Ordaining Women and the Role of Mesorah

By Avrohom Gordimer

A current opinion piece in The Jewish Week, authored by two leaders of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), opens with the celebration of an upcoming watershed event in Orthodox society:

Orthodox women are making history in front of our eyes. On June 16, three women will be ordained to serve, in effect, as Orthodox rabbis, given the title of Maharat (an acronym for the Hebrew words meaning leader in legal, spiritual and Torah matters). They will graduate from Yeshivat Maharat in New York City, the first and thus far only women to receive institutional ordination as religious and spiritual leaders in the Orthodox world… Next month’s graduation will mark the first time Orthodox women will be formally and publicly ordained with institutional recognition for the profound role women rabbis can play in Orthodox communities…

Following the celebratory section of the article, it turns negative:

Indeed, the Rabbinical Council of America recently came out with a statement condemning the Maharat graduates: “The RCA views this event as a violation of our mesorah (tradition) and regrets that the leadership of the school has chosen a path that contradicts the norms of our community”…This position is intriguing for its sad admission that the RCA’s opposition to women’s ordination is based on “norms of the community” rather than actual halacha (Jewish law). This reliance on the arguments of tradition, norms and impact on men’s dignity rather than on halacha, reinforces the fact that opponents of women’s leadership are less concerned with Jewish law and women’s needs than they are about their own comfort.

The article ends on a positive note, extolling the great support for the ordination of women as expressed by the International Rabbinic Forum (IRF), an organization founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss and serving primarily as the rabbinical group for graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), while also including like-minded rabbis who are not YCT graduates. Nonetheless, the authors’ denigration of the position of the RCA regarding ordaining women (a position which reflects the views of the RCA’s halachic authorities and is the uniform consensus of top poskim throughout the world – making the authors’ denigration of it quite unbecoming, to put it mildly) needs to be addressed.

The short answer to the contention of the JOFA leaders’ article is that yes, Judaism is indeed based on Mesorah and traditional communal norms. To dismiss the importance of this centerpiece of Torah life is quite novel and really bucks millennia of precedent in Judaic practice. Such dismissal is itself an admission that the novel institution celebrated by the JOFA leaders in their article is a clear break with Torah life and practice – a Reforming of Orthodoxy, as it were.

The long answer to the JOFA leaders’ contention requires us to examine what exactly Mesorah is all about. Is it about mindlessly adhering to norms for no better reason than the fact that this is how things were always done – a sort of living-in-the-past/inflexibility complex – or is it a spineless excuse to justify retaining one’s control and maintaining one’s comfort, the latter of which is how the JOFA leaders understand the invoking of Mesorah here? Or is Mesorah perhaps (and obviously!) something else – something as critical and central to Torah practice as the formally-codified Halacha itself?

The truth is that the RCA’s poskim have presented, orally and in writing, many strong objections to the ordination of women, including issues of Serarah, Chukos Ha-Amim, as well as Tzni’us (modesty in a sophisticated, sublime sense – not merely represented by one’s clothing).

R Hershel Schachter, in an article in Hakirah, presents the ruling of R Saul Lieberman on the subject; this ruling was the basis for R Lieberman’s strong objection to Jewish Theological Seminary ordaining women. R Lieberman explained that the concept of contemporary rabbinic ordination is a direct carryover from the original institution of Semichah, which authorized one to adjudicate as a dayan in a Sanhedrin or in a regular beis din of ancient times; contemporary “Semichah” is modeled as a continuation and perpetuation of the original Semichah and hence cannot apply to women, stated R Lieberman. To ordain women would be to empty the rabbinic title of its very meaning.

R Lieberman’s logic is indicative of his traditional yeshiva training, despite his later problematic association with JTS. (Even though he remained Orthodox throughout, many, including R Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l, as I have heard, were quite troubled with R Lieberman’s JTS affiliation.) R Lieberman’s ruling embodies a classical, conceptual view of Halacha, such that the contemporary custom of granting Semichah, enshrined in almost 2000 years of tradition as a central component of Jewish/Torah life – truly part of our Mesorah – must be viewed as based on halachic axioms, and is not a mere ceremony or honorary degree that can be tampered with or remolded due to apparent lack of halachic basis to the uninitiated.
We clearly see from the Semichah issue and from so many other facets of Torah living and custom that the concept of Mesorah dictating practice and defining titles/positions in Jewish religious society typically reflects a deep halachic (or hashkafic) basis and obviously cannot be discounted, even if we do not know the halachic or hashkafic basis involved with a particular practice or policy that we steadfastly adhere to “merely” due to Mesorah.

