Is the Orthodox Union (OU), with its some 400 member congregations in the United States, maintaining Judaism by banning women from holding rabbinic positions, or is it doing injustice to our faith and committing denominational suicide? A number of women already act as rabbis among OU constituents.
Will the ban cause a rift or will it reaffirm commitment to Halachah in modern Orthodoxy?
There’s no need to ask why female rabbis would appal haredim. In a society where men refuse to sit next to women in public places or hear women sing, the thought of having women lead worship services or teach Torah must seem absurd. The ultra-Orthodox world is ruled by the oft-quoted twist of a talmudic dictum by the Hatam Sofer (Moses Schreiber 1762-1839) that everything new is forbidden by the Torah.
The modern Orthodoxy that the OU represents has distanced itself from that formula. But in its efforts to be contemporary and relevant, it cannot claim to reflect 21st-century realities without granting women equal rights. To fail to do so is to slide back to obscurantism.
The OU’s decision prompted professor Sara Horowitz of Toronto’s York University, herself a force in Jewish life in Canada and beyond, to write in this paper that “their pronouncement denigrates the women who have dedicated themselves to Jewish religious leadership and the communities that look up to them.”
Rabbi Avi Weiss, an Orthodox rabbi from New York and creator of modern Orthodox rabbinic school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, also founded a corresponding institution for Orthodox women, Yeshivat Maharat, where many of the women now serving modern Orthodox congregations were ordained.
‘In a society where men refuse to sit next to women in public places or hear women sing, the thought of having women lead worship services or teach Torah must seem absurd’
Rabbi Weiss’ influence is also felt in Canada. Adam Scheier, the senior rabbi of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal and a graduate of Chovevei Torah, serves on the advisory board of the women’s yeshiva, as does Daniel Held, the executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. Several graduates of Yeshivat Maharat are working in Canada.
In this context, it seems legitimate to surmise that Canadian congregations that had been part of the North American Conservative movement are doing an injustice to their denomination in its commitment to gender equality by keeping women out of their synagogues.
Of course, Jewish denominations aren’t alone in their struggle between what they see as fidelity to tradition and the realities of contemporary life. I recently attended a festive service to mark the 70th anniversary of a friend’s membership in a Catholic religious order for women. To be able to celebrate the event, the convent had to bring in a male priest from another city to officiate.
Reform Judaism all over the world has been reinvigorated since it began to ordain women some 45 years ago. Thus, though the Israeli daily Ha’aretz in a report last month ascribed the progress of Reform Judaism in Canada to its focus on social justice, I believe that another, perhaps more important, reason is the work of female rabbis in leading congregations in Toronto and Montreal. In fact, most of the rabbis that the article cited are women.
Throughout my years at Holy Blossom Temple, we tried, and mostly succeeded, to make sure there would be female rabbis on our team. Rabbi Yael Splansky, the current senior rabbi, has been with the congregation since 1998. Much of the present vitality of the community she leads is due to her efforts and the efforts of other women, lay and professional, working with her.
The same can also be said about countless Conservative and Reform synagogues in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
I firmly believe that female rabbis have helped bring non-Orthodox Judaism to the centre of Jewish life. They can do the same for other denominations if the men in power will let them. The future of modern Orthodoxy may depend on it.