(This article appears in condensed form in this week’s Jewish Press.)
It is an overstatement to suggest that the Jewish community in Teaneck is embroiled in controversy, which some media outlets have been trying to promote. It is perhaps inevitable that key elements of the story involving the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County’s new by-law excluding from membership any rabbi who hires a woman in a clergy capacity have been misunderstood, distorted or fabricated. The decision taken was natural, proper, justified, halachic and important, and done in a way that reflected respect, collegiality and sensitivity. It was a decision that affirmed traditional Orthodox practice and the community norms that we wish to propagate and teach.
No one has been expelled from the RCBC nor is anyone being threatened with expulsion. My esteemed colleague from Netivot Shalom whose decision to hire a female clergy-in-training sparked this discussion and clarification, remains a member in good standing of the RCBC. Not only was there a full airing of all views and opinions before a vote was taken, the by-law officially goes into effect this September so as to not prejudice the woman who was retained temporarily in the clergy role. More significantly, to spare him any embarrassment or disrespect, it was agreed that the decision would not be broadcast to the public. Even the media hoopla with which the announcement of the hiring was originally made would not be countered in any public forum, out of professional respect. It is lamentable that this courtesy was not reciprocated and proponents of female clergy ran, as is their wont, to social media in order to protest this obvious articulation of the Mesorah.
No one is being expelled. If my colleague chooses not to comply by September, then he resigns from the RCBC but I sincerely hope we never reach that stage. The RCBC is a professional rabbinic organization that, like any professional organization, sets standards for admission and membership. We have other by-laws. In 2006, we passed by-laws that affirmed that no RCBC rabbi can officiate in a shul without a mechitza or at a funeral without tahara and tachrichin. None were pressing issues at the time or now, but we felt it important to establish this clarity. At the same time, we approved by-laws that required semicha from a recognized Orthodox yeshiva or Orthodox rabbi for membership, and also declared that “no RCBC member synagogue may permit women to receive aliyot to the Torah in any form or in any circumstance, whether as part of the regular davening or not, and no RCBC member Rabbi in good standing may permit such a practice in the synagogue in which he serves.” At the time, nobody even dreamt that we would one day have to spell out the inadmissibility of female clergy in our shuls, so it was not addressed.
The objective of these by-laws adopted in 2006 was “to preserve, promote and foster the cause of traditional Orthodox Judaism in line with the Mesorah of the Jewish people…and to protect the integrity of the RCBC Rabbi and further the interests of Torah Judaism.” The instant decision was taken with the same goals in mind and for the same purpose: the RCBC is obligated to establish its criteria for membership as well as demarcate for the community what is construed as the religious norms that we should and do profess.
Interestingly, I first addressed the issue of female clergy in these pages (“The Incredibly Shrinking Rabbinate, Jewish Press, August 7, 2013). Since that time, the mainstream Orthodox community has coalesced and made its position on this matter crystal clear. The mainstream Rabbinical Council of America pronounced female clergy incompatible with the Mesorah. The mainstream Orthodox Union pronounced female clergy incompatible with the Mesorah. These are the representative institutions of Modern Orthodoxy. The larger Haredi-Yeshivish world deems female clergy so beyond the pale of Orthodoxy that it almost never addresses the issue.
The pursuit of female clergy has been the objective of the Open Orthodox, whom years ago I more properly termed “neo-Conservatives” for their unfortunate attempt to repeat the mistakes of the Conservative Jewish movement of a century ago. It is important for the RCBC to conform to the standards of the mainstream Jewish world with which we identify and to underscore for our community that this is normative Orthodoxy. It is. Female clergy is not a Torah concept, and no amount of lobbying, social media posts and “unlikes” on Facebook will change that. Torah doesn’t work that way.
Certainly, this topic has been exhaustively deliberated. The discussions have been held, the papers have been written, the research is complete, the decisions have been taken, and this issue has been settled. Now the time for choosing has begun – on which side of the Mesorah do you wish to situate yourself? For almost all traditional Jews, the choice is obvious.
The small minority that tragically chooses otherwise are knowingly separating themselves from the Torah world, no different from all the movements in the past that had what they thought were grand ideas to reform, conserve, secularize or modernize Judaism. They are knowingly cutting themselves off from the life force of Torah Judaism, rejecting the almost unanimous views of halachic decisors of today. That is an enormous tragedy, and one that can still be averted. The patron of a restaurant declared treif by a hundred rabbis and kosher by one should be well aware of what he or she is eating.
For sure, this decision does not at all detract from the importance of women’s Torah study or the invaluable contributions women make to Jewish life. May both continue and bring blessing to us all. But it is important to acknowledge that every role or endeavor in Jewish life is subject to the guidelines and parameters of Halacha and Mesorah.
