In a landmark proclamation, the Orthodox Union, which serves as the largest umbrella organization of Orthodox synagogues (including Modern Orthodox synagogues) in North America, has stated unequivocally that women may not serve in clergy roles.
OU leadership convened a team - the "Rabbinic Panel" - comprised of seven roshei yeshiva (deans) and rabbinic faculty from Yeshiva University, which issued a very detailed halakhic ruling on the subject, which the OU thereupon adopted as policy. Both the OU proclamation and the Rabbinic Panel's ruling glowingly extolled the rich contributions that women make to Torah life, but the most notable portions of their statements articulated the disallowance of female clergy.
The Rabbinic Panel's ruling was based on several factors, expressive of both halakhic precedent and formulated halakha, and was presented exhaustively, with sources and precise halakhic logic. The ruling drew extensively from the opinions of the late Torah luminary Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University, whose legacy has been challenged and at times misrepresented by those who spurn his traditional approach, yet have sought to use him to justify that which he rejected.
Here are some of the salient parts of the Rabbinic Panel's ruling:
"Our group believes that the combination of these two considerations, precedent and halakhic concerns, precludes female clergy. 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...
"For the reasons stated above we believe that a woman should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position.
"This restriction applies both to the designation of a title for women that connotes the status of a clergy member, as well as to the appointment of women to perform clergy functions on a regular ongoing basis - even when not accompanied by a rabbinic type title. The spectrum of functions appropriately considered as the role of clergy can be identified by duties generally expected from, and often reserved for, a synagogue rabbi. These common functions include, but are not limited to: the ongoing practice of ruling on a full-range of halakhic matters, officiating at religiously significant life-cycle events, (e.g. brit milah, baby naming, bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, weddings and funerals), the regular practice of delivering sermons from the pulpit during services, presiding over or “leading services” at a minyan and formally serving as the synagogue’s primary religious mentor, teacher, and spiritual guide.
"While a synagogue rabbi performs myriad functions, it is these common functions most often performed by a rabbi that characterize his role as the synagogue’s formal religious leader. The gamut of rabbinical responsibilities has evolved over time, adapting to the needs of each generation and locale. Nonetheless, the designated role of spiritual synagogue leader can be identified through the prevailing rabbinic duties...
"Significant differences exist between the clergy functions outlined above and the role of a yoetzet (on ritual purity, ed.). Yoatzot distinguish themselves from female clergy because, as their title implies, yoatzot advise, rather than issue novel rulings or decisions in disputed matters, and they do not perform other rabbinic functions. They specialize in a limited area of halakhah - an area that is most relevant to women and where tzniyut is essential - and function outside the context of prayer services.
"We do not have a consensus opinion with regard to all of the halakhic issues involved with the official position of yoetzet halakhah. We agree that yoatzot provide a valuable service, but some feel that, with regard to normative wide-spread community practice, halakhic and meta-halakhic concerns outweigh the benefits.
"In light of all of the above-referenced considerations, the utilization of yoatzot halakhah should continue to be evaluated carefully by poskim and communities alike. Under all circumstances, a yoetzet halakhah should only be employed with the approval of the synagogue’s or community’s rabbis, and should continue to work in close consultation with the local rabbi(s)."
Although the OU proclamation and Rabbinic Panel ruling represent a watershed moment for the OU, as no Orthodox synagogue organization has heretofore tackled this issue, the OU proclamation and Rabbinic Panel ruling reaffirm the clear position of all senior halakhic authorities that has been on record for many years.
The Rabbinical Council of America, based on the rulings of its halakhic decisors (Rabbis Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l, Hershel Schachter, Gedalia Dov Schwartz and Mordechai Willig), already issued threeresolutions barring the ordination of women as rabbis, regardless of the title used. The first RCA statement on the subject goes back to 2010. All other senior rabbinic sages who addressed the issue have ruled likewise. Please see here for a comprehensive list of these rulings, with links to them as well.
The OU proclamation and the ruling of the Rabbinic Panel serve to reject the ordination programs of Yeshivat Maharat and Beit Midrash Har'el, and the Israeli "Morat Hora'ah" (Halakhic Decisor) program which trains women for clergy functions and, as was shown here, is in fact rabbinic in formal description. (Please also see here, a public statement on the plan to cultivate female rabbinic judges.)
The OU proclamation and the ruling of the Rabbinic Panel have not been received well among those who ordain, hire and support female clergy and yet identify themselves as Orthodox.
Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), which is allied with the Open Orthodox movement, condemned the OU proclamation and Rabbinic Panel, writing:
"JOFA is dismayed by the OU's decision to squander the opportunity to engage in the rich tradition of mahloket l'shem shamayim, conflict for the sake of heaven...This statement fails to acknowledge the vast number of Modern Orthodox Jews and communities throughout America and Israel that already have female leadership. Orthodox Judaism is diverse in practice, religious outlook, and day to day milieu. While we appreciate that an halakhic authority might conclude that women clergy are forboden, others have arrived at different conclusions. During a time of stark division, when unity could not be more necessary, it remains unclear why OU would choose to focus on such a divisive issue."
The executive director of JOFA also remarked:
"There are various ways of practicing Judaism, halachic Orthodox Judaism. We are disappointed, however, that the OU is attempting to squash that healthy debate and impose their [religious ruling] on hundreds of synagogues, thus centralizing power… and not giving autonomy to communities’ lay and professional leaders.”
Another Open Orthodox rabbi, Shmuel Herzfeld, whose congregation has female clergy on staff, rebuffed the OU's ruling and stated, "The OU should stick to tuna fish".
Open Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Los Angeles, whose congregation likewise has female clergy on staff, was eminently clear in his rejection of the OU's position:
"This Shabbat morning, with God’s help, Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn will be offering the drasha at B’nai David – Judea, the Orthodox shul of which I am the senior rabbi. As I am presently on a study trip in Israel, this is not really news. Rabbanit Alissa is the only other member of our clergy. The news is that this is the first time that her words of Torah will be not only inspiring, but they will also be of historic importance. Though not intended or designed as such, they will constitute an act of sacred civil disobedience...
"My contention is simply that imposing one perspective on all of its member synagogues, when a Halakhicly valid alternative exists, is divisive, counter-productive, and just plain contrary to the OU’s own values of supporting Torah and Mitzvot. It constitutes a leadership error of historic proportions.
"Our Orthodox synagogue, along with the several others who proudly have women on their clergy staff, will obviously not be accepting the new OU policy. I do not know what action the Orthodox Union will take against us. But I do know that we will be strong, and that we will be resolute, because that’s what you do when you are right."
Another Open Orthodox leader complained:
"The Orthodox Union is creating division when it need not exist and driving a wedge between Jew and Jew for no reason other than the incessant, vocal and fierce advocacy of a small group of activists who are intent on manipulating our communal organizations to divide for the sake of ideological purity."
What the above Open Orthodox leaders fail to acknowledge is that the most preeminent halakhic authorities have unanimously enjoined the concept of female clergy from the start, well before Open Orthodoxy began to ordain women rabbis. The above claims that the OU is imposing its perspective on others and is being divisive are glaringly inaccurate and horribly misleading, for the Open Orthodox leaders who introduced and supported the ordination of women rabbis did so knowing that the practice had already been unanimously barred by the most senior and authoritative halakhic decisors and deemed by them to be in clear contravention of Halakha. When one is aware that something is prohibited, and he proceeds to do that thing anyway, and he then complains that his action is not being accepted, the fault lies squarely upon him. Open Orthodoxy consciously and deliberately innovated a very controversial, prohibited idea, and now complains that the Orthodox establishment has rejected it. I hate to be so blunt, but this is the height of hypocrisy.
Sadly, Open Orthodoxy has unilaterally parted with normative Orthodoxy on numerous foundational principles of Torah practice, such as Open Orthodoxy considering the elimination of Kiddushin (halakhic marriage), supporting gay marriage and deleting required blessings from the daily prayers. Open Orthodoxy's divisive practice of ordaining women for the rabbinate should come as no surprise and must be seen in the context of a movement that has broadly separated itself from the core of tradition, setting itself up as a wholly new denomination. A movement that has voluntarily parted paths with normative Orthodoxy and Halakha in so many ways has no right to complain when the Orthodox establishment rejects its radical innovations. It is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.
Halakha is predicated upon following the directives and guidance of the generation's foremost rabbinic authorities. Vigilante Judaism - and that's exactly what is being promoted by those attacking the OU's ruling - is inconsistent with the deference to the generation's most distinguished Torah experts that forms the basis of all stripes of authentic Orthodoxy.
The OU has followed traditional and halakhically required protocol when dealing with challenges and innovations to Torah practice, by consulting with a world-renowned team of halakhic authorities, and committing to following the decision that would be rendered.
This is what Torah Judaism is all about.
At the author's request, we add that the opinions in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent the opinions of those organizations of which he is a member.