The Resolution

The RCA statement on women’s ordination was both timely and tardy.

It was timely because waiting longer would have further greased the slippery slope towards a complete abandonment of Torah and Mesorah. In the absence of a formal resolution decreeing that the institution of female Jewish clergy is beyond the pale of Orthodoxy and insisting rabbis not hire nor shuls retain such clergy, in another few years  dozens of such clergywomen would have been ensconced in left-wing Orthodox synagogues. That would have created a schism in the Torah world that we can ill afford. Invariably, most Orthodox Jews would have shunned such synagogues, which would be the natural reflection of such a rift in the Torah world.

But the resolution was also five years too late, because, in many respects, the schism has already taken place. Previous resolutions were bland or toothless enough that it had little impact on proponents of the move, something I suspect contributed to the blandness of the statements in which proponents had a hand. But now the lines are very clearly delineated as to what is within the world of Torah and what is outside that holy framework. Once clarity has been obtained, then people can make their own decisions, but they cannot say they were not forewarned about the predictable costs of treading that well- worn path.

The resolution was necessary if only because the deviations have expanded over time, not receded. Parents warn their children not to play in the street and to watch for oncoming cars, and no one accuses parents of redundancy when these admonitions are issued every time the children leave home. Rabbis are not parents in this sense nor are the intended audience of this resolution to be construed as daydreaming children. But rabbis are guardians of the Mesorah, and the resolution is nothing less than a cry from the heart – a shriek of “Gevalt!” (for the Yiddishists) – that the road these women are merrily traveling on, with their supporters in tow, leads towards a cliff. They may not want to acknowledge that – may not? They certainly don’t – but that is the reality as seen from this perspective.

If rabbis cannot warn Jews that certain steps are deleterious to their spiritual futures, to the sanctity of the Jewish home, or to the proper observance of Torah – then who can? And who should? Much of the recent deviations from Torah have been fueled by the Western-inspired rejection of any objective authority. “Don’t tread on me! And I have the right to worship G-d in the way I choose!”

Indeed that is so – just don’t call it Orthodox. There needs to be a modicum of intellectual integrity in the pursuit of innovations. Integrity would demand an admission that the advocates recognize that they have strayed from the traditional path of Torah, are mimicking some of the deviations of the traditional non-Orthodox movements, and that what they are doing may be new and attractive to some, but it just is not Orthodoxy.

That the RCA and the Moetzet of Agudah should issue similar statements within days of each other should be cause for at least a second thought on the part of the proponents herein. To be sure, the advocates and feminists will dismiss it as a sign of Orthodoxy’s “turn to the right,” that hoary but meaningless cliché. Could there be another possibility, maybe, just maybe? Can you consider, just for a moment, that maybe these rabbis and spiritual leaders – representing the overwhelming majority of the Orthodox world – genuinely consider these deviations as heresy? Perhaps proponents – and certainly the fence-sitters – should entertain that possibility.

As I have said for years, one of the considerations that make such statements painful for our side is that so many of the proponents of heterodoxy are nice people, they mean well, and are sincere in their pursuit of change within the Torah world. They have much passion and enthusiasm for what they do and for what they believe, and passion and enthusiasm are precious commodities in Jewish life. Feelings are wonderful sensations, but the strongest feelings do not change the substance of the policies or programs. They remain outside the Torah framework. The founders of the non-Orthodox movements were also passionate people, sincere in their belief that their “modernization” of Jewish law would save generations of Jews from assimilation. That they failed miserably in that quest should concern the proponents of “Open Orthodoxy,” who seem to be doing the exact same thing the non-Orthodox did a century ago and hoping this time for different result (remember Einstein’s dictum…).

Much of the reaction has been typical of the ideological true believer, doubling down on their approach without the slightest bit of introspection. In some circles, it has been distinctly modern, if not a little childish – appeals to Facebook, social media, satire, scorn, obloquy, and maledictions. (Are there people who really believe that Facebook “likes” and petitions are part of the methodology of psak?) To accuse rabbis who reject female ordination of being “sexist” is, to say the least, both unsophisticated and unbecoming. Surely proponents can do better, and it might help if they looked a little beyond themselves and even beyond the secular, progressive feminist narrative that seems to animate many of them. No more proof of that assertion is needed than merely noting that non-Orthodox female rabbis have been honored guests at the Maharat ordination ceremonies.

No one on our side of the divide, as far as I know, has ever responded to these issues without careful consideration of what is permitted and forbidden, what is desirable or undesirable. It should worry advocates that the Torah world – both men and women – vehemently oppose what they are doing. It should worry advocates that Nechama Leibowitz z”l would have been disgusted and horrified by what they are doing, not to mention the Rav z”l. This whole issue is viewed by many through the prism of feminism. They sit in judgment of the Torah itself and adjudicate what comports with feminist doctrine and what must be discarded. How sad. I was a student of Nechama Leibowitz (and not a very good one, I concede) in the 1970’s, and not because she was a woman. When I open her sefarim these days, it is not because she was a woman. Both were because she was a teacher of Torah who had something magnificent to contribute to the world of Torah scholarship. But when the Torah – and Jewish law, and Jewish life – are seen only as vehicles to further a narrow agenda, such a movement is bound to fail.

