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.