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

The OU Rabbinic Council has ruled, in accordance with Jewish Law, long-standing tradition, and what it calls the "broader context of Torah values," that women cannot formally serve as Rabbis.

The seven leading rabbis that comprise the OU Rabbinic Council outlined their ruling in a detailed 17-page exposition. Though it drew opposition from some feminist and liberal-leaning Orthodox groups, it is actually the accepted practice in the vast majority of Orthodox synagogues in the United States, and in virtually all of them in Israel and elsewhere.

The seven rabbis signed on the ruling are Rabbi Daniel Feldman, Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger, Rabbi Michael Rosensweig, Rabbi Ezra Schwartz, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, and Rabbi Benjamin Yudin.

The ruling uniquely begins with an outline of halakhic methodology, listing and explaining the three primary factors that may be considered by a halakhic decisor when developing a ruling: 1. legal sources, 2. precedent, and 3. a relevant halakhic ethos - the broader context of Torah values:

"Throughout our history, these values have been integrated into the technical, practical resolution of complex halakhic issues… A weltanschauung emerges from the totality of the vast sea of halakhah and Torah thought, and this collective worldview serves as the basis of our avodat Hashem (service of G-d)."

The writers further explain that Mesorah, generally translated as "tradition," is "often mistaken as a mere historical record of Jewish practice… Authentic mesorah is rather an appreciation for, and application of, tradition as the guide by which new ideas, challenges and circumstances are navigated."

In this light, they continue, "When studying a proposed innovation, in addition to considering its immediate implications and whether it is consistent with Torah principles, attention must be paid to the potential impact of such changes on generations through the distant future. Each and every generation confronts an ever-changing social, cultural and technical environment. Halakhic leadership must, therefore, continually probe whether proposed changes and accommodations will enable the community to advance the objectives of an authentic Torah ethos, or simply accommodate prevailing values and expectations, often in opposition to the Torah worldview."

The influence of the number-one rabbinical figure in the Modern Orthodox world in the United States, the late Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, is felt throughout the ruling. Explaining that a commitment to follow Torah ethos and Halakhah "requires faith, commitment, and a willingness to embrace timeless principles - even when counter-cultural and incompatible with prevailing societal values," the rabbis quote Rabbi Soloveitchik: “It is very important [that] we must not feel … an inferiority complex, and because of that complex yield to the … transient, passing charm of modern political or ideological [logic]… There is no need for apology; we should have pride in our mesorah, in our heritage.”

From a legal standpoint, the ruling relies on Maimonides, who states, based on the Talmud, that the Biblical prohibition on a woman being appointed King of Israel extends to any position of formal communal authority. Furthermore, Rabbi Soloveitchik is again quoted as assigning great significance in this respect to the accepted ban on a woman being appointed as community shochet (ritual slaughterer). Finally, the ruling states, the sanctity of the synagogue demands an enhanced level of modesty, as seen in the requirement of a mechitzah, incompatible with a woman presiding over a male quorum.

It is also noted that women’s Torah scholarship is not an entirely new phenomenon – yet nonetheless, women scholars impacted and even guided their communities without the formality of rabbinic titles or ordination. The notion of "rabbinic ordination" for women was conceivable in the past, yet the continuing mesorah, clearly, dictated against it.

"Given the status quo that we feel is meaningful and intentional, the burden of halakhic proof rests on the side of changing the established practice," the rabbis conclude.

The ruling addresses itself to the "absolute equal value of men and women as individuals and as 'servants of G-d,'" but notes that the Torah "clearly and consistently speaks of role differentiation… Gender differences have, historically, been particularly evident in the arena of public service. We believe that these distinctions are not merely a relic of times bygone; instead, they reflect a Torah ethos - a mesorah - of different avenues and emphases by which men and women are to achieve identical goals - the service of G-d and the perpetuation of the Jewish people."

The restriction on the appointment of women to serve in a clergy position applies both to the 'title' connoting the status of a clergy member, as well as to performance of clergy functions on a regular ongoing basis. These include the practice of ruling on the full range of halakhic matters, officiating at religiously significant life-cycle events, and delivering regular sermons from the pulpit during services. They write that on matters of famiy purity, it is preferable to consult a rabbi, but understand that there is room for halakhic advisors on that topic who are female.

On the other hand, the OU panel concludes, "the spiritual growth of our community is dependent upon a steady stream of talented women both serving as role models and teachers, and filling positions of influence."