Obviously there has been too much defensiveness over the last few years among too many rabbis in articulating the truth of Torah, as if we should be embarrassed by any Torah doctrine – as if we have achieved a level of piety and scholarship at which we can sit in judgment of the Torah itself, G-d forbid. That is one cause of the official reticence that has bedeviled the ModOs for years already.  Some purported leaders were intimidated into silence. But the core division today in Jewish life is between two groups, one that loves the Torah and sees it as perfect (temima, in King David’s locution) and one that doesn’t love the Torah as is, nor as perfect, and wishes to change it to conform to their contemporary moral predilections. In a free society, they are certainly entitled to do that, even if the loss of Jews to the Torah family is distressing to the rest of us. Just don’t call it Orthodox.

Some have argued that the resolution causes a schism in Jewish life. Indeed, the opposite is true; the goal is to avert a schism. The schism was caused by those who decided to repudiate the Mesorah and challenge the nature of rabbinic leadership that has existed since Sinai. So, who exactly is being divisive – the adherents to tradition or those who have gone their own way?  Others have maintained that the resolution did not go far enough; undoubtedly, some voted against the resolution on that basis. A peculiar argument has been adopted by some who said they are opposed to women’s ordination but voted against the resolution because it was repetitive. Of course, the RCA also passed “overwhelmingly” this year a resolution (that has already disappeared into the ether) decrying the BDS movement – an exact repetition of past resolutions on the same subject. So why vote for that redundancy? Oh, well, consistency is so limiting.

And others have stated that there is a great battle going on for the hearts and minds of today’s young people who are enamored with innovation, suspicious of authority, and averse to any type of restrictions imposed on them by an external system. Sadly, those who embrace this attitude are already lost. There are reasons why the population of the Jewish people has not grown in 2000 years, and religious persecution is only one reason. There is another – the persistent lure of heterodoxy and other heretical ideas that mislead Jews into thinking that what they are being taught is also Torah. By the time they realize it is not, if they do, they have already left the reservation, in effect rejecting something – Torah – that they never really possessed or understood. And this happened regardless of how well meaning the teachers, proponents, and even rabbis were of these novel approaches to Torah. To read some of the heresies emanating from various promoters of the new faith – rejection of the binding nature of halacha, rejection of the divine origin of Torah, a disparagement of Chazal, et al – one shudders at the realization that this cannot end well, and we as a people will be repeating the same pathetic mistakes of the past.

Many of us still harbor the hope that the deterioration can be arrested, that some needed soul-searching can be done by the men and women who see themselves in the vanguard of this new movement, and they can remain within the camp of Torah.

But, until then, they should really stop calling themselves Orthodox. I appreciate the aspiration, but I appreciate truth and clarity even more.


5 responses to “The Resolution

  1. First, let me say how much I enjoy your articles. I can see there are two sides to the question of a female Rabbi. 1. Should the head of a community be a female, (Devorah comes to mind)?. 2. Do we really have True Rabbis today?
    As we all know True Smikah ended about over 1000 years ago. At that time the leaders of our communities should have been given a different title. My understanding is the Spanish communities did change the title for a long time. My point is, as you said, there are women who are extremely well versed in Torah law. There should be no reason why they should not be asked for advise about Torah Halakah. Does that mean they should be given the title rabbi, NO! Then again I think today even men should not use the title Rabbi but a different title should be made up (just like the title Rav, Rabbi, Rabban was made up by Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai after the 2nd Temple was destroyed).

    Personally I do think a new Title and a lot less talk about what is wrong with woman and more education on what is aloud to be done by women within Torah Halakah would help make them feel more part of the community. As an example: does the “Frum Halakah” world promote a women’s minyan? To say the least it would not be easy to do, however I’m sure ” where there is a will there is a way”.

    My point is, it appears to me women just want to play more of a part in Jewish life. So, we have a choice, we can put up a wall or we can build a bridge. Just like what was done with men when the enlightenment movement started and men left Shul for the secular world. The Yamakah was invented, rules were taught on proper removal of a beard, etc, etc, etc.

    I myself live in a small Jewish community, (2,5 million people of which maybe a little less than 500 families are frum) however I have meet many a Rabbi and for the most part I have found them to be extremely smart. I’m sure the world Rabbinic leaders of our people can come up with something to bridge the gap, thereby build a gate for Jewish women to walk through.

    With Love of Klal Yisrael


    • Hi Menachem,

      You make a very good point. There is one thing necessary in order for what you are proposing to actually work. And that is the recognition from the proponents of change that ONLY “the world Rabbinic leaders of our people can come up with something to bridge the gap, thereby build a gate for Jewish women to walk through.” If proponents of change would come to the Rabbinic leaders and genuinely ask for ways “to play more of a part in Jewish life,” and be ready to listen to those leaders as to what they should, can, and cannot do, I think that most Rabbinic leaders would be more than happy to “build a bridge.” But until these proponents of change recognize that there is indeed a river and that they are on the other side of it, no suggestions to build a bridge will yield any positive results.

      All the best,

    • Srully Epstein

      Even if your arguement were technically true, can we please stop prentending that this is just about the halachic status of semichah? These egalitarian movements are about bringing Torah values in line with Modern sensibiliites. Do you mean to tell me that if the RCA accepted women rabbis, the next “battle” would not be for women to be accepted as Eidim, count in a Minyan, get Aliyos, et cetera, et cetera.
      Of course it would.

      • Srully Epstein:
        I did say: “Does that mean they should be given the title rabbi, NO!” Most of what you said I did not ask anybody to do.

  2. I am amazed by the human ability to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again. The so-called “improvements” of the so-called “Open Orthodox” have all been done before. The results have been entire Jewish families and entire Jewish communities shrinking in size and becoming extinct.

    Now for some links to articles about Israel: