April 20, 2024
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Bucking the Social Trends of Other Religions, RCA Affirms Women’s Greatest Power

On October 30, the Rabbinical Council of America concluded an extended and robust internal discussion among its 1,000 members that had extended for more than a month, voting to implement a profound and historic action plan that adds unprecedented enforcement tools to its long-standing affirmation that Orthodox ordination does not march in step with Christian and non-Orthodox gender-based ordination innovations. Towards that end, in an historic policy statement that RCA leadership has admitted emanated from the membership itself, RCA adopted a policy that its members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not:

1. Ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; or

2. Hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution; or

3. Allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a teacher of Limudei Kodesh in an Orthodox institution.

That is official RCA policy, as voiced unequivocally at the initiation of the RCA membership.

When the Chofetz Chaim gave backing to Sarah Schenirer’s efforts to educate women, and when Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik sat in a Stern College classroom to teach Gemara to women, both were acting within a tradition where there always had been room to expand what is taught to women. With external society having opened its doors to intellectual breadth, with women going to college and to university, learning thoughts of great consequence and thereby expanding their previously denied deep intellectual capacities, it was deemed an imperative that women of Orthodox Judaism be imbued with the depth of Jewish culture, heritage and learning. Thus, although derived in part from outside social developments—but not at all mimicking outside theologies—the advent of increased Jewish Torah learning for women emerged from a source internal to Judaism: Women always had been permitted to learn and teach Judaism.

However, the movement to ordain women as reverend clergy began elsewhere, in foreign waters. That movement arose in the modern era as Methodists and Episcopalians broke from five centuries of their Protestant dogma, and from 2,000 years of dogma rooted in their Bible, and began ordaining women as Christian clergy. Methodists began doing so in 1956. The United Methodists began in 1968. When the “Philadelphia Eleven” were ordained as Episcopalian priests in 1974, followed by the “Washington Four” in 1975, those ordinations were denounced as “irregular” until the Episcopal church formally recognized women’s ordination in 1976. There were great battles in those two Christian denominations, and the dust ultimately settled with rulings that women can be ordained as Christian clergy. In time, the movement has spread within and among the various Christian denominations. Some have revised their theologies so that women may be ordained; others remain unalterably opposed. For example, within Lutheranism, the ELCA has been ordaining women since 1970. By contrast, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod still bans women ordination, but their internal pressures are stoked hot. So far, they are not budging. The Wisconsin Synod of Lutheranism is even more conservative and refuses women ordination. Similarly, the Baptists are split, as are the Mennonites. The Christian Reformed Church began ordaining women in 1995. The denomination known as the Community of Christ in 1984. On the other hand, it is fascinating that so many other Protestant denominations have refused to ordain women, including but not limited to the “J Witnesses” and Mormons. Roman Catholics continue to limit priesthood to men.

Until Christian denominations began ordaining women, even the Jewishly non-halachic Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism groups never ordained women. Thus, despite touting itself as “Progressive Judaism,” Reform simply barred women from ordination for nearly two centuries—until Christians began doing so. Inasmuch as those groups do not follow immutable halachic standards, but “change with the times,” it fairly and honestly can be said that the centuries-long refusals of Reform and Conservative to ordain women stemmed fundamentally from misogyny—a gender-rooted bias and discrimination. They certainly did not base it on Mesorah or halacha.

In 1972, Sally Priesand was ordained as the first female Reform rabbi. Until then, the matter did not preoccupy Reform forefathers like Abraham Geiger in Germany, Isaac Mayer Wise in Buffalo or Cincinnati, Kaufmann Kohler in New York, or other of even the most radical reformers who moved Shabbat to Sundays and banned circumcision. As Christians around them were “reforming,” they were impacted just as German Protestant Christianity had influenced them 150 years earlier in Hamburg, and later elsewhere in Germany, to place organs in Reform Judaism temples and to dress their all-male rabbis in black robes like the pastors around them.

Conservative Judaism had been founded initially to reverse the radical departures of Reform, hence its anomalous name. Early Conservative Judaism leaders a hundred years ago, at its founding in America, included some mainstream Orthodox rabbis of the time, who envisioned the movement as a precursor to normative halachic “Modern” Orthodoxy. Conservative Judaism theologians vigorously opposed women’s rabbinical ordination, and the particular role of Saul Lieberman in opposing the idea, as late as the 1950s, proved dominant. Indeed, into the mid-1970s the Conservative Judaism seminary still preserved separate-gender seating at prayers, albeit without a mechitzah (partition), and women were not counted in a minyan (quorum).

