Year: 2010

Why I Voted “No”: An Essay on Rabbinic Leadership

The opinions expressed here are my own and are not intended to reflect those of any individual or organization.


This past week the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), voted on whether or not women ought to be admitted to the organization. This was not the first time the IRF considered such a proposition. In 2008, before the advent of “Maharat” or “Rabba“, the IRF recognized that women have been functioning as religious leaders within Orthodox Judaism. In Israel women serve as “To’anot Beit Din” – advocates for women in religious courts and “Yoatzot Halakha” – halakhic consultants regarding family purity. Even without formal titles women serve as Torah educators alongside men and several synagogues employ women in some religious capacity. In fact the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC), under Orthodox Union (OU), sends married couples to college campuses across the country with the expectation that the wife serves the campus Jewish community alongside her rabbinic husband. Regardless of the semantics of titles – or lack thereof – Jewish women assume professional roles similar to those performed by male rabbinic counterparts and thus should not be excluded from conversations affecting the Jewish community at large based solely on gender.

When I was first confronted with this question I supported the theoretical inclusion of women into the group, even if it meant removing “Rabbinic” adjective from the organization’s name. I even submitted to a subcommittee my own proposal defining criteria for women to be treated as rabbinic colleagues given that no comparable title existed at the time.1 And yet despite my earlier positions and after hearing passionate arguments in favor of admitting women, when the IRF finally voted on including women, I voted “no”. My decision may appear at first glance to be inconsistent, dishonest, or indicative of intimidation from opposition. On the contrary, as I will explain in this essay my principles remain intact. My position is not based on the identity politics of gender but on what I perceive to be the role and function of rabbinic leadership in Judaism.

Oh, The Places I’ve Been

My passport is expiring in a couple of months and to be on the safe side in case of emergency I’m renewing shortly. When I was younger I used to admire each stamp in the book as a badge of honor, a symbol that I’ve “been there” and “done that” and the official seal was more meaningful than key chains or cheap t-shirts. Today I’m looking over all the stamps in the past 10 years and remembering where I was not just in terms of geography but even existentially. Who was I? Why did I go to these places? Who was I with at the time? are all questions which keep rushing back, filling my head with pictures as if I’m scrolling through Picasa.

So more for my own personal record than anything else, here’s a summary of my last 10 years of international travel.

Making Sense of YU’s Finances

The Chronicle of Higher Education released its financial report of universities, focusing on compensation packages for university presidents. In this data collected from tax records, The Chronicle found that no fewer than 30 presidents of private universities earned over $1m in total compensation for the 2008-9 fiscal year. In a public article the Chronicle reports that the highest salary went to the late Rabbi Dr. Bernard Lander, though due to unusual circumstances:

Nearly four decades after Bernard Lander founded Touro College with a class of 35 students, the trustees decided that he had been underpaid during his tenure as president. To make up for the difference, they awarded him more than $4-million in deferred compensation in 2008.

Mr. Lander, who died in February at age 94, received a total compensation package of $4,786,830, making him the highest-earning private-college president, according to The Chronicle’s review of federal tax documents from the 2008-9 fiscal year. The review, which included 448 chief executives, found 30 private college leaders who received more than $1-million in total compensation. In the previous year’s report, 23 chief executives earned over $1-million. [Emphasis added]

Aside from Lander’s compensation numbers, the other point of interest is the financial state of Yeshiva University. According to The Chronicle’s numbers (available upon registration):

Institution2008-9 Institution revenues2008-9 Institution ExpendituresEmployee2008-9 Total compensation package
RU/VHYeshiva University$541,179,646$722,192,458Richard M. Joel



First note the “Carnegie classification” field in the table. According to The Chronicle YU’s designation is as follows:

Research Universities
Included among these institutions are those that award at least 20 doctoral degrees per year (excluding doctoral-level degrees that allow recipients to enter professional practice, such as the J.D. or M.D.). Research institutions, which are differentiated based on an explicit measure of their amount of research activity, are divided into three categories: Research universities (very high research activity); Research universities (high research activity); and Doctoral/Research universities.

The Chronicle considers YU to be a “Research University” of “Very High Research Activity.” Thus it is important to consider how YU compares to other institutions in this class, regardless of the accuracy of this designation (i.e. stop laughing).

Furthermore, in the 2008-9 fiscal year, YU ran a deficit of $181,012,812. This number may be misleading due to the Madoff scandal in that funding which was supposed to have come from now depleted endowments would have to be charged directly against revenues.

