Recently, the Agudath Israel Council of Torah Sages (Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America) has come out (according to JTA: "Rabbi condemned for ordaining woman") condemning Rabbi Avi Weiss's Yeshivat Maharat for ordaining Orthodox women rabbis, and his conferring the title "Maharat" and more recently "Rabba". According to the Agudath Israel,
these developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah, and must be condemned in the strongest terms. ... Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.
One of the Agudath Israel's claims must be immediately debunked. According to the JTA article,
The council also objects, [Rabbi Avi] Shafran added, because any change in Orthodox norms must be backed by a "world-class Torah decisor," and no such authority has lent his name to Wiess’s actions.Similarly, according to The Jewish Star: "RCA, Rabbi Weiss agree: Todah, no Rabba", Rabbi Avi Shafran said,
[If] Weiss had the backing of a world-class posek (halachic decisor) he would have a claim that he’s not departing [from the mesorah], but he does not have any such backings on the recognized Orthodox spectrum, chareidi or central. He’s changing the face of mesorah without anyone of stature behind him.However, Rabbi Benzion Uziel permitted women to be dayanim in certain cases, and his teshuva has been translated into English here. (Rabbi Uziel's teshuva deals primarily with women holding public office and voting in a democracy, but he deals as well with women holding the offices of king (queen) and dayan.) Several other rabbis have recently offered the basis for permitting women to be rabbis, here. So much for the claim that Rabbi Weiss has no important figures behind him.
Furthermore, however, even if Rabbi Weiss had no authorities behind him, so what? If he has halakhic sources, legitimate sources and reasoning from the Talmud and Shulhan Arukh, what does he need another authority for? Do we follow rabbis, or do we follow G-d and His Torah? Obviously, authorities are important because usually, they accurately tell us what the Torah and Talmud say. I'm not saying that authorities are unimportant. But in the end of the day, our allegiance is to be to Torah and Judaism, and not to the rabbis. The nation of Israel sinned when they overemphasized the role of Moshe Rabenu and built the Golden Calf to replace him. We should have been able to operate with G-d as our leader alone, without an intermediary. Authorities are important, but only when they convey the Torah to us. When, however, they disrupt and interrupt our relationship with the Torah, then we must follow the Torah and not the rabbis. Ultimate sovereignty is G-d's. The Hebrew slave who refuses to leave his master, his ear is bored, and the Talmud explains that the man whose hear heard at Sinai, ‘I am the L-rd your G-d’, but who nevertheless chose a new master instead of G-d, his ear is to be bored. When the people ask Samuel for a king, G-d answers that the people, in requesting a king, have rejected not Samuel, but G-d. We see that becoming a slave with a master, and choosing a king, and renouncing one’s liberty and freedom (Samuel provides the people with a litany of the abuses of liberty which kingship will bring), are all forms of rejecting G-d, which is another way of saying "avodah zara".
By contrast, Rabbi Shafran has no halakhic support for his opposition to women's ordination. According to the Jewish Star (op. cit.), Rabbi Shafran has said,
Tznius isn’t a mode of dress. It includes the idea that women are demeaned and not honored when they’re put in the public eye and put on a pedestal. The position he [Weiss] has created violated the concept. Putting a woman in front of a group of men and women on a regular or ad-hoc basis is violative of tznius. Halacha accomplishes much more than the letter of the law. There is nothing in the Shulchan Aruch about keeping a cat in the aron kodesh. It’s technically permitted but it’s wrong to do.Notice two things: first, Rabbi Shafran has no real halakhic arguments. His arguments all are based on Daat Torah, on unwritten rules of Judaism, which he cannot cite, and which therefore, no one can disprove. By arguing based on emotion and the unwritten rules, no one can argue against him.
