The Politics of Ordaining Orthodox Women Rabbis
“R. Tzadok said: Do not make [the words of Torah]
a crown with which to glorify yourself” (M. Avot 4:5)
The most recent significant communal and continuing “scandal” in Judaism this past year has been the issue of Orthodox women’s ordination. It began when R. Avi Weiss bestowed the newly created title “Maharat” on Sara Hurwitz and forming a new school dedicated to training future Maharats. While this innovation may have attracted some criticism the reaction was relatively minor. But when R. Weiss had “promoted” M. Hurwitz to “Rabbah” the subsequent backlash and rhetoric of “schism” (some even from within his own community) that he quicklybacked off the Rabba designation.
The positive and negative rhetoric over the title “Rabba” (and to some extent over women’s ritual leadership ) alternated between the halakhic – if ordaining women violated any Jewish laws, and the sociological – given the unprecedented opportunities in Jewish women’s education, formal ordination ought to be the next logical step. There has already been much written on this subject from either side of both perspectives which I will not repeat here. However, the passions of both advocates and detractors have obscured the real questions and implications of ordaining women rabbis in any form. In particular, I will argue that the argument over women rabbis – both for and against – have less to do with gender and competency than of religious influence, power, and the public recognition of religious authority.
When Conservative Judaism wrestled with this question in the 80’s, Rabbi Dr. David Novak framed the issue as one of altering the existing religious-political power structure:
Indeed, the question of rabbinical ordination for women epitomizes a confrontation which, in the broadest sense, is political. Feminism is asking the Jewish religious community to reconstitute its political order. A political order consists of institutions which structure relations among its participants. Authorities are those person within the order who determine the meaning of these institutional structures for the participants, that is, they legislate, administer, and, especially, judge. If Judaism is the constitution of the political order of the Jewish religious community, then the authorities in it, certainly since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., and probably earlier, have been the rabbis. Inasmuch as women have been excluded from the rabbinate, they have been excluded from authority in the Jewish religious community.
The demand of Jewish feminists that women now be included in the rabbinate can only be considered as revolutionary. Furthermore, this demand epitomizes the confrontation between Feminism and Judaism, since revolutions always seek a radical change in the existing authority which, because the designation of authority in the community, more than anything else, determines the character of the political community (Novak 1984:39).
Based on the text of the RCA’s recent resolution, it appears that the Orthodox rabbinical organization concurs with Novak’s sentiment:
In light of the opportunity created by advanced women’s learning, the Rabbinical Council of America encourages a diversity of halakhically and communally appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women, in the service of our collective mission to preserve and transmit our heritage. Due to our aforesaid commitment to sacred continuity, however, we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title. [Emphasis added]
The RCA’s argument for not affirming or recognizing women rabbis as “Orthodox” is not based on Jewish law, but “sacred continuity.” In this statement the RCA validates what I described years ago that “Orthodox Judaism” is a social designation for a particular form of Judaism in which the society is itself sacred and the status quo is tautologically reified. For the RCA, internal social politics are indistinguishable from halakha and so a challenge to the political order – the Orthodox franchise – is comparable to challenging to the Torah itself.
But while the political perspective adequately accounts for the positions of the RCA (and presumably others), more explanation is required to apply this explanation for women’s ordination advocates to address the plurality of the arguments.1
One category of arguments is rooted in simple equality. In the academic sense, if women choose to attain the same knowledge and qualifications as men, then they should have the opportunity to receive the same title. While male colleagues are addressed with designation “Rabbi”, there is no equivalent honorific for women – even those who are equally qualified (or superior) to their male counterparts.
The lack of a rabbinic title for women also has professional and financial implications as well. Certain pastoral fields such as chaplaincies require a clerical title, which would not only limit Orthodox women from those fields but also deprive the fields of talented individuals. Alternatively, advanced degrees tend to demand higher salaries. While the rabbinic field is hardly lucrative, preemptively denying women the title potentially deprives them of financial opportunities.2
While there is truth to these arguments, they all suffer from the same fallacy that no options exist. Specifically, if the title “rabbi” is only a professional degree then even orthodox women would be able to receive ordination through one of the other denominations. That there is no Orthodox equivalent does not by itself restrict the acquisition of the title, but only of the communal acceptance of such a title.
And therein lies the rub. The underlying impetus for Orthodox women’s ordination is not merely in the semantics of creating an honorific, but rather in attaining social religious acceptance and validation for one’s Torah study from within their own Orthodox community.
This point is evident from the controversy itself. Unlike the other denominations in Judaism, there is no official regulating body for Orthodox Judaism,3 and thus there is no legal or halakhic impediment for any woman to call herself “Rabbi” and “Orthodox” simultaneously. However the communal opposition to the title Rabba from the Orthodox world was strong enough to compel R. Weiss to retreat from his position.
Were this a matter a pure ideology, based on the conviction that Orthodox women ought to be able to receive ordination, then such opposition would not matter. Women would be ordained and those who choose to accept or reject such ordinations – and the individual women rabbis as spiritual and educational leaders – would do so as their conscience dictates. However, this would inevitably lead to a controversy over exactly who has the right and authority to determine what meets the social criteria for “Orthodox Judaism.” Self-identification is one solution, but if the self-identification contradicts the establishment, individuals will find themselves excluded from the very communities they profess to identify.
The irony of the dispute over women’s ordination is that both sides are employing similar authoritarian tactics of forcing their authority on the broader community at large. The RCA could argue that it is fact their mandate to do so as a major Orthodox rabbinic organization. At the same time, no one who possesses any sort of rabbinic title has the right to demand or expect others to respect their degree or position as a religious authority. For example, a graduate of Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school should not expect Jews in hareidi communities to seriously acknowledge their ordination and vice versa. In the spirit of egalitarianism, women who wish to be ordained as rabbis have no right to assume that because of their ordination they will be taken seriously as legitimate halakhic authorities, but just like male rabbis, they must constantly and consistently prove themselves to their specific constituents.
In contrast to the above debate, the Tanna Yehoshua Ben Perachya stated “עשה לך רב” – make for yourself a master (M. Avot 1:6). The choice of a spiritual leader is ultimately an individual one, not dictated by society, and there does not seem to be evidence to preclude a woman from being in this role regardless of title. This relationship is ideally a sacred bond, and one which must be entered into freely and nurtured regularly without the burdens of social politics. Similarly, all rabbis and rabbinic professionals must remember that their primary mission is not the defense of “Orthodox Judaism” – by any definition – but rather to teach Torah to the best of their ability.
It is my hope that the Orthodox Jewish collective remember this fundamental principle so that it need not become fractured further in the name of a Torah in which no one truly believes.
2. I am not implying here that the RCA and male rabbis are trying to maintain a male monopoly on the rabbinic market for competition reasons. While talented women rabbis may have additional skill sets, they would still be ineligible from counting in a minyan, leading services, or serving as witnesses – actions for which many Jewish communities depend on their rabbis. In other words, male and female rabbis would necessarily have different tasks and responsibilities.
Furthermore, the Sages explicitly reject preserving an educational monopoly, stating “קנאת סופרים תרבה חכמה” – the jealousy of scholars (lit. scribes) increases wisdom (B. Bava Batra 22a). This of course assumes the individuals in question are in fact scholars, but that is a discussion for another time.
3. Despite self serving PR statements to the contrary.
Novak, David. “Women in the Rabbinate?” Judaism, 33:1. (1984) 39-49.