Finally in considering President Richard Joel’s $1,211,429 compensation (apologies if the number got cut off in the table), it is important to consider the entire package of benefits. In President Joel’s case this would likely include housing, driver, health insurance (non-trivial expense) and other perks which might have previously not been included in the total value.

Also consider how other universities fared during this same year:

InstitutionRevenueExpendituresTotal NetPresident’s Compensation<
Brandeis University$289,873,136$338,603,908-$48,730,772$830,643
Columbia University$3,088,224,119$3,285,962,702-$197,738,583$1,753,984
Duke University$1,634,274,136$2,294,516,114-$660,241,978$824,755
Harvard University-$2,524,933,646 [sic]1$3,991,293,191-$6,516,226,837$822,011
New York University$2,970,318,554$3,142,484,709-$172,166,155$1,366,878
Princeton University$2,396,611,800$1,325,636,000$1,070,975,800$881,151
Stanford University$2,231,172,246$3,394,846,813-$1,163,674,567$1,091,589
University of Chicago$1,680,383,914$2,032,554,291-$352,170,377$1,162,213
Yale University$2,687,725,962$2,801,521,857-$113,795,895$1,530,008

In making such comparisons, keep in mind the following

  1. Compensation packages are usually contractually defined in advance and not a percentage of a university’s profits.
  2. Responsibilities of the position will vary based on institution, compensation may vary accordingly.
  3. The resources of each university also vary greatly, some presidents have more to work with than others.

1. I don’t know why they listed Harvard as having negative revenues, but I’m just copying/pasting what I found.

Using Facebook For Jewish Dating

It’s no secret that people have been using Facebook not only to (re)connect with existing friends, but to make new ones, usually based on mutual acquaintances. Given sensationalist news stories1 about the worst that can happen from Facebook, some are reluctant to friend anyone they don’t know personally, just as they would not immediately share personal feelings with random strangers.

But the Orthodox Jewish social world is driven very much through intermediaries. Upon first meeting someone, it’s normal for people to play “Jewish Geography to see if there are any mutual acquaintances. Additionally, many Jews will infer an individual’s basic character traits based on where a person lives or went to school, fairly or unfairly relying on internal cultural stereotypes. In the realm of Jewish dating, I’d guess that most people are set up either through professional shadchanim or mutual friends, intermediaries who ideally know both individuals personally.

While there are in fact several shidduch groups on Facebook geared specifically towards setting up members, I’m curious how many times people use Facebook to set up two mutual friends, or at least find mutual friends on their own and ask for assistance. For example, at this time I have 1,258 friends (I started on the site back in 2004), and many of those people comment on various posts and links such that we get some great discussions going. Or someone may see that I commented on someone else’s post and will follow the link etc. The point is it’s very easy to peruse someone’s social network, either stalkery actively or just through normal usage.

So my question is, to what extent are people using FB for online Jewish dating, given that people often put up more current pictures and share more of their personalities than they do on most dating sites? I’d guess the risk of meeting a creep would be just about the same and you’d have the independent verification of a mutual friend.

It seems so obvious I think I’m missing something.

Update: Turns out there’s already a website geared to such things:

1. And this is all from the past month.

Divine Providence, Free Will, and Ramban’s Paradox

In Jewish theology there are two essential yet contradictory doctrines: divine providence, defined for now as God’s active participation in the world, and free will, man’s ability to make his own decisions. The tension should be obvious, that any action or event taken by man is either the result of God’s direction as part of a divine plan, or that we as humans have the ability to make our own decisions and thus face natural consequences.1 The more one of these doctrines is emphasized the other is diminished.

These competing interests can sometimes form theological paradoxes, as we discussed in a class I gave last night on Elections in Judaism, particularly in the thought of Ramban.

Jewish Law vs. Jewish Policy

One of the most important distinctions to make as a Rabbi is the distinction between halakha or Jewish law, and public policy. The difference is that Jewish Law, defined in terms of obligations and prohibitions, is binding on all Jews at all times. Decisions of Jewish Policy on the other hand are subjective, usually in the hands of community leaders. As such, these decisions cannot be imposed on every Jewish community since not only is there no such authoritative body, but each community will have its own needs and appropriate practices and customs.

If the above seems like an oversimplification, I refer you to my personal hashkafa series, however it should suffice for today’s post. I recently received an email from The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) responding to a recent statement by the Orthodox Union (OU) on the issue of women leading Kabbalat Shabbat services for men. The OU’s statement is simple enough:

With regard to the matter of a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat services before an audience of men and women, the position of the Orthodox Union is that such practice is improper and constitutes an unacceptable breach of Jewish tradition.

