Whatever in the world possessed the Orthodox Union to issue a proclamation against women rabbis? Despite the openness of some Orthodox communities to women as clergy, the OU declared itself opposed not merely to the Orthodox ordination of female rabbis, but to women acting in any of a number of capacities in an Orthodox synagogue that the OU deems to be rabbinical, even if the women go by “a rabbinic-type title.” The list included “delivering sermons from the pulpit” – giving sermons!
I’m tempted to say the OU is sliding into the 13th century, except that would do a disservice to the 13th century, which saw a flourishing of women’s roles in the Jewish community.
Perhaps it was the irony of the OU’s diktat, which went on to welcome women’s rich contributions to the community. Or perhaps it’s my own strong association with the organization, which issues kashrut certification, with food matters. But it made me think back to an episode when I attended an Orthodox school as a girl. There, boys received additional class hours, beyond the regular school schedule, to study Jewish texts. They remained at school to study one weekday evening each week, as well as coming in on Sunday mornings.
‘Their pronouncement denigrates the women who have dedicated themselves to Jewish religious leadership and the communities that look up to them’
One year, the girls in my grade decided the arrangement wasn’t fair. We circulated a petition, presented it to the principal and made our demand: equal learning opportunities for girls and boys. The principal was amused. He told us how lucky we were, that the boys envied us our free time. He explained (today we might say, “mansplained”) that we didn’t really want what had we asked for. But the idea stuck, and we girls were unwilling to give up our demand. Finally he conceded: girls, too, could come to school Sunday mornings. He arranged for a teacher.
Heady with victory, we showed up at school Sunday morning. Waiting for us was a homemaking teacher. While the boys learned Talmud, we would be cooking them breakfast. We would not get close to a sacred text – indeed any text but a recipe. We were defeated. More than that, we felt the insult that made light of our spiritual thirst.
Since my schooldays, there has been a growing appreciation of women’s spiritual aspirations and women’s capacity to spiritually nourish their communities. A rich panoply of institutions and teachers offers wonderful opportunities for women to engage seriously with Jewish texts. The different Jewish denominations approach women’s leadership roles within the parameters of their respective movements. Women who have committed themselves to rabbinic roles in Orthodox Judaism – and the institutions that ordain them – have done so with deep respect for Halachah.
While some Orthodox rabbinic bodies may not agree with those interpretations of Jewish law, it is not unusual for there to be disagreements among Orthodox authorities about matters of Halachah. People generally accept the outlook of their community, and they gravitate toward communities whose outlook speaks to them. And that makes the OU’s proclamation all the more outrageous. Their pronouncement denigrates the women who have dedicated themselves to Jewish religious leadership and the communities that look up to them.
The energy spent resisting the entry of wise and committed women into positions of religious authority might be better harnessed finding solutions to issues that plague the lives of religious women, such as releasing women from husbands who refuse to issue a get, a religious divorce, or dealing with domestic abuse.
It’s hard not to become cynical about some of the decisions made by rabbinic bodies regarding women. Let me “womansplain.” Is the OU simply behaving like a guild, protecting its share in the profession against interlopers who might claim their jobs? If it’s about preserving power – turf wars similar to the conversion battles waged by the rabbinate in Israel – then trust will erode in the integrity of their decision-making capacity more broadly. This, and not women as rabbis, is the real threat.