The announcement by the Orthodox Union leadership to enforce in stages the decision of their rabbinic panel on the unacceptability of female clergy is welcome, timely, prudent, proper and, in today’s environment, courageous. For sure, one would think that “courage” is not required to follow a rabbinic psak; after all, that is what Jews are supposed to do. Ask a question to a rabbi on a complicated halachic matter, get a reply and implement it. “You shall not deviate from what they tell you neither to the right nor to the left” (Devarim 17:11). Nor should “courage” be required to disprove the notion of Jewish female clergy, something that even Professor Shaul Lieberman of the Jewish Theological Seminary characterized almost 40 years ago as risible and a “mockery” of Torah.
Yet, in the current climate it is courageous to follow Torah guidance that confounds modern culture and the ethos of Western life and embrace a truly Jewish perspective on the unique and differing roles of men and women. The OU thereby reinforced the indispensable sentiment that Torah decisions must be made in the beit midrash by qualified masters of Torah and mesorah and not on social media, in op-ed articles or the musings of bloggers. The latter may be interesting, sincere, heartfelt and even occasionally amusing but they play no role in the methodology of psak or in the discipline of halacha.
In its wisdom, the OU decided to ban female clergy from its congregations and champion traditional Jewish law and practice while offering those handful of currently non-compliant synagogues a “sunset” provision that allows those houses of worship to choose to comply by redefining the role of their female teachers to indicate that they are not clergy or eliminating the positions entirely. It was important for the OU to articulate—as it now has on several occasions—that there are synagogue roles that can be performed by women and that the Jewish people lose when we cannot in a formal way access the talents and brains of half our population. But the preferred assignments clarify that since women cannot, according to halacha, fulfill many important functions of the rabbinate, the ascription of that title and those roles to women serve ultimately to diminish the very essence of the rabbinate. That cannot be good for the Jewish people.
Certainly, there were some who felt that the OU should ignore the clear directive of the rabbinic panel or otherwise allowed the offending synagogues to maintain their female clergy. But such would have disdained the very notion of rabbinic authority and would have undermined the OU’s outstanding work in kashrut and other Torah fields. It would have disseminated the unmistakable and unfortunate message that rabbinic authority is nothing more than a casual suggestion as to proper behavior and can be dismissed or disregarded at will. And the OU could no more have “grandfathered” these synagogues than it could “grandfather” food products in which non-kosher substances were inadvertently produced and sold; those products are always recalled. Forbearance with these synagogues would have surely tempted others to test the limits of the OU’s steadfastness.
On the other hand, there will undoubtedly be some who feel that the OU should have just expelled the non-compliant synagogues as a more resolute indication of this policy. I disagree with that approach for a number of reasons. Obviously the neo-Conservative proponents of female clergy sought to push the envelope and expand the boundaries of halacha (and then crossed them). But the reaction from the rabbinic world was slow and tepid, and such diffidence encouraged the promoters to continue on their path in the hope that, as they would put it, the facts on the ground will cause the halacha to eventually come around. Had there been a strong, assertive and unified rabbinic response a decade ago, this problem would have been averted. There wasn’t, although there are today new rabbinic organizations and public policy organizations that are not hesitant to articulate true Torah values that have filled the void caused by the reticence of the old, establishment organizations. Simply put, you can’t blame people for following their rabbinic leadership, even if misguided, and they must be given a fair opportunity to unwind their mistake. Consider that in the past the OU had member synagogues without a mechitza and afforded them decades to either comply or resign. It took decades—but that deviation from the mesorah was eventually rectified. Life moves faster these days, but it is only fair that non-compliant synagogues be given the opportunity to comply.
Secondly, the “sunset” clause puts the ball in the court of the non-compliant synagogues. Having been apprised of the psak of the eminent roshei yeshiva and rabbis of the Orthodoxy to which they declare allegiance, those synagogues are now empowered to choose the spiritual direction in which they wish to travel. They can, God forbid, continue on the path of neo-Conservatism and repeat the errors made by the waning Conservative movement when its heyday began a century ago, or they can resume their rightful place in the Torah world. It’s their choice, as it should be. If they fail to conform over the next several years, they will have exiled themselves from the Torah camp.
Thirdly, some will argue that the OU should not be in the business of monitoring the practices and perspectives of its member synagogues, and I am partially sympathetic to that approach. Orthodoxy is not monolithic and no organization should be in the position of dictating conformity or creating a litmus test of Orthodoxy. Yet, there are times when clarity is essential and the boundaries of a particular ideology must be delineated for that movement to have real meaning, purpose and influence. This is one of those times. Synagogues that employ female clergy, have mixed seating, deny the Divine origin of the Torah, have rabbinic leadership that glorify Western and secular values over Torah values, and frequently disparage the mesorah really have no place in the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America. To be Orthodox should mean something; it should require conduct, deportment and principles that reflect the Torah as received at Sinai and as faithfully transmitted by the masters of the mesorah down through the ages and until today. It is more than just joining a team and paying dues but is rather an expression of our deepest beliefs, those that bind us to our Creator and enable us to be part of an eternal people.
Rav Soloveitchik famously expressed that Jews were always provided with a “remnant of the scribes,” the baalei mesorah of the last generation who can guide the next. The survival of the mesorah requires that past and future merge in the present. That is why radical changes are always spurned. It is why the infiltration of modern cultural norms into a Torah environment is so harmful and those norms are naturally rejected. A Judaism that is unrecognizable to the “remnant of the scribes” is not authentic. We are at an inflection point with this new movement and I hope they take this guidance to heart.
Therefore, I applaud the OU on its decision and salute the leadership for its sensitivity and acumen in executing the judgment of the rabbinic panel. I pray that the message sent by the OU clearly defines the outer limits of Orthodoxy, deters some synagogues from deviating from the Torah path in the future, and induces the non-compliant synagogues to come home to their roots, to tradition, to the unity of Israel, so together we can glorify God’s Torah to our fellow Jews and the entire world.
By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, the eastern region vice president and senior rabbinic fellow of the Coalition for Jewish Values, and on the founding presidium of TORA (Traditional Orthodox Rabbis of America).