The non-rabbinic rabbinic training program for women

Judaism accepts changes, but only when the eminent rabbinic decisors of the generation back those changes halakhically. That is not the situation here.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer,

Judaism Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

The "women rabbis" issue has now become a flashpoint in the State of Israel. And oppo‎sition to this innovation is being voiced clearly.

Recently, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin ordained two women as "Morot Hora'ah" - halakhic decisors. These women had graduated from the Susi Bradfield Women's Institute of Halachic Leadership (WIHL) of Midreshet Lindenbaum, which trains women in the exact same program of study as male rabbinical students. According to the WIHL website:

Program fellows sit for the same examinations given to male rabbis-in-training, and program graduates are equal in knowledge and skill to their male rabbinical counterparts.

Ultimately, our mission is to break the glass ceiling on an academic, professional and economic level by training and enabling women to serve as Orthodox spiritual leaders and poskot (arbiters of Jewish law) for the entire Jewish people.

This ordination was condemned by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, who identified the ordination of women as characteristic of the Reform movement. In the course of his remarks, Rabbi Aviner quoted Yeshiva University Rosh Yeshiva (Talmudic Dean) Rabbi Hershel Schachter's ruling that women may not be ordained as rabbis. 

(Rabbi Aviner also quoted a statement from WIHL leadership expressing plans to ordain female "dayanot" - rabbinical judges - in the next few years. In fact, prior to an article that widely publicized such, the WIHL website featured: "Dayanut: Ten-year advanced training program launched in 2013 for women who have completed the heter hora’ah program, equipping them with the knowledge base to serve as judges for conversion and divorce. For the first time since Devorah served as a judge, Jewish history will once again see women trained for the task, and their very presence will restore – and ensure the preservation of – women’s rights in areas of personal status.") Haaretz wrote it up.The Shulkhan Aruch, however, clearly states that women may not serve as rabbinic judges. 

In response to Rav Aviner's condemnation, WIHL claimed that it is not in the business of ordaining female rabbis, explaining that "the role of a rabbi is to serve as synagogue leader, by conducting services and reading from the Torah; in contrast, WIHL graduates are not referred to as 'rabbi' and do not ritually lead synagogue services." Thus did WIHL attempt to rebut Rabbi Aviner (albeit by use of a misleading distinction, as the title "rabbi" in Judaism does not signify leading services and reading from the Torah). 

The new umbrella rabbinical organization, Traditional Orthodox Rabbis of America (TORA), thereupon issued a statement of objection to the WIHL ordination, specifically addressing the above distinction that WIHL sought to make (bolded words mine):

TORA, the umbrella organization of traditional Orthodox rabbis of the United States and Canada, finds the purported ordination of women at Midreshet Lindenbaum deeply disappointing and unnecessarily divisive. There is a consensus among the worldwide Orthodox rabbinate that granting semichah (ordination, ed.) to women - in name or in practice - lies outside the contours of our mesorah (halakha as passed down through the generations, ed.). We, together with our dynamic Rebbetzins, are committed to inspiring all Jewish men and women to actualize their potentials and contribute to Torah Life in accordance with halakha, our tradition, and the guidance of the genuine Torah leaders of our generation. Changes in community practice within halakha are possible, but only when guided by the leading halakhic decisors of our nation, none of whom stand behind this move.

 

It is deceptive to argue that the recent ceremony at Midreshet Lindenbaum conferred nothing more than recognition of academic success. The graduates were given the titles of moros hora'ah - the traditional title for ordination - and press accounts both called the ceremony semicha and noted that the recipients had studied the classic areas in halakha concerning which ordination candidates are tested. This ceremony is part of an emerging and disturbing trend. It comes at a time when others are trying to place women rabbis in Orthodox synagogues in America, in an attempt to circumvent the traditional halakhic process.

 

TORA asserts that actions such as these are void and not only painfully divide Orthodoxy at a time when the community desperately needs unity, but also diminish the already powerful role played by Orthodox women in education and community service. From time immemorial, women have served in pivotal roles in the Jewish community. The implication that a lack of rabbinic ordination diminishes their contributions insults the many great women leaders of the past and the present.

At the same time, Rabbi Baruch Efrati of the Israeli rabbinic organization Rabannei Derekh Emunah issued a frontal challenge to Rabbi Riskin about his ordaining of women, asking Rabbi Riskin from whence he derives the authority to change thousands of years of tradition, challenging Rabbi Riskin's assertion that he is not training female rabbinic judges by quoting Rabbi Riskin as having publicly stated the exact opposite, charging that Rabbi Riskin's words directly violate the ruling of Rav Soloveitchik zt"l, comparing Rabbi Riskin's justification for his innovation to the methodology of the Conservative movement, and asking Rabbi Riskin which preeminent halakhic authorities he consulted for ordaining women.

