The Orthodox Union’s panel of rabbis prohibiting women from serving as clergy is an historic mistake of epic proportions. It places Orthodoxy in opposition to the greatest human rights transformation of the past half century — the rise of women to full equality. Such a regressive stance is an embarrassment and a stain on Judaism’s standing as a world religion.
This dignity of full value and equality was given to women in the Torah. “…God created the human in [God’s] image…man and woman [God] created them.” (Genesis 1:27) However, that equality has not yet been fully realized either within Judaism or world civilization, though great strides have been made in both sectors in recent decades.
This fundamental error is the outcome of using a charedi Orthodox approach to resolve a Modern Orthodox communal issue. As the OU board explained in its statement accompanying the ruling: “…matters of religious practice cannot be decided by lay bodies,” but rather must be determined “by a group of leading rabbinic scholars.” Yet in the two greatest Orthodox issues of the last 300 years, Zionism and policy toward modernity, it was the laypeople who took the positive lead, assisted by a minority of rabbis. Zionism and modernity defined and brought Modern Orthodoxy into existence, while the overwhelming consensus of the Gedolim (great sages) was to oppose both advances.
The chasidic and yeshiva sages expressed the charedi community’s decision to stay out of the swift currents of modern history in order to protect their religious status quo. They repeatedly proclaimed that Modern Orthodox participation in Zionism and modern culture was a grave sin. But the lay leadership and the rabbinic pioneers held their ground. Had the Modern Orthodox accepted those prohibitions, Judaism and the Jewish people would not have survived the catastrophe of the Holocaust and the triumph of modernization throughout the world. The same wisdom and courage is needed to advance the women’s issue.
The OU’s rabbinic panel claims to uphold that “…the Torah affirms the absolute equal value of men and women as individuals and as ovdei haShem [servants of God]…” The panel failed to grasp the contradiction. Rabbinic ordination is universally given for mastering a certain body of Torah knowledge, and the leadership title authorizes new rabbis to rule on religious questions, educate, and counsel people. When women master these exact requirements but are denied the title or role solely because of their gender, they are being treated as unequal. Actions speak louder than words.
The rabbinic panel asserts that it is solely because of Judaism’s strong emphasis on role differentiation that they deny women’s right to be rabbis. They quote “our Rebbe,” the great Modern Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in explaining the different religious activities of men and women on this basis. He says that role differentiation “contradicts the perverse notion that Judaism regards woman as being inferior to man.”
But the rabbinic panel failed to report Soloveitchik’s full statement, which contradicts them. He wrote that the proof of male and female “equal worthiness before God” is that “both bear His image…both may be ‘called to the colors’ to assume leadership roles, as history-makers, as God’s messengers. Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Esther, and many others…were elected by Providence as shelichay hakel, His emissaries, when great problems were to be overcome.” Was there ever a time as now, with the great risk of assimilation, when women’s learning and teaching capabilities are so needed?
The OU board’s approval of this regressive policy was an act of reckless endangerment. It has taken the most widespread and trusted seal of kashrut — the OU — and associated it with a socially backward attitude toward women. This mistake is a great pity because there have been great advances for women’s roles in Orthodoxy in recent years.
What is to be done? The OU should acknowledge what is widely known — that internationally respected Orthodox scholars and rabbis, including Daniel Sperber, Shlomo Riskin, Avi Weiss, Daniel Landes, Herzl Hefter, and others, have given ordination or clergy functions to women with great achievements. Beit Hillel, an association of Modern Orthodox rabbis in Israel, has accepted such women to full membership as has the (Orthodox) International Rabbinic Fellowship. Leading Orthodox synagogues have hired such women and have been served and inspired by them.
The OU should determine that the panel’s findings were an advisory opinion, available to all congregations wishing to follow that path. Those congregations that choose to follow a more progressive option have a solid halachic basis and can follow their community custom. Let all the communities explore and decide on this issue. Undoubtedly what will emerge is pluralism in Orthodoxy, which will widen its appeal. This course correction will meaningfully increase Orthodoxy’s ability to serve the whole Jewish people — in personnel, role models, and communal example.