Today, the Orthodox Union (OU) issued an unprecedented statement announcing the establishment of a far-reaching policy regarding women and leadership positions in synagogue life. Citing extensive research of a rabbinic commission, the OU concluded that its member synagogues may not employ women as rabbis, but strongly encouraged other types of leadership positions for women. The organization noted that it has established an office of women’s initiatives to move forward this agenda, and distributed the statement widely to its hundreds of synagogue affiliates.
In addition to stating outright that women can and should teach Torah, including at advanced and sophisticated levels; the statement from the OU says women should also lecture on Torah and share Torah insights; assume communally significant roles in pastoral counseling, in bikur cholim (visiting the sick), in community outreach to the affiliated and unaffiliated, in youth and teen programming; and in advising on issues of taharat hamishpacha (family purity), in conjunction with local rabbinic authorities, when found by a community’s local rabbinic and lay leadership to be appropriate.
According to the statement, “The failure to fully embrace the talents of women and encourage women to assume greater lay and professional roles is a tragic forfeiture of communal talent. We should focus on creating and institutionalizing roles for women that address the needs of Orthodox Jews today, by removing barriers that impede women from further contributing to our community, in halachically appropriate ways. We should fully utilize their talents and commitment, thereby fostering shmirat hamitzvot, enhancing limmud torah and expanding the richness and vibrancy of Jewish life.”
The statement followed an intensive study of the subject by a panel of seven leading rabbis of national reputation, including Rabbi Daniel Feldman of Teaneck, Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger of Bergenfield, Rabbi Michael Rosensweig, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rabbi Ezra Schwartz, Rabbi Gedalia Schwartz and Rabbi Benjamin Yudin of Fair Lawn. The OU posed two questions to this panel: “Is it halachically acceptable for a synagogue to employ a woman in a clergy function?” and “What is the broadest spectrum of professional roles within a synagogue that may be performed by a woman?” The rabbinic panel responded with a 17-page study that explores the reasons underlying its nuanced conclusions.
The OU’s action followed a resolution by the Rabbinical Council of America, which was passed last winter, forbidding its member rabbis from ordaining a woman as clergy. At that point, the OU appointed a committee to determine a process on how to address the issue of female clergy in the organization’s member synagogues. This committee of lay leaders selected the panel of rabbis to whom it presented the questions. The OU explained that the committee chose rabbis “each enjoying an exceptional national reputation for scholarship and integrity, a significant, recognized talmid chacham; individuals to whom large segments of our communities’ rabbis routinely turn for psak on issues of significance and who have, as a consequence, dealt with national issues in communities both large and small, and both homogeneous in and heterogeneous in hashkafa.” Many of these scholars are also pulpit rabbis.
Over the summer, the OU invited comment from a number of community leaders—men and women—so the rabbis would hear different perspectives on the issues. The rabbis reportedly heard from a wide array of women on the topic, though the OU did not issue a statement at that time. Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt wrote an article that included quotes from a number of women working outside OU institutions, who both were and were not interviewed by the committee. The article indicated his belief that the committee was formed in full or partial reaction to the establishment in 2010 of Yeshivat Maharat, a sister school to Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an institution formed by Rabbi Avi Weiss that advocates for a more “open” Orthodoxy, and reinterprets certain well established Orthodox practices particularly in relation to women and LGBT issues, while wholly or partially rejecting the role of mesorah in their practice.
However, the statement from the OU did not mention Yeshivat Maharat. Instead, the statement addressed how women at this point have more access to high quality Jewish education than any other point in history, and how it is fitting that such women have become highly qualified and should and must be formally welcomed to work within the Orthodox synagogue to serve not just as passive learners and educators, but also in other roles.
The statement said this: “Motivated by yirat shamayim and ahavat Hashem, they seek not only to learn, but to teach and inspire others. Similarly, highly qualified and dedicated women are increasingly assuming leading roles in Orthodox communal life, both as professionals and within the laity. These positive developments have transformed the face of synagogues and the Orthodox community.”
The OU statement did mention one institution, Nishmat, the Israeli seminary that trains yoatzot halacha, women who serve in an advisory capacity to women specific communities on issues related to family purity. The OU explained the following:
“While the rabbinic panel did not unanimously encourage the institution of yoatzot, they concluded that a yoetzet halacha may be employed with the approval of the community’s rabbinic and lay leadership, and, where employed, should continue to work in close consultation with the community rabbi(s). We believe that the recommendation of the rabbinic panel that the utilization of yoatzot halacha continue to be evaluated by poskim and communities alike, is a useful one that will foster greater exposure to and awareness of the importance of this institution, and recognition of the significant role of yoatzot in many of our communities.”
The rabbinic response also clarified the OU’s position on mesorah, essentially rejecting the notion that mesorah is merely tradition. In the realm of deciding on such an important change, mesorah includes the background, reason and spirit of halacha. The rabbinic response said: “The idea of mesorah is often mistaken as a mere historical record of Jewish practice. That misunderstanding, combined with both the absence of historical uniformity of normative practice, and the gradual evolution of halacha, can be misconstrued as compromising the authenticity of mesorah. Authentic mesorah is rather an appreciation for, and application of, tradition as the guide by which new ideas, challenges and circumstances are navigated.”
In light of their nuanced definition of mesorah, the rabbinic panel explained the reasons underlying its conclusion that women should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position, invoking legal sources, precedent and what the panel calls “halachic ethos.” Legal sources include a prohibition against appointing women to communal positions of authority, a longstanding and documented tradition against such appointments, ineligibility of women to serve as court judges and a heightened need for gender separation in the synagogue. Additionally, throughout the ages the Jewish community has been blessed with female Torah scholars, none of whom were ordained. This established a custom, a precedent of not ordaining women. Finally, the concept of specific gender roles has been particularly apparent regarding public service.
When asked for comment, Rabbi Gil Student, a Jewish Link contributor, said, “The encouragement for specific communal opportunities for women seems to follow Rav Soloveitchik’s view that Judaism approves of innovation but not change. The rabbinic role has traditionally been male, which cannot be changed. However, new roles are innovations, which offer great opportunity for women. Particularly in this age of decentralized religion, entrepreneurial women can pave completely new paths in communal leadership.”
The OU Statement is available here: https://www.ou.org/assets/OU-Statement.pdf and the Rabbinic responses are available here: https://www.ou.org/assets/Responses-of-Rabbinic-Panel.pdf