In response to Rabbi Efrati, Rabbi Amnon Bazak issued a scathing critique, decrying what he described as Rabbi Efrati's lack of derech eretz (respect) toward Rabbi Riskin, although Rabbi Efrati in no way wrote disrespectfully and was careful to begin with his respect for the rabbi's warmth and other qualities. Rabbi Bazak claimed that Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l (see below for Rabbi Lichtenstein's actual words) also favorably entertained the future possibility of women serving in the roles created by Rabbi Riskin. Rabbi Bazak concluded with this strident claim:

Only two groups in the history of the Jewish People stubbornly maintained that the Torah need not relate to and comport with the changing reality: The Sadducees and Karaites. Total denial of the changes in the po‎sition of women over the past generations is a neo-Karaite approach, which stands in oppo‎sition to the Jewish tradition throughout all generations of utilizing the tools of Halakha that were given with the intent to enable a specific dynamic, in order that the Torah continue to be a Torat Chayim - a Living Torah - rather than it becoming a deadly poison.       

In other words, those who oppose Rabbi Riskin's innovations, such as Rabbi Efrati, are following the ways of the Karaites, according to Rabbi Bazak.

He, however, misses Rabbi Efrati's point -  he is not against changes, he is against the way the change took place. Changes do take place, Rabbi Efrati wrote, but with the backing of the generation's recognized great rabbinic decisors, a backing sorely lacking in the decision to give women the title of  "halakhic decisors."

In response to Rabbi Bazak, we must ask: Were seminal Orthodox rabbinic luminaries such as Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch and the Malbim neo-Karaites for having resisted and opposed the Reform movement and related trends to update traditional Judaism? Were those who held the fort of Orthodoxy in America and in the State of Israel to assure that the heterodox movements and practices not compromise Torah life likewise neo-Karaites? Did Rav Soloveitchik's famous expo‎sition about Korach and the immutability of Halakha also brand him as a neo-Karaite? Rabbi Bazak tosses out a loaded accusation with great imprecision, leading to conclusions that he would of course admit are very wrong.

I was present at the 2010 convention of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), when the RCA issued a resolution regarding the ordination of women, which reads in part:

We cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.

Immediately prior to adoption of the resolution, the RCA's venerable poskim (halakhic authorities), including Rav Hershel Schachter, Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz and Rav Mordechai Willig, delivered remarks supportive of the resolution, explaining why women cannot be ordained as rabbis. One rabbi who would have delivered remarks on the occasion - Rav Aharon Lichtenstein - was unable to attend, so he instead sent a letter to the RCA convention advising attendees to vote for the resolution against the ordination of women. The letter states in part:

Semikha (ordination) for women... touches upon elements long abjured by either fundamental Halakha or minhag (traditional custom of) Israel... Holding the traditional line (by supporting the RCA resolution against ordaining women) is, for us, very much in order. 

This is Rav Lichtenstein's written po‎sition, publicly delivered to a crowd of hundreds of rabbis; Rav Lichtenstein never disavowed or revoked this po‎sition.

Rabbi Riskin sits on the Advisory Board of Yeshivat Maharat, the Open Orthodox seminary that grants full rabbinic titles to women. And Rabbi Riskin's WIHL is clearly training women for the rabbinate, "regardless of the title" and semantics (to borrow from the RCA's terminology). The now-removed and denied words on Dayanut training boldly underscore this notion.

The Rosh Bet Midrash at Lindenbaum-WIHL publicly stated at the recent WIHL semicha ceremony, under Rabbi Riskin's auspices and in his presence:

The inclusion of women in the rabbinic world is able to provide an opening for inquiry and understanding. The inclusion of women in po‎sitions of rabbinic leadership progressively creates a space for identification and personal connection...  

Thus, WIHL leadership publicly affirms that the program is rabbinic in nature. Of course, the very notion of a "non-rabbinic" rabbinic training and ordination program is exceedingly difficult to fathom. 

The most preeminent rabbinic authorities of the generation have spoken: semicha for women is not sanctioned by the Torah and is a deviation therefrom. Let us return to our Mesorah, our holy tradition, which our sainted ancestors, male and female, gave their blood and souls to protect and perpetuate. Our mesorah does not discriminate against women, it defines roles for men and women based on many considerations, ability not being one of them. Let us recommit to tradition and realize that such commitment is the only key for the service of God and for authentic Jewish survival. 





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