For example, R Yosef Dov Soloveitchik compellingly demonstrated in his shiurim how Hanhagos Beis Ha-K’nesses, customs of the synagogue, reflect deep halachic and hashkafic considerations, and that the details of the structure of the beis ha-k’nesses are likewise based in halachic categories. These halachic and hashkafic bases and categories are rarely spelled out in the works of poskim, yet they exist as “Mesorah” – that we structure a shul as it has traditionally been done, and that the practices and nuances of tefillah need to be retained even if we cannot find many of them codified in a Halacha sefer, perceiving that there is an authoritative reason for it all, even if we do not know it. The Rav demonstrated that all classical minhagim are in truth reflective of ancient and authoritative halachic and hashkafic considerations, and he was adamant that minhagim be kept and that one adhere to the minhagim of one’s father (with a few rare exceptions, in which there is a dispute among minhagim, and one of the minhagim in dispute presents halachic objections). R Hershel Schachter has elaborately presented this in his three-part sefarim series about the Rav.

The entirety of traditional Jewish religious life, including its age-old ritual norms and societal norms, even if they lack formal codification, reflects Torah values, be they halachic or hashkafic; every aspect of our multi-millenia traditional religious communal modality is embedded in or predicated upon halachic or hashkafic axioms. These axioms may not be apparent to the uninitiated, yet failure to perceive them does not grant license to negate, dismiss or reform.

The fact that we are not aware of a strict halachic basis for a millennia-old Torah practice does not allow us to contest the practice and discard it. Our adherence to such practices is based upon Mesorah, and Mesorah is based upon halachic or hashkafic reasoning that often has not been popularized or formulated for mass consumption, thereby making it elusive save for those talmidei chachamim who have the requisite knowledge and insight.

So, in reply to The Jewish Week opinion piece penned by the JOFA leaders: Yes, “this reliance on the arguments of tradition” is indeed a more than legitimate basis for the position of the halachic authorities of the RCA and poskim worldwide to object to the ordination of women. Mesorah has been the bedrock of Jewish religious ritual and societal norms for millennia, and our occasional failure to appreciate it as a manifestation of Torah values does not permit us to dismiss its controlling role and its dispositive, defining function in all aspects of Torah life.

Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer is a Rabbinic Coordinator at OU Kosher. He is a member of the RCA and the New York Bar.

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56 comments to Ordaining Women and the Role of Mesorah

  • Bob Miller

    Noam Stadlan wrote, “All of the Maharat graduates who wanted a Shul job have a clergy job at an Orthodox Shul.”

    Here, we get into definitions…I guess such a job and job site are as normatively Orthodox as the Maharats themselves are!

  • Noam Stadlan

    R Gordimer- if you are taking the position that women rabbis are outside of the Mesorah, and R. Sperber says women rabbis are ok, by definition you are saying that his position is outside the Mesorah. It is very reasonable to ask what makes his opinion outside the Mesorah and so far there has not been a specific answer. If his opinion is not outside the Mesorah then neither are women rabbis.

    You seem to be relying on R Schachter both for his hechsher of R. Lieberman(the fact that you think RSL needs a hechsher is incredibly sad to me) and for his opinion. Is everything that R Schachter says automatically part of the Mesorah? Does everyone have to agree with Rav Schachter’s statements? Rav Adam Fertziger(orthodox) has written that Rav Schachter has essentially made up a meta Halachic narrative equating feminism with heresy. Should that affect the reliability of his pronouncements on the issue of women rabbis?

    Since you are trying to eliminate R Sperber from the Mesorah, I think the burden of proof is on you, not on R Sperber to defend himself
    Thanks

  • A. Gordimer

    Noam: I did not state that R Sperber’s ruling on this is outside of the Mesorah; whether it is or is not, I did not make that claim. Rather, I am uncomfortable with R Sperber’s positions, methodology and associations, which do challenge the Mesorah.

