Orthodox Union will not penalize synagogues with women clergy

OU says it won't penalize synagogues that already employ women as clergy, but reaffirms prohibition on hiring women for rabbinic positions.

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Women of the Wall
Women of the Wall
Miriam Alster/Flash 90

The Orthodox Union will not penalize its member synagogues that already employ women as clergy. But it has reaffirmed a policy that prohibits other synagogues from hiring women in rabbinic positions.

A statement adopted at the umbrella Orthodox synagogue association’s board meeting Tuesday night, obtained by JTA, states that while the O.U. prohibits synagogues from hiring women as clergy, the four synagogues that already employ women clergy will be allowed to remain members without making any changes.

A fifth synagogue also employs an ordained Orthodox woman, but seemingly not in a position the O.U. considers to be “clergy.”

“Each of the four shuls has had female clergy in their employ for a considerable period of time – and certainly well before the issuance of the Rabbinic Responses and the OU Statement,” Tuesday’s board statement read, referring to the women clergy ban adopted last year. “Moreover, we are taught that communal unity and darchei shalom [Hebrew for ways of peace] are significant core Jewish values that must be weighed, advanced and nurtured.”

In February 2017, the OU adopted a policy, based on a rabbinic committee’s ruling, saying that while there is a place for women at synagogues to teach Torah, hold professional leadership positions and advise on certain Jewish legal matters, Jewish law prohibits women from filling a role akin to a pulpit rabbi.

“The formal structure of synagogue leadership should more closely reflect the halakhic ethos,” the decision read, using a Hebrew term for Jewish law. “For the reasons stated above we believe that a woman should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position.”

Representatives of the O.U. later met with each of the synagogues that have women clergy, hoping to persuade them to comply in some way with the ruling. The synagogues, however, have not changed the titles or job descriptions of their women clergy.

“We also recognized, and conveyed to each of these shuls, that a significant portion of the functions and services admirably performed by these women – particularly in the areas of Torah education, and family and pastoral counseling and guidance – fall, in our understanding, within the parameters of the Responses of the Rabbinic Panel,” Wednesday’s statement read. “However, certain of their activities do not; and the concept of female rabbinic clergy itself falls outside the parameters of the Responses of the Rabbinic Panel.”

The O.U. will take no action against the synagogues that employ the women, although the statement notes that “this determination is not – and should not be viewed – as an endorsement of such arrangements.” The group will continue to negotiate with the synagogues to find common ground on the issue for three years. After that, the O.U. will reevaluate the decision.

All four leaders in question are graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, a liberal Orthodox seminary in New York that ordains women as clergy. The maharat title, which was coined by the seminary’s founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss, is a Hebrew acronym for “Jewish legal, spiritual and Torah leader.” In practice, graduates take a range of titles, including rabba and rabbanit.

The statement added that other synagogues, while they are encouraged to hire women in professional positions, should not hire women as clergy. It suggested that synagogues who seek to do so should reconsider their membership in the O.U.

“As a condition of continued membership, all current O.U. synagogue members will be expected to adhere to O.U. standards,” the board statement read, adding later that “we intend to continue a process of dialogue and exploration to identify and evaluate approaches to maximize the participation of women within the ranks of synagogue professionals in a manner consistent with the Responses of our Rabbinic Panel, and communal needs and sensitivities.”