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.

Introduction

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.

The Role of a Rabbi and a Rabbinic Organization

I have discussed at length nuances of the rabbinate elsewhere, and I am aware that rabbis may assume a variety of positions such as pulpit leaders, educators, or chaplains. For the purposes of this essay I will assume that the basic role of any rabbinic occupation is promoting and applying Torah in the world whether as a role model, educator, pastor, or community leader. Thus any competent professional rabbi would must at least identify and understand Torah and for those who work more with individuals, be able to communicate Torah to others appropriately to ensure its receptivity.

The influence of any given rabbi varies based the extent people are willing to be influenced by him. A rabbi with a large pulpit will reach more individuals than a colleague in a smaller community but may be less influential than rabbis with syndicated talk shows. Then we must consider the degree of rabbi’s influence among certain communities. Rabbi Moses Feinstein is considered one of the more influential rabbis of the 20th century, but in his former community of the Lower East Side, his opinions are of greater significance than they are in other Jewish communities. For another example, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik is called “The Rav” in America, but in Israel “The Rav” refers to R. Abraham Isaac Kook. Acceptance does not necessarily imply one rabbi is quallifiably superior, only that he has been able to influence certain individuals or communities.

Collaboration can be used to augment rabbinic influence. For specific issues, rabbis may collectively sign and disseminate positions, or join together in formal regional or national bodies. But just as the individual rabbi is held to a standard defined by Torah, so too must any rabbinic organization. Consider the constitution of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) (PDF):

The purpose and objectives of the Rabbinical Council of America shall be:
1. To advocate, teach and promote the practice and study of Orthodox Judaism and to actively assist and encourage all efforts by groups and individuals with the House of Israel in that direction.

2. To advance the cause of continued Torah scholarship with the ranks of its membership.

3. To defend the honor of the Torah, to champion the rights and the dignity of the Jewish people everywhere and to help build and strengthen the religious and general welfare of the State of Israel.

4. To be ever on guard against any distortion or misinterpretation of Torah-true Judaism by individuals or groups within and without the House of Israel and to clarify through the written and spoken word the true teachings of the Torah.

5. To serve as a unifying force among Orthodox rabbis and roshei yeshiva in order that there be an authoritative voice expressing the Torah view on all questions of proper interest to the American Jew.

6. To encourage the forces of freedom and justice as expounded in the Torah and thereby help the continuity of the basic American institutions of equal liberty and justice for all.

7. To help promote the economic welfare and security of the Rabbi through the rights of tenure, health insurance and old-age retirement arrangements.

8. To establish the Rabbi as the religious authority of his community or synagogue and to rally to his defense whenever, by virtue of the execution of his proper duties, his position or authority should be challenged.

9. To help unite the Orthodox American synagogues into an effective organization for the Jewish laity; to work with and give religious direction to our recognized synagogue body, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, in the building and strengthening of Judaism on the American scene.

10. To promote religious instruction for adults and aid in the development of effective instruments for its implementation.

Of these ten points, two refer to protecting the professional welfare of its rabbinic members while eight are in some way related to disseminating Torah and its values. Thus the RCA – at least on paper – recognizes that any policies must be contingent on its obedience to the Torah.2

The IRF’s own mission statement similarly assumes Torah and Halakha to provide the underlying context for the organization’s existance.

Our Mission
Our mission is to bring together Orthodox Rabbis for serious study of Torah and Halacha, for open and respectful discussion, and to advocate policies and implement actions on behalf of world Jewry and humankind.

Core Values
We are committed to:
1.) The creation of “safe space” where every participant feels comfortable voicing his opinion

2.) Bringing together Orthodox rabbis from the Golah and from Israel to put a wide range of opinions on the table in terms of Halakha, Hashkafa and public policy.

3.) The right, responsibility and autonomy of individual rabbis to decide matters of halakha for their communities.

4.) Religious Zionism, recognizing the centrality of the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) and the State of Israel (Medinat Yisrael) to world Jewry.

5.) Affirming the shared divine image (tzelem Elokim) of all people, our responsibility to improve the world and our capacity to be enriched by it.

Choosing Issues, Choosing Sides

Obviously there exists disagreement as to what it means to define and follow Torah given how even “Orthodox” rabbinic organizations are divided by ideology. However, once an organization issues enough proclamations and statements, we can examine patterns of thought – both in terms of what is said and what is not said – to better determine the true philosophy.

For any new organization the first decisions are the most crucial, since by implication these initial positions reflect the purpose and necessity for the organization’s existence. In other words, an organization’s first priorities would be to address the very issues which necessitated its formation. While such goals and missions mature and evolve over time, the organization’s ideological trajectory and reputation is determined by its initial steps.

While I am one of the first official members of the IRF, I had no hand in its creation, nor am I in any official position to comment on its primary objective beyond what I cited above. It is my opinion and understanding that the IRF was initially formed with two primary motivations. First, to provide a religious professional network for graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) given the RCA’s reluctance to admit them, and as a protest against the RCA’s institutional overhaul of Jewish conversions in America. The first issue would be resolved automatically with the IRF’s formation, while the second continues to be a work in progress.

It is my sense that other individuals affiliated with IRF would add the issue of including women as part of its primary agenda. After all, if the IRF was formed in part due to the RCA’s arbitrary exclusion of YCT graduates, how could the IRF – mostly comprised of YCT graduates – exclude qualified Orthodox women based solely on gender?3 Thus the issue of women could either be seen as an agenda item for the IRF, or integral part of its overall mission.

Politics vs. Halakha

It is important to note that of the two catalysts for the IRF’s formation, one concerns halakha while the other is best described as social or political. For many Orthodox Jews social politics are indistinguishable from Torah, but for our purposes this distinction is crucial. If we assume as religious Jews that Torah represents the divine will of God, we cannot confuse the divine Torah with mundane pettiness of social infighting. Thus were we faced with a choice, we should expect those who dedicate their lives as shomrei Torah, guardians of Torah, to prioritize halakha over politics.

As I have described at length, the current treatment of converts in Orthodox Judaism has itself become more political than halakhic. Despite explicit biblical mandates to love and support the convert (Dt. 10:18-19) and prohibitions against oppressing the convert (Ex. 22:2, 23:9), the current challenge for any convert is not that the conversion be done in accordance with Jewish law but if it will be “accepted” by the Orthodox community. When the Israeli Rabbinate reversed its default position to recognize even conversions done by Orthodox rabbis, the RCA abdicated any pretense of defending halakha by capitulating to the Rabbanut, by enacting unprecedented national standards and denying its own membership the ability to judge conversions for themselves. With the RCA prioritizing its political status over halakha, the IRF is perfectly positioned to establish itself as a truly halakhic organization.

In contrast, while converts are a biblically protected class in Judaism, women rabbis are not. Even were we to grant women rabbis equal status as their male counterparts there is no obligation for any individual to accept their authority. Furthermore, according to the Rabbinic system we would expect if not demand any rabbi to forgo his or her honor when the very observance of Torah is at stake based on the principle bimkom sheyeish hillul hashem ein holkin kavod larav – where there is a desecration of God’s name we do not appropriate honor to the rabbi. In all rabbinic contexts, these “desecration of God’s name” refer to instances where the Torah itself is violated (B. Berachot 19b, B. Sanhedrin 82a, B. Eiruvin 63a). Therefore aside from expecting the IRF to prioritize halakha as a matter of rabbinic principle, there is a rabbinic obligation on all rabbis set aside their egos and honorifics for the sake of Torah.

Resistors, Accommodators, and Halakhic Pragmatists

The next question to consider is if accepting women and conversion reform are in fact mutually exclusive agendas since at face value one issue has nothing to do with the other. While there are numerous positions on this matter, I am personally of the opinion that given the current state of the Jewish community accepting women as rabbinic peers would delegitimize the IRF as an “Orthodox” institution and thus aversely affect any potential in protecting converts. My reasoning is that in reality the social acceptance of conversions is dependant on the reputation of the officiating rabbi (or organization). Rabbis who are considered “straight-shooters” will not have their conversions questioned as much as rabbis who take “controversial” positions. Regardless of the halakhic legitimacy of a conversion, for a convert to be accepted by the Jewish community at large he or she must meet a socially accepted standard.

