May 18, 2024
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RCBC Draws ‘Boundary Line’ on Women Rabbis

The Jewish community is certainly not immune to the winds of change blowing through contemporary society. A Teaneck synagogue, Congregation Netivot Shalom, has twice hired a woman seeking semicha at Yeshivat Maharat as a rabbinic intern. The shul is ably and sensitively led by the much beloved Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, a department chair at SAR High School, a part-time instructor at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and currently the president of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. He also distinguishes himself as the only sitting member of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County (RCBC) to have ever hired a woman as a rabbinic intern, much less two.

The RCBC officially learned of the first intern’s existence only as the second one was hired.

The RCBC, which is closely aligned with principles put forward by the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, took action this past December to align its bylaws with them, to ensure the clarity of its rules restricting women from serving or training as rabbis.

I wrote about this unorthodox situation in my article on the incoming RCBC leadership. Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz, the RCBC’s new president, explained that they addressed the situation initially by asking Rabbi Helfgot to change his current female rabbinic intern’s title to congregational educator, a request to which he agreed. Then the RCBC adopted language that prevented any woman seeking semicha to train in any shul with an RCBC rabbi at its helm. Rabbi Helfgot’s statement on this, which he only agreed to provide us if we printed it in its entirety, is the first letter printed in our paper this week, below this article.

However, not all the voices in this debate have been respectful. Seemingly in support of Rabbi Helfgot’s view, community member Yigal Gross wrote a piece for Times of Israel last week, titled “RCBC Decertifies Communal Debate,” publicly accusing the RCBC of essentially tarring-and-feathering a member of its own organization.

“…Ostracizing a communal rabbi (and, by extension, his synagogue and its members) is such a severe step that, in the absence of an absolutely compelling justification, seems like the bullying excesses of a mindless mob,” Gross wrote.

I found this language surprising, and it was not how any rabbi I spoke to described it. If a group of 28 rabbis who comprise the RCBC all adhere to and find “absolutely, compellingly just” a decision that has already been settled by the OU and the RCA, and one of these rabbis feels differently, then who is the outlier? Accusing the RCBC of “legal gamesmanship,” operating “behind closed doors” and guilty of “bullying excesses,” are rabbis, who are, or should be, in general, shown a modicum of additional courtesy.

While Yeshivat Maharat and its poskim certainly have their vocal proponents, there is a large and ever-growing body of work by the leading lights of the OU, the RCA and Yeshiva University that specifically addresses the question of why women do not serve the community as rabbis or dayanim. This is not about the RCBC acting with papal-like infallibility, as Gross jests so unfairly; just as the RCBC’s impeccable standards of kashrut are trusted by our community and beyond, so it is trusted regarding its boundary-setting ruling on women rabbis.

The most worrying concept put forward by Gross, however, is that psak halacha should somehow operate under a “communal debate” or “consensus of lay people” before deciding a specific issue. Community debate is not and never has been how Jewish law is decided. The laws of the Torah were placed lifneihem v’lo lifnei hedyotot, before the deciders of halacha, or poskim. The attempted democratization of halacha is the antithesis of this Torah concept.

So let’s put a fine point on it:

Cong. Netivot Shalom is not a member of the Orthodox Union and does not have any need to ascribe to its policies. Again, it seems unorthodox under the circumstances that Rabbi Helfgot wants to both keep his membership in the RCBC and to keep training women rabbis on site. If his predilections lie with his synagogue members, who may vigorously advocate toward training women rabbis, so be it. Or if he wants to stay with his RCBC colleagues, who have asked for nothing from him except to adhere to normative Orthodox standards, then that’s great too. It’s the middle ground that is his decision alone. It was my sense, while reporting and learning from rabbanim on both sides of this debate, that throughout this process all the rabbis in our community went to great lengths to show true respect, honor and friendship to each other, even as they disagreed on this min hashamayim (for the sake of heaven) issue.

As women seeking the rabbinate, Yeshivat Maharat’s alumni are doing something different and crossing a boundary that no other Orthodox community has allowed. The voices are shrill on social media but the RCBC shul numbers speak for themselves. How many Orthodox shuls are there in Teaneck and Bergenfield now? Nineteen. How many have ever trained female rabbis? One.

Let’s take a step back and ask why. From where does the psak against women rabbis stem? Our liturgy, particularly Tehillim, is filled with images of God imbued with both feminine and masculine qualities. And male and female attributes represent different sides, different strengths, different angles of the same Godly entity.

Proponents of women rabbis tend to hold up the shofetet (prophetess) Devorah, as proof that women can judge, but that example is not so simple. One of her few recorded acts was warning Barak that if she were to enter into war with him as he asked, a woman would be credited for defeating Sisera and his 900 iron chariots, and indeed, Yael was the person recorded for all time as having plunged a tent stake through Sisera’s head (Shoftim 4:21). Devorah expressed that Barak was to have been Hashem’s instrument in the miraculous victory, but lamented instead that people would say, as they did, that the victory was brought about by a woman. Tosafot in Shevuot (29b) also reasons that Devorah was accepted by the people as a dayan only because she was a shofetet communicating directly with Hashem.

I know it is considered backward to limit men and women to traditional roles, and there is certainly room in our communities for women to do much more learning, teaching and even in engaging in pastoral care. But as law in America is trending otherwise, blurring so many lines, halacha is clear. And this is because of the fundamental difference that exists in the Jewish faith between men and women, and the kavod (respect) that women are afforded. The Rambam quotes two pesukim that state that women cannot be held up as witnesses (and thus, the dayanut or other position of sole authority) in order to protect their kavod, and to avoid disrespecting them in public (Devarim 16:6 and 19:15).

So, too, is it a coincidence that no women spend their lives from ages 18 to 40 in the beit midrash, without also taking on the tasks of building a Jewish home as well? While women can and do study Gemara, no woman I know has spent all day, every day memorizing the intricacies of specific halachic arguments and how they were reached. A grave error made by advocates of women in the rabbinate is the idea that semicha is a degree-conferring mechanism, like the bar exam for attorneys and the boards for physicians, sort of a professional licensing test. It is not, for the most part, a part-time pursuit. Semicha is not about the accumulation of a finite set of static facts but the acquisition of an entire Torah worldview that requires years of intensive immersion.

On the other hand, building and caring for the next generation of the Jewish people is surely a task that can have no comparison. This Divine attribute, the legacy of motherhood, which the Rav (Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik) so beautifully described, is that Judaism is expressed not only in formal compliance but also in actual living experience. “The fathers knew much about the Shabbat; the mothers lived the Shabbat, experienced her presence, and perceived her beauty and splendor. The fathers taught generations how to observe the Shabbat; mothers taught generations how to greet the Shabbat and how to enjoy her 24-hour presence.” (Hesped, Talne Rebbetzin, Tradition archive, part II)

Complete liberation from gender roles rests on a throwaway of the natural order, some of which cannot actually be thrown out with the proverbial bathwater, without giving up the very identities with which we have been born. No woman has ever been granted Orthodox semicha by a normative Orthodox institution, even one as modern as Yeshiva University, because even if everything in our mesorah pointed to its acceptability, what a woman would have to give up during these pivotal years of her life pales in comparison to the smaller kavod of an earthly, human-granted signature on a pronouncement of rabbinic semicha.

While there is certainly room in our community for all of our shuls and all of our wonderful rabbis and congregational scholars, the RCBC can and must draw a boundary point to its halachic rulings. It has made its policies clear.

By Elizabeth Kratz

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