As a Jewish teenager, I absorbed a vital truth – arguably the essence of Orthodoxy: The community’s learned elders are the wisest arbiters of what is and is not Jewishly proper.
Over the many years since, I have come to see that truth vindicated time and again. Had I not perceived it in my youth, I sometimes reflect, I might have become enamored of the Conservative movement, which declared fealty to halacha while expressing sensitivity to American realities. I could have chosen to see it as the most promising standard-bearer for Jewish observance in America. And I would have been devastated to see its claim to halachic integrity crash and burn. But I trusted the elders. And, it turned out, they saw more than I did, and predicted precisely what came to be.
What bring the thought to mind are reactions to a recent pronouncement of our contemporary elders. When a congregational rabbi tried to create a new institution in Orthodoxy – women serving as rabbis – the Council of Torah Sages felt compelled to declare that any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical role “cannot be considered Orthodox.”
There followed an outpouring of umbrage in some circles, some of it blithely dismissive of the respected rabbis’ words (the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, or JOFA, rejected the rabbinic statement as a “political move”), some of it purporting to take scholarly issue with the sages’ judgment and halachic reasoning.
Halachic decision-making, though, isn’t a do-it-yourself project. What might seem to someone of limited experience or insight to be entirely in accordance with the prescribed roles of Jewish men and of women or the laws of modesty, might be judged otherwise by someone with a deeper and broader view. And those to whom we are to look for judgment in religious matters are the recognized religious leaders of each generation, whom the Torah itself, in Deuteronomy 17, 9-11 directs us to heed.
A woman serving as a rabbi in the Reform or Conservative Jewish spheres, of course, is wholly unremarkable. In the Orthodox world, though, gender roles are more fixed; that is what JOFA and some of its supporters would like to change, and for which they claim ample halachic justification. There was, though, ample halachic justification too, at least in some eyes, for innovations put forth by the Conservative movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Mixed-sex seating in synagogues and driving to synagogue on the Sabbath were deemed permissible then – and all the requisite “halachic” citations and responsa were duly proffered. To many, it all seemed reasonable and proper. The elders of the Orthodox Jewish community, though, saw it differently, and they were right.
Proponents of woman rabbis in Orthodox congregations may be sincerely convinced of the propriety of their approach. But opposing the considered consensus of the community’s recognized Torah leaders is the antithesis of fealty to halacha, and, simply put, takes one to a place outside Orthodoxy.
A session at JOFA’s recent conference was portentous. Entitled “A Rabbi by Any Other name…,” it aimed to explore whether or not “the glass ceiling [has] truly been shattered” and “what… the future hold[s] for women in Orthodox communal leadership positions.”
One of the featured presenters at that session was the female spiritual leader of a Manhattan congregation called Kehillat Orach Eliezer (“KOE”). Her participation naturally led participants and observers to assume that the congregation is Orthodox. And, in fact, in 2002, the New York Jewish Week identified it explicitly as such. That same paper’s report on the recent conference implied the same, beginning with her name and quoting her about how “the Orthodox community needs men and women” in positions of leadership.
Oddly, though, the word Orthodox does not appear on KOE’s website; nor does the congregation belong to any Orthodox umbrella congregational body – neither Agudath Israel, nor the National Council of Young Israel, nor the Orthodox Union. It has no ties to any major or minor Chassidic group. It claims to be “halachic” but so, of course, did (and, somehow, still does) the Conservative movement.
The Jewish Week claims that its “first loyalty is to the truth”; and JOFA puts its O before its F. Why then are they presenting an apparently nondenominational congregation as Orthodox?
Might it be because they want to make it seem as if women rabbis are already accepted in Orthodox synagogues? If so, they are wrong.
Intriguing – and telling – is the identity of the Eliezer in whose honor Kehillat Orach Eliezer is named. That would be Dr. Louis (Eliezer) Finkelstein. Yes, that Dr. Louis Finkelstein, the late Conservative movement leader.
© 2010 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]
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