The Psak

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.

7 responses to “The Psak

  1. As usual, Rabbi Pruzansky, this is a beautifully written, well-considered essay on a difficult issue. Several years ago, when various groups were seeking to change the definition of Orthodoxy, particularly of “Modern Orthodoxy,” I was asked how I, as editor of The Jewish Voice and Opinion, would define “Modern Orthodox.” I said, as far as I was concerned, “Modern Orthodox” was the same as any other type of Orthodox Judaism, except we said a prayer for the State of Israel and sent our children to college. As you indicated in this essay, as long as a shul is established such that all Orthodox Jews will daven in it, i.e. its mechitza meets minimum Orthodox standards; its morah d’asra (rabbinic authority) meets Orthodox standards; its davening is recognized as Orthodox, that shul and the congregation that upholds it is an Orthodox community with an Orthodox synagogue. If any of these standards are missing, leading to the conclusion of any knowledgeable Orthodox Jew that he or she cannot daven there for religious reasons, it is not an Orthodox shul. If it does not meet these criteria, it may be a lovely congregation, filled with interesting, sincere, and serious men and women, but if an Orthodox Jew cannot halachically daven there, it is not an Orthodox shul. Susie Rosenbluth,

  2. There is no question that right now, the unity and integrity of Halacha is the order of the day, but with one caveat: I would not make sweeping assumptions about what will be. Someday in the not too distant future, when the RCA, the Rabbanut and other such bodies leave the stage and the Sanhedrin is reconvened, there is no telling what will be. במהרה בימינו!
    “וְהָיָה אוֹר הַלְּבָנָה כְּאוֹר הַחַמָּה וְאוֹר הַחַמָּה יִהְיֶה שִׁבְעָתַיִם כְּאוֹר שִׁבְעַת הַיָּמִים”,

  3. Phillip Slepian

    Excellent summation, Rabbi. I have followed your efforts to rightfully separate Open Orthodoxy from Orthodox Judaism in the U.S., and I think you have been vindicated. It also seems that, like with the mechitza issue, this psak will give rise, sadly, to yet another non-Orthodox form of “Judaism”, which will flourish briefly and fade away in time.

    I may have missed something, but didn’t the O-U also suggest that there was a place for the Moetzet? What’s your take on that?

    • The OU took no position about it. I’ve written about it in the past (it’s archived). I am not supportive in general but I see a use for it b’diavad in places, such as some in Israel, where congregant contact with a rabbi is very limited. But it can be subject to abuse as well, and we will wind up with the same problem under a different name.

  4. Jewish Feminism is not unique. Throughout Jewish History, Jews have repeatedly attempted to combine Judaism with Gentile values that were popular at the time.

    Some examples:

    [1] In the times of the Prophet Elijah, some Jews attempted to combine Judaism with the worship of the Gentile idol known as “Baal,” whose worship was popular at that time.

    [2] In the times of the Maccabees, most Jews wanted to adopt Greek culture, which was dominant at that time.

    [3] In the times of the Rambam (Maimonides) Jews attempted to combine Judaism with the philosophy of Aristotle, which was very popular at that time.

    [4] “For many years [in Spain before the Expulsion of year 1492 and the Inquisition], Jewish scholars and Rabbis wore the cope – a long embroidered cloak, open at the front and clasped at the throat with a brooch – when they walked in the streets. They considered the cope an appropriate ecclesiastical vestment, even though it belonged specifically to the costume of the Christian Church.”

    SOURCE: The Grandees: the Story of America’s Sephardic Elite (chapter 3, page 26) by Stephen Birmingham, year 1971 CE, First Lyons Press paperback edition, ISBN: 9781493024681 ISBN: 149302468X

    [5] The 1800s, the early Reform Judaism movement attempted to combine synagogue worship with organs, a musical instrument which was very popular in churches at that time. Other “improvements” adopted by the early Reform Judaism movement included: crucifix-shaped synagogue buildings and “Rabbis” who officiated while wearing clothes similar to those worn by Christian ministers.

    [6] In the very early 1900s, some Jews attempted to combine Judaism with Marxism, which was popular with Jews at that time. (Marxism eventually became less popular with Jews because of Soviet persecutions of Jews a few decades later.)

    [7] In the 1970s, Martin Rosen, a Baptist Minister of Jewish birth, created “Jews for Jesus,” which combines popular Fundamentalist Christian theology with Jewish symbols and Jewish rituals.

    [8] In 1997, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) was founded with the goal of combining Judaism with Feminism, which was very popular at that time and still is.

    Why should a religious faith like Orthodox Judaism, which is more than 33 centuries old and the world’s oldest surviving religious faith, be expected to comply with the demands of American-style-Gender-Egalitarianism, which is less than one century old?

    Jewish immigrants from countries like: Syria, Iran, Yemen and Bukhara show ZERO INTEREST in Egalitarian minyanim, because Gender Egalitarianism is NOT a popular value in the countries they come from.

    But many American Jews like Egalitarian minyanim, because Gender Egalitarianism is a very popular value in America.

    Jewish Feminism is inspired by American values, not Torah values

    How a Reform Rabbi Become Orthodox (true story):

    Rambam Rejected Childless Messiah:

    How intermarriage drives Jews from the Land of Israel:

    How to Convict the New York Times
    of Unfair Bias Against Israel:

  5. Well said, though I am among those encapsulated by your final sentence above, viz., that the conclusion was obvious from the outset. I would only add this one important point, which is often not discussed: Who says feminism is all that popular to begin with?

    I don’t discount the importance religion plays in understanding gender roles, and the terrible erosion of religion among many today. Still, even with that said, we have absolutely no proof that feminism is so popular. It is simply taken for granted – just like Hilary Clinton’s popularity, and then victory, was. When people were actually given a chance to speak their mind in a measurable way, the hollowness of those assumptions were laid bare.

    In fact, the election sheds quite a bit of light on this business of feminism. It is clearly relegated to the liberal coasts, that’s for sure. But feminism is purely a liberal value, whereas huge numbers of democrats vote on economic issues, and are themselves either decidedly not liberal themselves or have no opinion on the matter. When you add that to the Republican voters all over the country, most of whom are very much values voters, you get a picture of a country that, other than a few (admittedly large) isolated enclaves, is more conservative than liberal. So its much more than what commenter Mr. Cohen correctly observes, that the millennia of Judaism need not defer to a contemporary passing fad. It’s that even *today*, feminism is not as popular as its portrayed.