When a rabbi officiates a conversion, at the moment he signs his name to the conversion document, he creates a bond with that indivudal. Regardless of fairness, his future actions and statements may be scrutinized to the point where the very legitimacy of his observance and qualifications will be called into question, and in turn any conversion which he has overseen. Far from being a hypothetical issue, an Israeli court has already overturned all conversions officiated by Rabbi Chaim Druckman. This is in no way an ideal situation, but in determining halakhic policy, one must consider the realities of the world in which one lives. Therefore in order to educate and advocate for reestablishing the conversion process according to halakha, it is my opinion that unnecessarilly alienating segments of the Jewish community would be irresponsible if not reckless.

Some may consider this position to be one of cowardice and overly concerned with reputation or others’ perceptions. Furthermore, since the more right-wing elements will never legitimize insubordinate individuals or organizations, there is no reason to take their opinions into account.

I do believe that the answer to this objection may be found in the precedents of Rabbinic responses to the Tzedukim or Sadducees. A complete analysis of the Sadducees is beyond the scope of this essay, but it is clear they were a sect of Jews who did not follow the Rabbinic legal tradition. Even though this sect participated in the Temple service, the Rabbinic sages disputed their halakhic status as Jews to the extent Sadducees are considered idol worshippers (B. Horayot 11a) or even gentiles (B. Eiruvin 68b).

And yet despite the total delegitimization of the Sadducees, the Sages modified Jewish law in response to their criticisms. In some instances these changes were combative, demonstrating a public rejection of Sadducean philosophy (B. Berachot 45a). In other instances they avoided taking actions which would invite needless ridicule (M. Para 3:3, 3:7) and the great Tanna R. Akiva explicitly exhorted his students, “do not give the Sadducees a reason to rebel!” (B. Yoma 40b). It is not that the Sages were “looking over their shoulder” for acceptance, but they realized that not every battle is worth fighting.

It is crucial to recognize that what appear to be halakhic accomodations to the Sadducees are nothing of the sort. In no instance did the Sages contradict Jewish law by permitting the forbidden nor did they prohibit that which the Torah requires. However, when confronted with their own political challenges, they restricted halakhically legitimate options for the greater good. Just as the Sages prioritized the obligations of Torah – even at the expense of pefectly valid opinions – I would argue that modern day Shomrei Torah should be willing to make such compromises.

Conclusions

Let me conclude by stating that I still do not oppose the admission of qualified women in the IRF, nor am I implying that my current opposition is not subject to change based on social realities. From a professional perspective, I do not reject the opinions or contributions of female colleagues based solely on their gender. I should also add that had the IRF vote gone the other way I would not have resigned; just because I disagree with certain organizational decisions does not preclude me from remaining a member.4

However, I am personally disheartened that such discussions are first framed in terms of politics with Torah selectively applied (at best) for the sake of rhetoric. As I stated in the beginning of this essay, the primary function of any rabbinic organization ought to be its unquestioned commitment to Torah, with each halakhic or policy decision framed and defended in such a context. This is not to say that rabbinic organizations should not engage in political discussions – that is a debate for another time – but rather acknowledge that halakha and politics are two matters, and where there is a conflict, Torah ought to emerge as the deciding factor.

For if rabbis cannot put their personal politics, morals, or ethics aside in the name of Torah, how can we in good consience expect others to do so?


1. My expectations to consider women as professional rabbinic colleagues parallel what normally passes for semikah. Specifically, my proposal entailed studying in at least a three year post-collegiate program primarily focusing on halakha (did not matter which area) with at least one year of shimush or professional experience.
2. How well the RCA meets its own expectations is a matter of debate for another time. However, in this essay we will briefly mention one notable failure, specifically regarding the RCA’s position regarding conversions.
3. Out of respect for confidentiality I will neither cite nor pretend to speak for proponents of admitting women in the IRF. What I offer here is the most basic explanation given my understanding of the issue and does not necessarily provide a complete argument for the position.
4. Case in point, I am also a member of the RCA.

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