In an act presaging the dilution and steady evisceration of Conservative Judaism, there soon began a series of reversals within the group, as every innovation and departure adopted from Christianity by Reform Judaism eventually was adopted by Conservative, too. The group’s critical rupture and historically most disastrous error came when they formally permitted driving on Shabbat as a matter of permissibility. By 1985, 13 years after Reform Judaism had done so and another decade after Protestantism had started the movement, Conservative Judaism finally departed from its misogyny and ordained Rabbi Amy Eilberg. Eventually, Conservative Judaism would follow Reform Judaism in adopting other social trends initiated in the Christian world. With each change, they ended decades of their rooted bigotry and prejudice. For movements that do not root in Torah, Oral Law, and Mesorah (halachic traditions), there is no other way to understand refusals to allow women, gays, etc., to be among their rabbis and cantors.

Orthodox Judaism operates differently, unlike the Christian and non-halachic Jewish groups. In Orthodox Judaism, the single greatest religious power is vested in women: defining the future religious identity of the family’s children. That is halacha, and there is no way it ever can change. By contrast, Reform has stripped women of their extraordinary religious authority and given that power to men. Now, a Reform Jewish man who “marries out” knows that his Reform rabbi still will deem the children Jewish; the wife’s identity no longer matters. That change has opened floodgates to intermarriage between Jewish men and non-Jewish women. That change was misogynistic and male-centric. In Orthodoxy, the woman is vested with the authority.

Moreover, within halachic Judaism, Women are uniquely endowed with defining family purity.

Husband: “When do you go to mikvah?”

Wife: “Next Tuesday night.”

(Five days later…)

Husband: “Did you go to the mikvah tonight?”

Wife: “Yes, I went.”

End of story. She is trusted with a mitzvah that has karet (excision) ramifications for him, too.

She keeps her calendar. She checks. She determines. All of Jewish family purity relies on her word. She is the sole arbiter.

Oh, yes. Orthodox Judaism empowers the man, the father, to determine the tribe. So, before the Assyrian expulsion, the man would tell the child, “You are Zevulun, not Naftali. You are never going to be Naftali. You are Zevulun. Why? Because! Because I am. So do your homework, and get to bed!” That is the man’s power. By contrast, forever it is the woman who determines whether the husband is going to be written out of his wealthy family’s will for leaving behind non-Jewish children. The woman determines whether the future generations of a family that survived millennia of a Churban Bayit Sheini (Holy Temple destruction), Crusades, Inquisitions, the Black Death libels, the Desecration of the Host massacres, pogroms, and Holocausts now have ended permanently, forever, on a ski slope in Idaho or a sunny beach in Mississippi.

Thus, in the Christian-induced, Reform- and Conservative-adopted pursuit of “women’s equality” we find a paradox. Ironically, it is Orthodox Judaism that for 3,000-plus years has taught that it is the woman—and only the woman—who exclusively transmits the single most precious and valued asset of all, the gift of Judaic identity and the entry ticket to religious affiliation and the identity of the generations. Immutable Torah law rules, spelled out in a Mishnah but not in the Pentateuch. (KIDDUSHIN 3:12; KIDDUSHIN 68a-b; accord EZRA 9:2).

Imagine that, instead, the Torah and the Mesorah would have accorded to men the lighting of Shabbat candles and the enormously overwhelming power to define the generations and the laws of monthly mikvah. Can we doubt that a movement would have arisen among “Open Orthodox” social climbers demanding: “We want women to have the power to define a child’s religion and to usher the Sabbath into the home and to determine the course of family purity. We protest that the rabbis have given all the good things to the men, and they have saddled us women with the obligation to get out of bed at 5:30 a.m. every day and to race to shul in the dark and cold, to put on tefillin that ruins our hair for the day and leaves marks on our arms for three hours, to daven while half asleep, to then race to work, then to be back at shul for Mincha and Maariv, and so much else—while the men get to be home, tending to and raising the next generation, determining who is deemed a Jew”?

Can we doubt?

Rabbi Dov Fischer is author of “General Sharon’s War Against Time Magazine” (Steimatzky: 1985). His political commentaries have appeared on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, National Review, Los Angeles Times and in other major American publications. He formerly was chief articles editor of UCLA Law Review, is an adjunct professor of law at two prominent American law schools, and is rav of Young Israel of Orange County, California. He is author of “Jews for Nothing” (Feldheim: 1983) and is in his sixth year as a member of the National Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His writings can be found at RabbiDov.com. As with all of Rabbi Prof. Fischer’s writings, this commentary expresses his own views.

By Rabbi Dov Fischer

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