservatism) by its masters, feminism and anti-authoritarianism, but also by the re-definition of the rabbinate. Without shrinking the rabbinate and the role of the Rabbi – without accentuating certain functions of the rabbinate and minimizing others – such a re-definition would be impossible, or, at the very least, it would not be possible and still claim with a straight face to be faithful to Torah.
Thus, in the traditional American rabbinate, the rabbi looms large in the prayer service – sitting in front, even leading on occasion, and in many communities, serving as the reader of the Torah. Those roles are off limits to religious women. Or, all male Jews are obligated in Torah study, the daily recitation of Sh’ma, the time-bound mitzvot like talit and tefillin, public prayer, and other commandments. The idea of a functioning rabbi exempt from Torah study, public prayer or the wearing of tefillin is peculiar, and rightfully so. The rabbi is often perceived as a role model for others in the fulfillment of Jewish law, notwithstanding that all Jews are obligated in the commandments that apply to them. Traditionally, the rabbi serves as a judge in halachic matters, or as a witness to various halachic acts.
What would we call a rabbi who cannot read the Torah, daven for the amud, is exempt by Jewish law from a variety of common ritual practices (and in some cases, actually proscribed from fulfilling them), serve as a judge or a witness – and is forbidden by Jewish law, according to prevailing opinion, from serving in positions of authority? Not much of a rabbi.
It is no coincidence that the concept of serarahis rejected by the neo-Conservatives as a definitive aspect of the rabbinate and therefore as grounds for rejection of a female rabbinate according to Rambam and others. The abhorrence of serarah is at the very root of the current rebellion –both in terms of the feminist hatred of the patriarchy and the anti-authoritarian’s contempt for authority.
That is why certain aspects of the rabbinate are emphasized to make it seem as if female rabbis are a natural fit. Do rabbis teach Torah? So do women. Do rabbis counsel the afflicted? Certainly, and of course there are more female therapists today than male therapists. Can women speak at a shalom zachar? Why not – they’re the ones having the babies anyway! So, if that is all there is to the rabbinate, why was there ever any reasonable objection to it?
From that perspective, the yoetzet movement also, wittingly or unwittingly, serves the same function of chipping away at the fundamentals of the rabbinate. Certainly, it is arguable whether women can decide questions of Jewish law; some authorities permit it, while others (see Shaarei Teshuva in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 461:17) prohibit it. But the women who will today answer questions of taharat mishpacha, with debatable authority, can tomorrow answer questions of Shabbat, Kashrut, Eruvin and civil law. That day – if it ever comes – will see the end of the traditional rabbinate. Fortunately, it will never come, because by that time those who have embraced this departure from tradition will have long left the mainstream Orthodox community. But those are the lines that need to be drawn today, by all Jews who care about the Mesorah and the continuity of Jewish life.
The growth of Torah study for women in the last century has been a boon to Jewish life, in line with the Chafetz Chaim’s recognition that such was needed to survive spiritually in the modern world. In an extreme minority of cases, such Torah knowledge has encouraged crashing through the barriers of halacha, and that is most lamentable. Torah study should lead to greater humility and surrender to G-d’s will, and not to the conflating of G-d’s will with whatever secular value is ascendant in any given era.
The only way to accommodate women rabbis is to modify the rabbinate itself, shrinking it by excluding from normative rabbinic practice certain obvious and important elements of the field. The job description itself has to be constricted, much like the physical qualifications for firefighters had to be reduced in order to accommodate female firefighters. Rabbis who cannot normatively perform significant aspects of the profession (officiate at weddings, for example) are “rabbis” of a diminished stature, graded, as it were, on a curve, whose very limitations underscore their ineligibility.
Employing different titles and calling that “ordination” does not change anything. Taking a rabbinical function and re-assigning it to a layman does not make that layman a rabbi. The rabbinate is more than just the sum total of different tasks. It represents the continuity of spiritual leadership that connects Jews to Sinai of the past and to Moshiach of the future. In fact, the diminution of the rabbinate to a few limited functions implicit in its feminization provokes the intriguing question: what can this newfangled woman rabbi do that a non-Jew occupying the same position could not also do?
The diminished rabbinate highlights the rabbi’s pastoral role and minimizes the study of Torah and Jewish law, as if social work is the rabbi’s main task rather than an ancillary function of the rabbinate. It fosters a sense of the Torah as a “feel-good” document whose laws are not really binding on modern man because they can be adjusted to conform to core values such as feminism, egalitarianism and self-expression.
From that perspective, it is certainly understandable why Sally Priesand was an honored guest at the ordination ceremony that occurred last month. Neither halachic methodology nor mesorah figure significantly in the calculations of the Neo-Cons. Notwithstanding the professed good intentions of this movement, the conquest by the feminist and anti-authoritarian rebels of the 1960’s will continue until the appropriate boundaries are drawn, and surrender to Torah again becomes the prerequisite of divine service.


17 responses to “The Incredibly Shrinking Rabbinate

  1. Dear Rabbi Pruzansky,
    Could you please elaborate further why a woman, who, for example, has the same upbringing, education, training and mental acumen as a reliable Rav, could not be relied upon regarding matters of taharat mishpacha, Shabbat, Kashrut, Eruvin and civil law? What is she lacking?

    Second, do you think sometimes that Judaism/Halacha has gone too far in limiting the rights of women in Judaic areas? For example, you mention a woman speaking at a shalom zachar, yet my female cousin was forbidden by a Rov to speak at our grandmother’s levaya.

    Thank you and kind regards,

    • Firstly, she is not “lacking” anything. The roles are different. And more is required for psak than simply knowledge of facts.
      Secondly, in the case of a particular Rav, he might ban it on grounds of tzniut. Others would allow it (me) because hesped is a mitzvah open to all and it is surely appropriate to be eulogized by a close relative. It is easy to distinguish between those areas and things that happen in shul, which touches on Avoda. Does Judaism go “too far”? It is hard to state that categorically, except to recognize that one flash point of this generation- certainly here in Israel but even in the US – is the fine line between tzniut and dysfunction.

    • To add to the answer I gave Yaakov, something I think could ease much of the animosity out there:
      You mention the eulogy issue. Obviously it is a mitzvah that anyone can perform, but some rabbis will allow women and others won’t. Here is where the “consumer” has to take responsibility. No rabbi is obligated to officiate, nor is anyone obligated to ask a particular rabbi to officiate. It would be prudent to inquire at the initial meeting whether the rabbi will allow a woman to eulogize. If he says no, and a woman wants to offer a eulogy, thank him for his time and tell him that another rabbi will be officiating.
      Ask up front, and that will avoid some unpleasantness. And don’t say there is not enough time. There is always enough time.

  2. Jewish children need attention and guidance from their mothers much more than synagogues need “female Rabbis.”

    I have seen what happens when Jewish children grow up with insufficient attention and guidance from their mothers, and the results are not desirable.

  3. Yasher Koach Rabbi Pruzansky and thank you for this enlightening post!
    I wanted to look up the Shaarei Tshuva, but OC 561 is about tearing kria on Arei Yehuda and I didn’t see anything relevant there in Shaarei Tshuva. Is there perhaps an error in the mareh makom? If you could please provide a corrected reference, it would be greatly appreciated.

  4. Dear Rabbi Pruzanski,

    Your points about the position of shul rabbi are well taken. The main purpose of the shul or synagogue is davening with a minyan [defined as ten men] and fulfilling other mitzvot that are mainly incumbent upon or involve men. The rabbi is expected to exemplify proper observance and execution of those mitzvot. A woman, no matter how learned she is, cannot. Therefore she understandably would never carry the weight and esteem that a male rabbi does.

    That said, not every rabbi becomes a pulpit rabbi and not all women get married or are zoche to have children. What if she has a natural ability and drive to learn and has reached the level to be able to poskin? Why shouldn’t she be recognized as a rabbi and /or a posek if she passes or surpasses the standards?

    • As noted (incorrectly at first, but now corrected to Orach Chaim, Shaarei Teshuva 461:17), not every posek supports the idea that women can pasken. The simplest way to look at it is this: the Gemara and the rishonim go to great lengths to explain how Devorah could have been a judge, with a variety of explanations ranging from hora’at sha’a (exigency), it was God’s choice (and we can’t quibble), the people accepted her for there was no one else, and others.
      But if it was obvious that a qualified woman could rule on matters of Jewish law, then why would the Gemara have to even entertain the question? The Gemara could have simply responded to the question, “how could Devorah function as a judge?” with the direct answer, “why not? There is nothing wrong with women deciding matters of halacha.”
      That the Gemara or rishonim did not take that direct and simple approach means there is a halachic impediment to a woman serving in that role.

      And thanks for replacing the “i” with the “y” !


      • Rabbi, Thank you. Just to clarify something you have written here a few times – that there are many poskim who forbid women to pasken. Is that your opinion, as well?

      • “Forbid” is a strong word, and “pasken” is a term of art. If a woman is asked, e.g., should Yaaleh v’Yavo be recited on Rosh Chodesh, and she is familiar with the Shulchan Aruch, she certainly should answer. But paskening she’elot is not part of the woman’s role in Jewish life and likely detracts from her role.

