The limits of Modern Orthodoxy

I am not here to argue the halakhic questions in play here. That ship has sailed. The idea of women serving in the position of rabbi – no matter what the title - has been deemed unacceptable by virtually all Poskim across the spectrum of Orthodoxy.

Rabbi Harry Maryles, | updated: 01:12

OpEds Rabbi Harry Maryles
Rabbi Harry Maryles
Rabbi Harry Maryles

First I want to say that Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is an honorable man. He is as ethical as they come. He is bright and knowledgeable - a straight shooter whose understanding of the current Zeitgeist and its intersection with Halacha is shared by few. That was my impression of him in our brief online encounter a few years ago.  But that does not mean that I agree with what he is doing at Congregation Netivot Shalom – a modern Orthodox Shul in Teaneck in which he serves as Rabbi. I do not.
Rabbi Helfgot is trying to push the envelope of Orthodoxy to its outermost limits. I believe he has gone too far. Larry Yudelson reports the following (Jewish Standard via JTA): 
After the Jewish Standard reported in November that Netivot had hired Marianne Novak to be a rabbinic intern, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County (RCBC) amended its bylaws to push Netivot and Helfgot outside of its communal tent. Novak is studying for ordination at Yeshivat Maharat. When she is ordained, she will take the title either of rabbah or of rabbi.
The new RCBC bylaws do not allow as members rabbis of congregations that let women hold rabbinic positions or internships that are part of ordination programs. 
Although it saddens me to see someone like Rabbi Helfgot expelled from this rabbinic organization, I support that decision. 
It should not really come as a surprise that RCBC is doing this. They are simply following the guidelines set by the OU with respect to female rabbis. You cannot expect a Shul that violates those guidelines to remain a member, nor should anyone be surprised that the Rabbi of that Shul who approves of it is expelled right along with them.

(L-R) R' Nathaniel Helfgot, Marriane Novack, & R' Kenny Schiowitz (JTA)

I am not here to argue the fine points of the halakhic questions in play here. That ship has sailed. The idea of women serving in the position of rabbi – in any context (no matter what the title) has been deemed unacceptable by the virtually all Poskim across the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy. The reasons for that are a combination of halakhic issues and a lack of enough respect for 100s of years of tradition. Tradition cannot so easily be discarded even if it might be seen as archaic in our day. 
Although he agrees with the OU Guidelines, Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz, president of the RCBC was nevertheless among the minority that did not want to sanction Rabbi Helfgot that way. I understand his compassion and his desire to avoid conflict. But I disagree with him. I agree instead with the three quarters majority that voted to oust Rabbi Helfgot and his Shul. 
I am sure they have as much respect for Rabbi Helfgot as I do. But respect does not mean acceptance of one’s actions when they violate organizational policy. No matter what argument might be made against that policy. If anyone has the ability to do that, it is Rabbi Helfgot. But that doesn’t really matter since those arguments have already been rejected by all Poskim.
I get that this is a difficult issue for a Shul like his. And I get Rabbi Helfgot’s desire to accommodate his Shul’s membership. I'm sure their sense of equality and fairness strongly motivates them to hire a woman to serve as a rabbi in their Shul. Larry Gross, an attorney and one of Netivot Shalom’s members dashed off an angry article in the Times of Israel along these lines and it probably reflected the feelings of most of his Shul. Here in part is what he said:  
(S)ingling out Helfgot for exclusion “seems like the bullying excesses of a mindless mob.”
…The issues that are at stake here transcend the interests of one shul and women rabbis. They pale in comparison to the larger communal issue, which is how our rabbinic leaders treat their positions and treat our community…
Never did I imagine that the reaction to the Maharat interns would be this,” Gross said. “I expected scholarship arguing against it. Instead of scholarship, what our community got was cowardice and bully tactics...
“This is not about members of the RCBC having to accept or support the idea of woman rabbis.” 
Except that it is exactly what it is about. What Mr. Gross does not quite understand is that there is no scholarship to debate here. The issue has been settled by virtually all Poskim. Rabbi Helfgot has violated the parameters set by them. Regardless of his noble intent, you cannot expect a rabbinic organization to make exceptions. Because that would make those parameters meaningless.
Rabbi Schiowitz said RCBC was not trying to tell Netivot what to do. That is indeed correct. Netivot can do whatever it chooses in peace. No one will harass them. But they cannot expect do so  under the banner of an organization whose rules they violate. Rules recently modified no doubt in order to satisfy OU guidelines
Whether Netivot has the right to call itself Orthodox is not the issue. That may be a  matter of debate. But they do not have the right to expect the imprimatur of any Orthodox organizations that reject what they have done. And they will not get one. To the best of my knowledge there is not a single Orthodox organization that approves of hiring women as rabbis.
This has been reiterated by a large number of RCA members who signed a document critical of Shuls and rabbis that do what Rabbi Helfgot is doing. Although they are speaking for themselves and not on behalf of the RCA, they are not an insignificant number. It is a long list!
What about the desire of women serious about Judaism that have studied Torah at high levels and want to contribute to the Jewish community by using that knowledge? I encourage them to do that. But not as rabbis. There are a variety of ways they can use that knowledge and serve the Jewish community without violating the directives of virtually all Orthodox Poskim.  Many of which are suggested in the OU Guidelines published a while back.
Rabbi Helfgot has responded to all this with the following statement: 
“I was hired by the members of Congregation Netivot Shalom to be its rabbi, religious leader and spiritual guide in matters of halakha and public policy. I have attempted to fill this role, to the best of my ability, in accordance with Torah and halakhic principles as applied in the context of my individual community. Netivot Shalom has always been a leader and pioneer in expanding the opportunities for women to enhance their avodat Hashem [service to God], explore their educational, intellectual and religious heritage and take on meaningful communal and spiritual leadership roles, within the guidelines of halakha in all its majesty and breadth.” 
I actually agree with this statement. But strongly disagree with how he is choosing to implement it. 
It is my sincere hope that he re-think what he is doing and acknowledge that despite his own feelings, his great knowledge and compassion - that he honor the dictates of Poskim that are far greater than he. None of whom would approve of what he is doing.



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