In its landmark ruling this past week, barring its congregations from employing women rabbis (including but not limited to a ban on “Maharats,” “Morateinus,” and whatever other nicknames are fabricated to create women clergy), the Orthodox Union (OU) now formally has made it unanimous. They have gone on record alongside the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the National Council of Young Israel (Young Israel), and Agudath Israel (Agudah), setting forth plain Jewish law.
The RCA long ago — and several times since — has issued rulings and halakhic statements that women cannot serve as clergy. I have sat on the national executive committee of RCA during most of the past decade, and although I never write as their spokesman but as my own voice, I can say first-hand that the organization’s position has been rock-solid. There have been public policy statements from the top. There was a massive membership vote from within the rank-and-file, ironically with opposition coming from those who wanted even stronger statements of policy and even stronger enforcement actions.
We are not Episcopalians. We are not Methodists. We are not Unitarians. And we are not the Jewish movements outside Orthodoxy — Reform, Conservative, “Open Orthodox,” New Age, Reconstructionist — that have abandoned halakha and Torah in some or all of their pronouncements and practices.
Likewise, National Council of Young Israel, comprising more than 140 shuls, do not countenance either women rabbis or those from the “Open Orthodox” seminary “Chovevei Torah,” an institution from which all mainstream halakhic decisors, Poskim, unanimously have recoiled. And Agudath Israel long ago proclaimed quite publicly and unmistakably that “Open Orthodoxy” plain-and-simple is not Orthodox.
Thus, just as “Jews for Jesus” is not Jewish, even though there are no legal recourses to stop them from calling themselves “Jewish,” so it is with the dishonestly named “Open Orthodoxy.” That group is not Orthodox, plain and simple. And now the Orthodox Union has made clear that one of the hallmarks of the falsely named “Open Orthodoxy” — women rabbis, whom they ordain, whom they hire for their places of worship, whom they admit into their “International Rabbinic Fellowship” (IRF) — is outside the pale of Halakhic Judaism.
At this time, as the women rabbis of the “Open Orthodox” are nullified from Orthodox Union shuls, there are only four left, serving in only the most extreme radical congregations of OU. In the weeks ahead, the Orthodox Union will have to decide whether (i) to look aside and make believe they do not exist, (ii) to “grandmother in” those four temples on a theory that their women rabbis have been serving already, or whether (iii) to quietly withdraw OU affiliation from the three radical congregations.
As an example of the radicalism, the OU congregation in Washington, D.C. that has a woman rabbi took its entire congregation to a Gay Bar immediately upon the conclusion of Shavuot services last June. An Arab Moslem terrorist had murdered people at a gay bar in Florida, so the rabbi of that congregation in Washington brought his members to a gay bar in solidarity. That rabbi, who no longer is a member of RCA, was asked last week about the new OU policy decision and told his interviewer that the OU should stick to certifying tuna fish.
The movement for women rabbis comes from changes adopted in American Christianity and handed down by Christian theologians to Reform, Conservative, and “Open Orthodox” groups. Ironically, the radical feminists overlook that Judaism gives women the greatest of all powers that men cannot acquire: the power to confer Judaic identity onto one’s own child. The Torah similarly defines other status matters based on biology; for example, only those born of a Kohen father ever can be a Kohen. In Judaism, “egalitarian” gender roles do not exist in theological congregational practice as they do among Christians: the man must be at shul as a matter of obligation, the woman need not attend. Therefore, the OU ruling that now places the Orthodox Union alongside Young Israel, RCA, and Agudah was inevitable.
The modern era saw Christian Methodists and Episcopalians break from historic Protestant dogma and ordain women as clergy. The Methodists first did so in 1956. The United Methodists began in 1968. When the “Philadelphia Eleven” women were ordained as Episcopalian priests in 1974, followed by the “Washington Four” women in 1975, those ordinations were denounced as “irregular” until the Episcopal church formally recognized women’s ordination in 1976. There were great battles in those two Christian denominations, and the dust ultimately settled with rulings that women may be ordained as Methodist and Episcopalian clergy.
In time, the movement to ordain Christian women clergy spread within and among the various Christian denominations. Some have adopted the revised theology, a religious view that women can be ordained; others remain opposed. For example, within Lutheranism, the ELCA has been ordaining women since 1970. (“ELCA Celebrates 30th Anniversary of Women's Ordination”). By contrast, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod still bans women ordination, but the internal pressures are stoked hot. So far, they are not budging. The Wisconsin Synod is even more conservative and refuses women ordination. Similarly, the Baptists are split, as are the Mennonites. The Christian Reformed Church began ordaining women in 1995. The denomination known as the Community of Christ did so in 1984. (On the other hand, it is noteworthy, and perhaps surprising to some of us, to note how many among those denominations have continued refusing to be steamrolled, and Roman Catholics continue to toe the line, too.)
