It was long in coming but the psak banning the institution of female clergy in Orthodoxy by the seven distinguished Roshei Yeshiva and rabbis, and its adoption and publication by the Orthodox Union, settles this most contentious matter that has riled Orthodoxy for over a decade. It is now clear that “women rabbis” are incompatible with Orthodoxy and the line has been plainly drawn. No number of op-eds or Facebook posts that resound off the walls of the echo chamber in which they circulate can change that reality, and those who are faithful to Mesorah and Rabbinic authority will, of course, comply if they wish to remain within the traditional camp of Israel. That deference, admittedly, is not typical of advocates of this deviation from Jewish tradition, and perhaps that is the heart of the problem.
Henceforth, Jews are on notice that the embrace of female clergy places them beyond the pale of Orthodoxy as assuredly as rejection of mechitza did for prior generations. The similarities between the two issues, and their resolutions, have already been discussed here. The remaining question is the disposition of those OU shuls – less than a handful, to be sure – that currently have female clergy. What should happen with them?
There are several possible approaches. The worst would be inactivity, or a tacit acceptance of the situation as is, because such would undermine the viability of the psak and do little to discourage continued departure from this basic Jewish norm. Ideally, the women in question regardless of their title – their sincerity is assumed – can be reassigned to perform the tasks customarily associated with the role of teacher, and without the new nomenclature that has been more of a distraction than a benefit. If they wish to teach Torah there are a number of ways within Halacha that this can be accomplished and their talents can be fully utilized.
One additional approach might be borrowed from the mechitza struggles of the past, and that would be to officially “grandfather in” those shuls that currently run afoul of the psak, with the understanding that no new OU shuls can embark on this path and at a certain point in the future these same shuls will conform their practice to the dictates of halacha. That has the distinct advantage of abruptly halting the deterioration of standards and commitment to Torah that this deviation has engendered but the disadvantage of acquiescing in the current violation for an indefinite period.
This approach is similar to what the OU did with the non-mechitza shuls in the distant past. There was a time when hundreds of shuls that were OU congregations did not have mechitzot but were otherwise Orthodox in practice and deportment. Beginning in the 1960’s, these shuls began to fade out as a result of the enhanced observance of Torah that began to spread through the religious Jewish world. Those shuls then either installed mechitzot (thereby becoming fully Orthodox) or, unfortunately, declared their allegiance to the non-Orthodox movements, with all the corrosion of Torah values and utter loss of Jewish commitment and even identity that the latter has wrought. Today there is not one OU shul without a mechitza, and it is inconceivable that there will ever be another. This is neither a critique of the past nor gloating over the present but simply recognition that the Torah world has an inner compass, guided by the gedolim, which enables it to distinguish between acceptable innovations and objectionable deviations. Such is not only faithful to Jewish law and tradition but also maintains a semblance of unity among the Jewish people.
If shuls that are in violation of the psak are “grandfathered in,” the question then becomes, to paraphrase Chazal’s queries in Masechet Gittin, “Mah Hi b’otan hayamim?” What would be the status of those shuls while they were still in substantial breach of Jewish law? Could – should – a religious Jew daven there? In the mechitza cases, a sense developed over the decades that these shuls were, for lack of a better term, “Orthodox-lite” or even just “traditional,” the latter being a praiseworthy adjective that, in retrospect and because of these deviations, became something of a pejorative. (Personally, I still like the term “traditional,” as defining one who follows tradition. How could that be bad?? The irony is that “traditional” came to describe those who did not follow tradition (!) completely, and became just another example of how modern life has taken certain words and co-opted them for meanings far from their previous usage and common understanding.)
As there were Jews in the past who would not daven in a shul without a mechitza even though it otherwise professed its fidelity to the Torah, there are undoubtedly Jews today who would not daven in a shul that featured female clergy regardless of its other merits. That is a sad state of affairs, and just another illustration of how divergence from tradition is so divisive to Jewish life.
Most Jewish organizations wade into controversy quite infrequently and difficult decisions are generally enacted and implemented at a glacial pace. It is not implausible that the “grandfathering” policy will be tacitly adopted as the path of least resistance. It might not sit well with the current communities that have strayed from tradition to be perceived as “not quite Orthodox.” But they will then have the choice of pertinaciously clinging to a course of action that the overwhelming majority of the religious Jewish world has deemed to be beyond the pale but that they retain because of its appeal to a value system that is alien and often hostile to Torah, or rejoining the fold and conforming their behavior to the tradition of Sinai that binds together all good Jews. I pray that they choose the latter and do not deepen this schism in Jewish life.
Kudos to the Orthodox Union for making this stand, taking this decision, and following the practice of generations of seeking rabbinic guidance on the complex moral and religious issues of the day. Every mainstream Orthodox organization, including TORA, OU, RCA, Young Israel, Agudah and others and representing probably 98% of American Orthodoxy, has announced its rejection of Jewish female clergy. The avalanche of articles antagonistic to the decision and the dearth of articles supportive are less a hint of where the people really stand than an indication that, for almost all Orthodox Jews, this conclusion was rather obvious and long overdue.