JOFA’s responded in the form of an article by Dr. Debby Koren, available as a PDF here. From the introduction, we notice that Dr. Koren misses the crucial distinction between Jewish Law and Jewish Policy:

Thus it was disquieting to see a recent statement issued by the Orthodox Union as to the impropriety of a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat when men are present, and interesting to note that the statement did not include any halakhic discussion or analysis. What are the possible reasons that it would be considered improper for a woman to lead Kabbalat Shabbat services with men present, and for such a practice (in the words of the Orthodox Union) to “constitute an unacceptable breach of Jewish tradition”? We address a number of possible concerns below.

Dr. Koren correctly notes that the OU did not include any “halakhic discussion or analysis.” This lacuna is of not only true, but necessary for two important and related reasons. The first is that that OU is itself not a halakhic body, nor to my knowledge does it ever claim to be. Rather, it is the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) which is responsible for determining matters of Jewish Law for the OU. Secondly, the OU’s statement did not employ the objective legal language of “assur” forbidden, but rather that it was “improper” and “unacceptable breach of Jewish tradition.” These statements are inherently subjective viewpoints relating to Jewish Policy, not Jewish Law. In fact, even RCA member R. Michael J. Broyde’s detailed analysis never claimed women leading Kabbalat Shabbat was “forbidden”, but rather concluded that it was a point of confusion. In other words, at no point did the RCA or OU issue a statement regarding Jewish Law, but rather Jewish Policy.

Practically speaking the ramifications are less halakhic than they are social. Even assuming an Orthodox approach to Jewish Law, one could easily justify permitting women to parts of the service for men, as Dr. Koren does in her article. However while the OU does not represent all of Orthodox Judaism, it does represent a non-trivial subset. The OU is not the arbiter of what is considered “Orthodox” but rather what is acceptable for its networked organization of synagogues. As such, the OU is free to set whatever policies it wishes for its member synagogues, and if a community wishes to be a part of this organization it has to consider the interests of the greater membership. Thus any synagogue may allow a woman to lead Kabbalat Shabbat and still be considered “Orthodox”, but it will have to accept the consequence of not being an OU member community.

This is where the distinction of Jewish Law vs. Jewish Policy becomes essential for meaningful dialogue. Dr. Koren’s article, however valid her arguments, is ultimately irrelevant for a discussion regarding inherently subjective organizational public policy.

An Abominable Deception

ואינו דומה שונה פרקו מאה פעמים לשונה פרקו מאה ואחד
One who studied 100 times is not comparable to one who studied 101 times. (B. Chagiga 9b)

One of the reasons Jews spend so much time reviewing the Torah is that you never know when you miss something or the new insights you can clean from viewing the same text with fresh eyes. Speaking for myself, these “aha!” moments can be truly joyous at discovering a new approach, or frustrating in the, “how could I not have seen this before” sense. Today I’d like to discuss a recent example of the latter, one which will have profound implications for how Judaism, and indeed all biblical religions, ought to relate to homosexuals.

Note: I pre-apologize if anyone has already noted what I am about to write. My intent is not to present an innovative reading, but to demonstrate how easy it is to overlook the obvious.

“Nursing” Women and Jewish Fasts

I received a fascinating question this morning which requires it’s own post:

Q. According to B. Niddah 9a, a woman is considered as a “meineket” – nursing – even if she is not actually nursing the baby. For example, if her child dies the mother still retains the status of a nursing woman for the purposes of niddah.1

Since women have an automatic halakhic designation as “nursing” for two years, and that Jewish Law is lenient regarding nursing women fasting, can we say that all women who are within the first two years after giving birth have this lenient status for fasting – regardless if they are actually nursing?

Land of Confusion – A Response to R. Broyde on Women Leading Kabbalat Shabbat

Since The Jewish Week reported that the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale had held a special minyan featuring a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat, the Modern Orthodox Jewish establishment has been apoplectic with yet another example of R. Avi Weiss pushing the envelope of women’s roles in Judaism. Cutting through most of the distracting rhetoric is R. Michael J. Broyde who posts his thoughts on Hirhurim Torah Musings.

Who’s Selfish Now?

One of the more common critiques of Capitalism is that due to its focus on self-interested incentives that it promotes a selfish society. While there are those who object to this classification, but consider that Ayn Rand herself authored a book titled “The Virtue of Selfishness which would understandably cause some confusion. However, the irony is that in order to compete with “market forces” you actually need to put a greater focus on the “other” in order to sell your product or goods. As I hope to explain, in order to succeed in a capitalistic economy, one must have a greater appreciation for the needs of other people.