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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

I was pleased by the overall tone and much of the content of the article (“Reflections on the Current Debate on Women’s Professional Spiritual Leadership”) written by my colleagues Rabbis Adler, Helfgot, Marder, Mintz and Starr. It is admirable that while the majority of them have professional affiliations with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah or Yeshivat Maharat, they have simultaneously remained dedicated members of the RCA. I respect their desire to be a bridge in some of the ongoing challenges in our community.

As president of the RCA, I have worked with many of my colleagues, including some of these fine rabbis, to quiet the rhetoric that too often emanates from both extremes within our organization and the broader community. Unfortunately, some of the responses to the halachic ruling of the rabbinic panel (poskim) that the Orthodox Union convened to address the issue of women’s leadership took the form of these unhealthy diatribes, with personal attacks on the integrity and motivations of these leading rabbinic figures. These great personalities were accused by some of “hegemony” or predetermined conclusions. While both the Orthodox Union and these poskim maintained a positive tone and didn’t challenge the motivations of Jewish women in the clergy, sadly some of the consistent critics against and from within Open Orthodoxy spoke with a less respectful tone. Such approaches bode ill for our community and for the issues that the Orthodox Union and our halachic leadership are committed to continue to explore and develop.

However, I do think that the article by my colleagues warrants a response due to their unintended  misconstruction of both substantive and procedural aspects of the poskim’s positions. Unintentionally, some of their criticisms attempt, but fail, to undermine the intellectual and spiritual rigor of the ruling. The authors of the article also downplay the transparent and rigorous process that the Orthodox Union undertook as they chose to respond to questions that communities throughout the United States had addressed to them. In fact, I believe that if the proponents of these changes to our halachic system had undergone a similar process, some members of our community would be less divided on these issues.

A thorough reading of the decision and a balanced analysis of the stated halachic methodology should make the reader aware of the fact that the halachic authorities looked at both halachic and mimetic standards and practices to reach their conclusion. This is consistent with and mandated by over a thousand years of rabbinic responsa. While the authors of the article criticized the poskim for their approach toward the topic of serara (formal community authority), they failed to mention the other halachic categories the poskim addressed as well. In fact, the poskim themselves acknowledged that this document was a joint effort with the advantage and challenge of including divergent tracts of thought and reasoning. While multiple halachic approaches were offered, they all reached an identical conclusion forbidding women from serving as clergy in Orthodox synagogues.

In other areas of their ruling, the poskim either reached consensus or identified when they had reached differing conclusions. In this latter category, they identified the need for further discussion and careful application of practice with appropriate support and guidance.

Most unfortunately, the authors of the article presented these poskim as being out of touch and limited in their knowledge of the national Jewish community, based on their geographic locations. While it is true that most of these world-renowned poskim live in the metropolitan New York area (excluding Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz who lives in Chicago), these are the rabbinic decisors to whom significant numbers of lay people and rabbis, from throughout the country, consistently turn to for religious guidance on the most complex and sensitive issues. Few, if no, Orthodox leaders haven’t on occasion reached out to Rav Gedaliah Dov Schwartz, Rav Schachter, Rav Neuburger or Rav Rosensweig for a psak or for rigorous analysis of the most pressing halachic and hashkafic issues. Rav Yudin has mentored many students with diverse backgrounds and has guided them with unique sensitivity and love. Rav Daniel Feldman and Rav Ezra Schwartz are two of the most articulate scholars, with their feet very much on the ground of contemporary issues facing the younger generations of our community. The working relationship among this group generated an important, sensitive and thought-provoking document. Furthermore, these poskim are known as uniquely sensitive to the issues at hand, with an appreciation for the nuanced differences between individuals and communities. Unlike the accusations leveled against them, they have not imposed their will upon the community but have used their depth and breadth of Torah knowledge, societal trends and expertise in halacha to prepare this response. When appropriate, they have trained their students to make unilateral halachic decisions; but for issues that impact and can divide the broader community, we must turn to our nationally recognized poskim for guidance. We have seen the unintended consequences of failing to follow this path. Many rabbis and members of our community, especially outside of the major Jewish hubs, have turned to the Orthodox Union and these poskim for guidance and resolution.

The authors also suggested that a broader rabbinic panel should have been selected, including rabbis from Israel. Many of us are aware of the guidance that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, offered when asking him to rule or advise us on issues in the United States. While he did take a position against ordaining Orthodox women clergy in the United States during a presentation at an RCA conference, which his family allowed us to republish in 2016 (http://traditiononline.org/pdfs/49.1/0031-0035.pdf), his general attitude was to defer similar types of decisions to the American poskim and rabbinate.

Finally, many of us are aware of the extent of conversations that Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz, Rav Hershel Schachter, Rav Yaakov Neuburger, Rav Michael Rosensweig, Rav Benjamin Yudin, Rav Daniel Feldman and Rav Ezra Schwartz had through the public forums established by the Orthodox Union. These conversations consisted of both women and men in our community and were but one vehicle for them to hear the thoughts of rabbis and lay leadership throughout the country. The Orthodox Union and the poskim have had an open-door policy for almost two years to listen and process communal feedback.

Having witnessed much of the two-year process that led to the final document, I can confirm that their conclusions were not premeditated and that their goal was to be as inclusive as possible to all acceptable positions for women leadership in our community, even if a particular member of the panel disagreed. Furthermore, in personal conversations with many of them, I witnessed their trepidation in excluding those sincere members of our community who sought halachic ways to expand the role of women in our synagogues. They have been equally concerned about synagogues being pushed out of the Orthodox Union and the mainstream Orthodox community.  In fact, both the conclusion of the poskim and the Orthodox Union’s statement build on the tremendous growth in Torah learning in our community, with much of it led by women. Their conclusions challenge synagogues and rabbis, including myself, to consider whether we have given proper voice to these learned and God-fearing women in our synagogues.

These poskim have presented a decision that emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between laws and principles and serves as a model of the halachic process that addresses not only those items expressly written in our codes, but also the spirit and traditions behind those laws. As the Orthodox Union stated, “As Orthodox Jews, we believe in the deference to rabbinic authority, accepting the authority of gedolim and poskim, who in each generation translate Hashem’s will into practical policy and specific application for the Torah community.”  

I hope that we can continue this conversation with mutual respect between those who accept the conclusions of these distinguished rabbis and those who reject them. However, it is important to note that true, respectful rabbinic dialogue does not take place when played out in op-eds or social media. Instead, I invite my colleagues to join me in continued face-to-face conversations. We have always seen better results from this alternative.

Rabbi Shalom Baum is rabbi of Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, N.J., and the current president of the Rabbinical Council of America.