    R Lieberman taught for nearly half a century at JTS, which is the brain of the Conservative movement. Although he protested the ordination of women, he knew that his rabbinical students would be mesader Kiddushin for Kohanim to converts, would not practice or preach the rules of mikveh, and so much more. Despite his personal observance, his association with JTS and the training of its rabbis raises much concern. I would only accept the rulings by such a person if an established rosh yeshiva (RHS) authorizes such.

    Kol tuv,
    Avrohom Gordimer

  • Noam Stadlan

    Thank you for all your responses. Although you noted that there are halachic grounds for opposing women rabbis I think I showed that as presented they are not very persuasive unless one is inclined to accept them based only on the name/position of the author. You have argued that the Mesorah is important but that doesn’t actually have an impact on the discussion unless you are also arguing that women rabbis is a violation if the Mesorah. And, if that is your position, you then need to show how R. Sperber’s position is a violation of the Mesorah, something that you have declined to do.
    Therefore, I am not sure how you are supporting your opposition to women rabbis. Just saying it is against the Mesorah without explication is not a compelling argument from my point of view.
    I appreciate all your responses and willingness to address my points. I think ultimately we have very different views regarding whether our Mesorah is best defined via statements by some or even most contemporary rabbis, or if it indeed is best understood by looking at the entirely of what has been handed down to us, from Sinai until the present.

  • Avrohom Gordimer

    Noam:

    Thank you for the comments.

    R Sperber argues that since there is no technical reason to invalidate women as rabbis, it is permissible; moreover, other types of female religious leadership have precedent, so that if anything, the Mesorah points toward permitting female rabbis, in his opinion

    What R Sperber fails to address is R Lieberman’s thesis – that it is clear in the earliest sources for contemporary semicha that such semicha is indeed a replication of real semicha, and hence cannot apply to women. The argument of R Lieberman is one of conceptual logic, and R Sperber fails to address or refute it. Furthermore, the arguments of R Schachter are not really addressed by R Sperber either, as R Schachter refers to a sublime definition of Tzni’us, and not a pragmatic one, the former of which has plenty of support in the Talmud. Furthermore, R Schachter presented at the RCA convention three years ago the case of ordaining women as being something originating from non-Orthodoxy, which by definition must be therefore shunned, as Orthodoxy adopting the practices of non-Orthodoxy is prohibited. R Soloveitchik has lots of mekoros for this in his writings, and RHS quoted this in his presentation.

    R Sperber’s logic would very readily allow us to do away with mechitza and would enable a total revamp of tefillah, as there is no codified technical prohibition to do away with mechitza and to station the Aron Kodesh in the middle, or even in the women’s section, or to have women lead much of tefillah (as R Sperer permits in some cases), or to daven in Hebrew, etc. These notions are all Orthodox practice not because they are codified in the Shulchan Aruch, but because of Mesorah, meaning that they are based on conceptual halachic categories, albeit not codified. R Lieberman brought very clear mekoros to show the relevant halachic category regarding semicha and women; R Sperber failed to address it, and his statements on this topic and others fail to account for this critical level of Halacha.

    Kol tuv,
    Avrohom Gordimer

  • Noam Stadlan

    Rabbis Broyde and Brody have addressed all the points you mention in their article in Hakirah and show that R. Schachter’s conclusions are far from unanimous and not the most compelling on these issues.
    Aside from what is in their article, consider what you have written regarding the sublime tzniut. As I pointed out previously, this concept appears to be applied in an entirely non-uniform fashion, essentially used when there is a need for support against women doing something in public. Furthermore, the Gemara absolutely does NOT support it. We learn that women can read the Megilla. I am not aware that the Gemara argues that women cannot read the Megilla due to tzniut issues. There are kavod Hatsibbur issues, later there are specific mitzvah issues. But as far as I know, the Gemara and probably early geonim do not oppose women reading Megilla based on tzniut. This is a public reading in front of the congregation and the opposition does not mention tzniut.
    In the article, Rav Lichtenstein is brought to address the issue of imitation. I would note that on reading the Mesoret HaRav siddur, RYBS opposed Yigal in Shul because it was imitating the non Jews in reciting dogma.