There seems to be an attitude among habitants of the political/religious left, especially some millennials, that if they do not get their way, it means that a full and honest discussion of the matter at hand was not conducted and that “conversations” must continue until everyone else comes around to their viewpoint. That is not only intellectually dishonest, it is actually intellectual bullying, apropos for the social media world but wholly inappropriate for Torah discourse. The redundant articles saying the same thing week after week in the futile hope of mainstreaming the idea of female clergy is a public relations stunt, not a serious argument.
And the younger generation of rabbis must learn that, occasionally, defense of and advocacy for Torah requires forcefulness and decisiveness. No one should seek conflict but nor should rabbis ever viscerally shy away from it because the critics will be loud and frequently abusive; that too is an essential part of leadership, especially when critical matters of the Mesorah are on the agenda. As the Gemara (Ketubot 105b) states, a rabbi who is universally liked by his community, it is not because of his superior qualities but rather because he doesn’t reproach them in spiritual matters. (Of course, a rabbi who is universally disliked has other problems!) Rabbis must stand for something or they will fall for anything and acquiesce to everything. An organization that does not enforce its regulations is really inconsequential, and a kashrut organization that promulgates rules it does not enforce should inspire confidence in no one.
Teaneck is unique among Jewish communities for its homogeneity. Many people are members in several shuls. We are typified by rabbis and laymen who are comfortable in the Western world, have higher education, a strong commitment to Halacha, and are religious Zionists. None of our shuls are outliers, and it stands to reason that almost everyone would be comfortable davening in any shul. The differences in our shuls are subtle, nuanced – not striking or conspicuous.
We don’t want that to change. Many Orthodox Jews would not daven in a shul that has female clergy, just like many rabbis would not want to be part of a rabbinical organization that condoned female clergy. Some voices have suggested that the RCBC decision was an act of disunity at a time when Jews need greater shows of unity. That, too, is a polemical, not a substantive, argument, but nothing could be further from the truth.
We always need unity, even as it has been an unachievable quest since Sinai. But who has acted here in a disuniting and disruptive way? It would the ones who breached the consensus, not the ones who preserve it; it would be the ones who deviated from the norms, not the ones who uphold them. The responsibility for maintaining unity cuts both ways – but especially obliges those who carve out their own path and stray from the road on which we all travel. In a world in which the Mesorah is under attack, and Torah values are, as always, challenged by the zeitgeist, those who hold firm and clarify the ideals of the Mesorah should be applauded, not lambasted. Indeed, that has been the reaction of most of our community, strong feelings from a vocal minority aside.
No one wants a resignation of any rabbi from the RCBC and I urge my colleague and his shul to respect the will of the majority, comply with this decision and remain part of our greater community. If a colleague decided, either under pressure from his membership or because he believed in its halachic propriety, to remove the mechitza in his synagogue, few would question the automatic resignation from the RCBC such would entail. Female clergy is the “mechitza” of our generation. Obviously it is the domain of any professional organization to determine its standards for membership, but it is equally critical that we elucidate to our community – again, and in conformity with the decisions of the RCA and OU, not to mention the rest of the Torah world – that lo zu haderech. This is not the proper way. Undermining the Mesorah has never kept Jews in the fold, all good intentions to the contrary notwithstanding. And to “grandfather in” something that is in its infancy is, frankly, bizarre; it is just playing a game that is designed to avoid a serious, mature discussion of the issue, and a lucid, unequivocal resolution as well.
Much has been made of this alleged encroachment on rabbinic autonomy, particularly in a rabbi’s own shul. I certainly subscribe to that, but there are limits to that principle as well. If shuls in one community together ostracized a recalcitrant husband for refusing to give his wife a Get – depriving him of synagogue honors and stripping him of membership – it is unlikely that today’s promoters of “rabbinic autonomy” would salute the rabbi who violates the consensus and grants privileges to that ignoble man, whatever good reasons he can adduce. No one lives on an island, and as the Midrash (Vayikra Raba 4:6) notes, no one can drill a hole under his seat in a boat and claim that only he is affected by it. There is strength in community and this decision aimed to reinforce that ideal. But if the decision is somehow weakened or vitiated, then the Mesorah community will be undermined and respect for rabbis, always a challenge in the Modern Orthodox world, will disappear. And rightly so.
We are a big tent but every tent has flaps and must be secured to the ground so that each gust of wind doesn’t blow it away. That ground is the Mesorah, and fealty towards it helps to produce God-fearing men and women who are the cornerstone of Jewish life and the foundation of the Jewish future. We want all Jews to be in that tent, and together hasten the day when all Jews will see and embrace the beauty of Torah without grievance and are faithful servants to the Divine will.