“Rabba?” The Orthodox Union Grapples with the Possibility of Female Rabbis

The recent decision by the Orthodox Union (OU) to mandate that female members of the Orthodox community cannot serve as clergy has been making headlines and prompting discussions of the correct roles women are supposed to play in the movement. The OU first issued a ruling in February about the issue, stating that while female members of the community are to be applauded for their accomplishments in Torah learning and scholarship, they are not to be allowed to preside as spiritual leaders in the same way a male would be. This is especially true of a women who would be leading a male congregation, as this does not reflect adherence to the principles of modesty or tseniut. The current iterations of the Reform and Conservative movements are fully egalitarian in that women can be rabbis, perform the same roles as a male rabbi and fully participate in a congregation’s ritual activities. However Orthodox women are seen as being different – though not necessarily inferior – in this way.

Therefore, one of the main issues involved was the use of the title rabba (as in the case of Sara Hurwitz, the first graduate) or rabbanit to refer to their positions by some of the graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, the Yeshiva created to ordain women as Orthodox clergy. Maharat is an acronym for manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit toranit, or “leader in Jewish law, spirituality and Torah,” a title that was bestowed as a compromise by the leaders of Yeshivat Maharat, Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabba Sara Hurwitz, in attempt to avoid some of the controversy surrounding this yeshiva. The rabba and rabbanit titles are problematic as they imply an equality to the male rabbis who are seen as the only rightful spiritual leaders of the congregations. As stated in the response issued by the rabbinic panel, “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.” (p.12) Any type of clergy function that would normally be performed by a rabbi, such as leading the religious services, issuing judgements on matters of Jewish law, officiating and weddings and funerals, etc., are forbidden to these women. The idea that the correct gender roles for both men and women were delineated in the Torah and therefore possess immutable divine authority is a standard response in the Orthodox community to issues such as these and as such serves as an underpinning of the ruling. The OU also stated that maharat was problematic as it implies that women are allowed to be decisors on matters of law and leaders in other ways, which it ruled is not permissible.

The ruling has highlighted the differences between the various wings of Modern Orthodoxy, in that those on the left who support the idea of female clergy were disappointed and feel that the OU should leave the decision to individual congregations. Those on the right, such as the Rabbinical Council of America, the rabbinic organization for Modern Orthodoxy and Agudath Israel, another national Orthodox group, have both supported the OU in their own condemnations of Avi Weiss and his supporters. There have been books published criticizing Weiss, such as “Why Open Orthodoxy Is Not Orthodox,” by David Rosenthal and Rav Aharon Feldman, published in 2016, which outlines why and how this movement strays from the Orthodox establishment. Part of the issue now involving those synagogues that have hired graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, including Ohev Shalom in Washington, D.C. and three others around the United States is that the Orthodox Union has been deliberating whether or not to remove these synagogues from membership in the union as a result. The OU stated that women are welcome to be synagogue administrators, teachers, and counselors as many women currently are; however, they cannot and must not serve in any capacity that gives them authority over religious affairs.

What I find very interesting about the whole situation is that it has very clear parallels to similar discussions happening within various Christian groups, especially in regards to the ordination of women as priests in the Catholic Church as well as within various groups within Islam. While some Protestant denominations allow female clergy, others do not, and within Islam there is discussion over the permissibility of women to lead mixed-gender prayers, as some schools of Islamic jurisprudence allow women to lead female-only prayer services. The common issue here then I think is the divide between the more liberal wings of these traditions and the more conservative members, who feel that any deviation from what was previously done is an affront to the established way of how the communities have always functioned. Trying to find ways in which all those who want to be involved in the communal life of religious groups can so do has always been an issue, which is why more progressive denominations exist in each of the religious traditions. Those who feel that only the more traditional denomination speaks to them can run into issues such as this in their advocacy for change. I have always felt that finding the middle ground between adherence to tradition and allowing innovations due to changes in lifestyles has always been one of the most interesting problems facing religious traditions.  The responses to change throughout history have been what has kept religious traditions vibrant.

Photo: Regina Jonas, the first female Rabbi, ordained in 1935 in Germany. Via Wikimedia Commons

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