December 3, 2023
December 3, 2023

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Of Leaders and Followers

Modern Orthodoxy is hard to understand and harder to live. Orthodoxy is a set of views and behaviors that is governed by precedent and authority. It is most comfortable with stasis. Change irritates the system, and especially change that is based on what best can be described as modern sensibilities. In contradistinction, the fuel for the modern organism is change, adaptation, adoption and innovation.

The DNA of Orthodoxy is resistance: the DNA of modernity is osmotic. This is not a novel insight. It is a dichotomy that has been analyzed for decades by people far more qualified than me. However, in recent years, two issues have risen to the forefront of our communal consciousness that have proven to be stressors of this unstable ecosystem. The normative, social and halachic status of women and homosexuals in our communities are not merely talmudic debates that reside within the ivory walls of study hall but are public-policy issues with the potential to be schismatic. In recent days, the issue of a woman’s status has reemerged and the results have been both predictable and disheartening.

As reported in this paper (“RCBC Draws ‘Boundary Line’ on Women Rabbis,” February 6, 2019), the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County (RCBC) recently amended its bylaws to enable the organization to revoke its membership from a rabbi who presides over a synagogue with a woman in a rabbinic role. In this particular case, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Netivot Shalom, a renowned scholar and community leader, is being threatened with expulsion from an organization in which he had been a member in good standing for 10+ years.

The public flogging of Rabbi Helfgot demonstrates that the rabbinic leaders in our community are willing to abdicate their communal leadership role in favor of a judicial one, and with a gavel in hand ignore the halachic opinions that are permissive (there are numerous halachic rulings that support Rabbi Helfgot’s position) in order to prioritize those that are more restrictive, thereby trampling competing values of gender equity, communal harmony and sanctification of God’s name. A communal leadership role is people-focused and nurtures unity and inclusiveness in all but the most dangerous of circumstances. Temperamentally conservative jurists, however, find the communal consequences of halachic decisions to be far less compelling than strict adherence to even dubious legal precedent. And therein lies the rub.

The status of women in Jewish life has never been a purely halachic issue. Much like the status of debtors and slaves, it has always been evaluated within the context of contemporary norms and values. Issues of gender can be understood as meta-halachic and as such these issues are less a matter of Jewish law than they are about Jewish history and sociology. Why are women confined to private roles and prevented from public rabbinic leadership? Simply because that is the way it always was.

Anyone with even a working knowledge of the history of halacha knows that issues pertaining to status and identity have changed over the years. As far as I know, nobody in our community enforces Maimonides’ ruling that husbands should prevent their wives from leaving the home more than once or twice a month or that they should be confined to sit in the corner of the house with no freedom of movement. Even the women of “Shtisel” seem to frequent the streets of Geulah on a daily basis!

What makes the rabbinic leadership of today different than the rabbinic leadership in the centuries after Maimonides who assimilated contemporary values into halachic norms thereby reevaluating the status of women? You be the judge.

So what can be done? Ultimately, rabbinic authority is vested in congregants, students and followers. Scholarship is confined to dusty library shelves in the absence of readers while fire and brimstone oratory is just soundwaves reverberating against a wall unless there are parishioners in their seats. Proclamations, expulsions and fiats are mere background noise without willing adherents. In other words, we all vote with our feet.

As individuals, the rabbis in our community are kind, caring and learned. As a unit, they have become out of touch with segments of the community. Not every synagogue needs to look and act the same. Synagogues in Bergen County that are uncomfortable with female rabbinic leadership have every right to operate without one. The line is crossed, however, when the majority becomes tyrannical and attempts to silence and sideline a growing minority that might see the world differently but is still firmly ensconced in Jewish norms, values and laws.

So for those in our community who are concerned that Modern Orthodoxy is going to lose its relevance, and to the parents who lay awake at night worried that their daughters and granddaughters will find their religious lives far less equitable, rewarding and redemptive than their professional and social lives, I remind you that the real power resides in your voice and your feet.

Keith Zakheim
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