As always happens, Christian theological “innovations” inevitably are adopted by Reform Judaism soon after they are practiced. Thus, Sally Priesand was ordained a Reform Rabbi in 1972. Until then, the matter did not preoccupy Abraham Geiger in Germany, Isaac Mayer Wise in Buffalo or Cincinnati, Kaufmann Kohler in New York, or any of the most radical reformers. However, now that liberal Christians were doing it, Reform rabbis felt they had to follow suit. Until then, Conservative Judaism had opposed women’s rabbinical ordination. However, Conservative Judaism always follows Reform Judaism a few years after Reform deviates from Jewish tradition. In an act presaging the steady downfall of Conservative Judaism, there soon began a series of reversals within Conservative Judaism, as every innovation and radical departure by Reform that Conservative Jews had denounced eventually became adopted by Conservative Jews, too. In 1985, Conservative Judaism ordained Rabbi Amy Eilberg.
Thus, the movement to ordain women rabbis does not and never did bubble up from within halakhic Judaism. Rather, it is the classic case of not adhering to the mitzva b’chukoteikhem lo teileikhu (“Do not follow in the ways of the Nations.”) It was a movement that stemmed entirely from outside Judaism, from people who do not believe in the G-d of Israel and in His Torah. Indeed, the very institution of women as theological priests and clergy always was a hallmark of foreign religion, idolatry and all forms of avodah zarah (foreign religion/ idolatry).
Judaism, in a related way, is inextricably “out of synch” with at least one critical aspect of Western values — and that incompatibility never can be resolved. America sees itself as a “land of opportunity.” In America, as the Country Music duo Brooks & Dunn beautifully sing
: “Only in America / Where we dream as big as we want to/ We all get a chance/ Everybody gets to dance/ Only in America .” In America, birth confers no barriers.
The Torah, however, differs in some matters of theological status. Inasmuch as my father was not a Kohen, I never will be able to bless my congregants at holiday prayers with the Torah’s three-fold blessing that may be recited only by the Kohen descendants of Aharon. I cannot raise my hands to bless them. I am not, and never will be, even accorded the basic prestige of being called to the Torah first. By birth, I am not a Kohen — and that is that, period. End of story. Even in America, where everyone gets a chance, where no barriers exist, I cannot ever become a Kohen. Because the question of birth tribe is not pertinent to Western Christians, they have not protested or overturned the issue of Kohen-by-birth; therefore, neither has Reform. Therefore, neither has Conservative Judaism. Therefore, neither has “Open Orthodoxy.” Yet, in many ways, the issues underlying the non-Orthodox Jewish radicals’ demands to be like Christians and have women clergy are identical to those pertaining to birth defining a Kohen.
Ironically, in the leftist radicals’ pursuit of “women’s equality” in Judaism, we find a remarkable paradox. Orthodox Judaism for 3,000-plus years has taught that it is the woman — and only the woman — who exclusively transmits the single most precious and valued asset of all, the gift of Judaic identity and the entry ticket to religious affiliation. Born of a Jewish mother? Jew! Born of a non-Jewish mother? Non-Jew! This is an extraordinary concept that sets the female’s standing above anything the rav confers, notwithstanding all the supposed “male dominance” and “male authority” that JOFA (a group of extreme radical feminists led by a woman whose doctorate is in personal electric sensual stimulation) and “Women of the Wall” bewail.
Despite that enormous power that the Torah confers exclusively on women, the feminists agitate against normative Jewish Orthodoxy, summarily discounting the treasure with which the Torah has empowered woman as bearers of the ticket of entry, the passport to Judaism that no Supreme Court can touch. Reform rabbis, meanwhile — under extraordinarily enormous pressure from wealthy past-generation founders and donors whose sons typically marry non-Jewish women — collapsed to the pressure and have adopted “patrilineal descent” as sufficient for Jewish essence. They took women’s greatest power, the power of the Passport to Judaism, and eviscerated it. It was the power that forced Jewish colleges boys for a century in America , after coming home from a ski vacation in Aspen or a beach winter-term intersession in Orlando, to remember that they dare not marry the gorgeous Kathy Mary whom they met on the slopes or on the sands because their parents will write them out of their wills. Reform Judaism expunged that enormous female power, and Conservative Judaism is en route to following suit, giving their Jewish men the “green light” to marry non-Jewish women. Only the Orthodox have remained at the fore, protecting women’s greatest power under halakha. There is no greater honor — and also profound gender “unfairness” — than the Torah’s matrilineal-descent imperative. We Orthodox men, for all our power, never would touch that because we are consistent, and the Torah sets the rules. Kiddushin3:12; Kiddushin 68a-b; accord Ezra 9:2.