  5. Sorry for misspelling your name above, Rav Pruzansky

  6. When quoting Albert Einstein’s disputed quote; “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” one might wonder about certain other converse expectations.
    For example; would doing a different thing over and over again produce the same results?
    Or how about; would repeatedly doing the same thing differently produce similar or different results?
    More specifically; would repeatedly doing the same thing differently produce better or worse results?

    Change seems to be both an incessant and inherent human attribute. Why (¿), I don’t know.
    Perhaps man (mankind) wants to engage change as a means to improve his standing or his benefits in life, or for the lives of others. Regardless of purpose or cause, change seems to be, for the most part, inevitable. Unfortunately, change has not always been for the betterment of man, neither willingly nor wittingly, and quite often change comes at the hand or actions of those whom men have come to rely upon (other men). Unfortunately for the Rabbinate, not all can agree with the saying, “The more things change the more they stay the same.”

    It is hard to mentally and spiritually take a stand when others keep changing the definitions.
    It is even harder to avoid the consequences of subtle changes pecking away at principles, practices, and beliefs; it is not only insanity, but certain death.

  7. Yet another great post by Rabbi P. The former posek of JTS, as related to me by his son, was mostly opposed to the ordination of women at JTS. When his first female student entered the program, he obtained from her a promise that she would serve only as “spiritual leader” of a conregation, but that she would never serve as witness or perform other functions that halacha reserves for men. She was ordained, found employment at a synagogue, and immediately violated every aspect of her promise to the posek (more rejection of authority?). The take-away is that there is little any school or religious body can do to place practical limits around the behaviors of rabbis. The solution, naturally, is to avoid the problem in the first place.

  8. Whereas, I agree with you that Judaism was not a patriarchy in the way that radical feminists define such, there are not only different roles for men and women in Judaism, but in modern society, the woman’s role has become subordinate to that of the man. That is simply intolerable to a free people, in which individuals have the same rights given by our Creator. In looking at the history of traditional Judaism, many women and men alike see that less respect is paid to the rights of women than in the past at the same time as–in Europe and the United States–women have expanded their roles and are more likely to see themselves as individuals with the same rights as men. (Here I am not talking about the Second Wave feminists who, in reacting against women’s basic rights not respected developed a philosophy of actual hatred of the male and a pseudoscience that denied the differences between men and women).

    In many respects, I engage in traditional Jewish practice, but I would never allow myself to be subjected to a traditional or Hasidic community because of how I have seen women treated there. Living in a free society, I have the ability to choose my associations, as do the very traditional orthodox. I would certainly not place myself in society that wished to use force–as many of the orthodox do in Israel–against people who do not choose such associations. Frankly, such violence is unbecoming of Jews, especially since many of these violent groups have no basis other than the bronze age customs or medieval European customs that are either not law at all and never were, or became obsolete even before the destruction of the temple.

    In sum, what I see is that in the last century certain branches of so-called “orthodoxy” have narrowed their understanding and ignored much of our history, in order to subjugate women in ways that Jewish women were not subjugated even at the time of the Talmud.

    Further, since the advent of the modern period there has been an understanding–taken from our prophets and through Christianity brought to Europe–that we treat people primarily as individuals who have the right to life, liberty and property–and we do not denigrate nor give them special privileges based on any group they happen to belong to by virtue of birth. I hold to those values, most completely brought to fruition through the American Revolution. From this perspective, I have no problem with you and individuals like you living how you wish, so long as you do not initiate force to make me do the same. You call this anti-authoritarian–and indeed it is, if by that you mean that I reject the sovereignty of a man over me. I owe my allegiance not to any priest, prophet, or king, but only to the Eternal who created me.

    So you can go your way, and I will go mine; but if you and your compatriots choose to use violence–like throwing rocks at little girls going to school–well, then you have gone too far, sir, and you and your compatriots who engage in such a violation of the rights of others should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

    • I’m not sure why you used the phrase “you and and your compatriots” with reference to violence. I don’t use violence, nor does anyone I know. A Jew who would use violence against another Jew to compel them to obey a halacha is sick, twisted, immoral and himself (or herself) in violation of Jewish law.
      Never for a moment think that those people are representative of the Torah in any way.
      And you should never give up but keep learning and observing the mitzvot.

  9. Rabbi Pruzansky,

    I enjoyed reading this article.

    In passing, you mention Nishmat’s Yoetzet Halacha program in your article. I was just wondering if you could clarify your position regarding this program.