On another level, the capacity to give birth impacts the theology of so much else. If the woman were commanded as is the man to participate at daily communal prayer, then she would be obligated as the man is. The woman, in fulfilling that mandatory requirement to be at minyan three times daily, every day, would contemplate the reality that child-bearing and, perhaps even more so, child-rearing interferes with daily three-time minyan prayer. If Jewish women were as obligated to daven in minyan three times daily as they are to keep kosher, a great many would justify voluntarily having fewer children as though it were more important for them to be at minyan than to reproduce sufficiently. How catastrophic that would have been to the Jewish people! Even to reduce reproduction by one child per mother would be contrary to Torah Judaic values and would have dire demographic impact.
It may well be that, at least in part, it was to bestow compassion for Jewish women, who are the only ones who can bear the reproduced fetus, that they were excused from positive commandments that are time-bound. That removes the motivation, the personal wrestling, over whether to have fewer or no children on some theory that “davening is more important than having children” — which it is not for women. Thus, as a matter of bottom-line Jewish law: the woman is excused from davening in a minyan, while the man is obligated.
Because she is not obligated, she therefore is not counted in a minyan. Only those obligated to be at minyan are counted in minyan. An onan (man grieving for a close nuclear relative who just died and is not yet buried) is excused from prayer; therefore, if he shows up in shul, he still is not counted in the minyan. To this day, that core principle — that a woman is not even counted in the prayer quorum — is a bedrock principle of Judaic belief for everyone in our camp — and beyond. It is a practice with which even the non-Orthodox “Partnership Minyans” find themselves handcuffed, impelling them to perform acrobatic Judaic somersaults
, even though they do not meet with halakhic approbation in the first place.
The role of the rabbi in Reform and Conservative Judaism differs from the role of the rav in authentic Judaism. “Friday the Rabbi Slept Late” and “Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home” were clever titles in the Harry Kemelman series because, as everyone knows, the rav must be at shul, must be at minyan. He may not sleep late, and he may not stay home. It was not “Friday the Rabbi Did Not Pastor” and “Sunday the Rabbi Did Not Teach.” It is the hallmark of a rav to be the leader of the davening. That is what the members pay for when they buy their High Holiday tickets: “Rosh Hashanah Services will be conducted by Rabbi XYZ.” It is a role that a woman cannot fill.
Finally, the confusion of davening roles and prioritized Judaic ministerial roles leads inevitably to a parallel confusion among laity. When the woman, who is not commanded to be at davening and who is not leading the services, nevertheless manifests a public role at the sanctuary during prayer, it inevitably leads more men to stay home from shul. The modern American “Open Orthodox egalitarian” lay couple trade weekends for watching the baby: this week Wife stays home with baby, while Husband goes to shul . . . and next week Husband stays home with baby and misses minyan and Torah-reading while Wife goes to shul. Among the “Open Orthodox” Egalitarians, male participation at davening becomes equated with women’s participation in the minds of many among the laity, and that incorrect equivalence leads laymen to undervalue their daily obligation to be at minyan three times daily. This problem now manifests itself in America as never before: women coming to shul while they demand that their husbands stay home with the children, missing minyan and Torah, on alternating weekends.
These above factors rarely are considered or discussed: The movement for women rabbis emerged along a continuum emanating from Christianity and not from within the Torah community. Judaism is defined by G-d in the Torah, and that definition assigns certain life roles from birth, differing from Western Christian values. People who are born non-Kohen never can overcome that biology, regardless of their advanced Torah learning and spiritual excellence. Women, and never men, define whether a baby is Jewish or not Jewish; only the non-Orthodox have taken that extraordinary power away from women, prompting a major nationwide and generational intermarriage catastrophe now rife throughout the United States. Judaic demographic survival demanded that women be excused from minyan prayer. Those not obligated to pray are not counted in the public prayer quorum. A synagogue rabbi’s central role is to conduct the prayer in which he is obligated to participate. Any changing of the gender roles within the home leads men to stop attending their obligatory prayers at a daily frequency that Jewish law requires of them.
These all are secondary sociological and theological considerations as to why women cannot be rabbis in a Torah-based construct. They do not replace the primacy of even more explicit halakhic reasons. Nevertheless, they are germane to the conversation that now finds all streams and institutions of Orthodox Judaism in Americaunanimously on record as prohibiting women as clergy.
All that will remain is for the Orthodox Union to decide how to handle the four outlier radical-left congregations with Women Rabbis, who stand outside the more-than-300 OU shuls in America.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, an attorney and adjunct professor of law, is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County, California and holds prominent leadership roles in several national rabbinic and other Jewish organizations. He has been Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review, clerked for the Hon. Danny J. Boggs in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and served for most of the past decade on the National Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His writings appear at www.rabbidov.com