Second, notice that his argument is entirely disingenuous and irrelevant. That: Rabbi Shafran has historically never (to my knowledge) objected to women giving sermons or speaking in public or holding public offices. He is objecting only to the title. But if his concerns are based on tzniut, then what does the title matter? A women giving sermons and halakhic rulings is a women giving sermons and halakhic rulings, regardless of whether she's "Rabbi" or "Dr." or "Queen" or "Mrs."!!! If Rabbi Shafran objects to Rabbi Weiss based on tzniut, then he should have spoken up a long time ago, back when Sara Hurwitz was working in the the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale without a title. If Rabbi Shafran is speaking up only now, then it is clear that he objects only to her title. But if so, then it means that tzniut has nothing to do with his concerns. On the other hand, if tzniut really truly is his concern, then he ought to have spoken out long ago. Furthermore, he should be speaking out against women being doctors and lawyers as well; after all, is it not terribly immodest for a woman to argue law before a judge, or for a woman doctor give a lecture at a medical conference or symposium? Indeed, as a blog by Debra Nussbaum Cohen on the Forward says (Rabbi Avi Weiss Backs Down From Ordaining Women),
It’s interesting that the reaction happened not because of the training that Sara Hurwitz and now other women are getting, and not when the title "Maharat" was created, but only when the title became too close to the term "rabbi" for their comfort. No one in the centrist Orthodox world is questioning the advanced, proto-rabbinic training itself, at Weiss’ Yeshivat Maharat, at Drisha and even at the bastion of mainstream Orthodoxy, Yeshiva University, which has a Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies. It’s all about the title and the term ordination being too close for the RCA’s comfort to the language used for male Orthodox clergy. So the question again seems to be how long it will take for the few women who are trained like men and doing all of the work of male rabbis that a mainstream Orthodox understanding of Jewish law allows, to become a rabbi — or, as it were, a rabba.
*** Update: At Cross-Currents: The RCA and Rabbi Avi Weiss, Rabbi Shafran says,
The leadership of the Rabbinical Council of America and Rabbi Avi Weiss have apparently reached agreement that Rabbi Weiss would no longer confer the title of "Rabba" upon graduates of his women’s seminary, but rather the title "Maharat." This superficial move does not in any way change the position of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah that placing women in traditional rabbinic positions departs from the Jewish mesorah, and that any congregation with a woman in such a position cannot call itself Orthodox.So perhaps Rabbi Shafran is not being hypocritical and disingenuous after all. I accused him, based on the fact that he cited tzeniut as the only objection, and yet he also objected only to the title, even though the presence or absence of a title has no effect on tzeniut. But now, it would appear that Rabbi Shafran opposes women's pulpit positions, with or without a title, which is laudably more consistent and honest than what I thought his position was. But it's still rather hypocritical and disingenuous for him to fail to criticize women being doctors and lawyers, given that this violates tzeniut no less than their being rabbis.
Rabbi Marc D. Angel has recently written a wonderful post on women's ordination ("Women as Orthodox Religious Leaders?"). The amazing thing about this piece is that Rabbi Angel appears to take no position, nor offer any personal opinions. All he does is ask questions and point out difficulties in others' positions. His own opinion is not difficult to read between the lines, but the fact remains that he never once explicitly gives his own opinion. His piece also offers a criticism of the apodictic rulings of Daat Torah, in which dogmatic positions are stated without any textual or traditional support. In his words,
The modern Orthodox community might rightly reply [to the Agudat Israel]: this is our decision to make, not yours. You do not have the right or authority to declare who is Orthodox and who "cannot be considered Orthodox." The modern Orthodox community might also rightly reply: if you have a halakhic/hashkafic point of view, please express it fully and with proper citations to Torah, Talmud and sources in rabbinic literature. Don't make proclamations, but give us reasoned, well supported position papers. That way, we will be able to see if there is merit in your position. We will also be able to offer a reasoned and well-supported response, if we feel your judgment is not the only one possible within Orthodoxy.
I fully appreciate that this is a complicated issue, and that there are valid concerns on both sides of the question. Indeed, the issue is so serious that it must be confronted with all due thoughtfulness, and with the recognition that there will be various approaches and suggestions. What we need is candid, well-reasoned discussion--not unilateral proclamations that essentially say: do as we tell you, or you're not Orthodox.
One of my concerns is: does the modern Orthodox community have the inner strength to deal with the issue of women's religious leadership, or will we simply cave in to the pressure "from the right"? The "Council of Torah Sages" believes it can prevail in defining Orthodoxy, and in casting out those who disagree with them. Does the modern Orthodox community have the confidence and integrity to demur, and to insist on its own right to discuss and debate and make its own decisions?
Professor Marc Shapiro has written about this phenomenon of Daat Torah. In his words ("The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era," (book review), Tradition 28:2, 1994),
[Jacob] Katz also ilustrates the nineteenth century [emphasis added] creation of what he terms ex cathedra rulings. [Notice the terminology borrowed from Catholicism - Michael Makovi.] That is, the halakhist, acting through his charismatic personality, issues rulings on a wide range of communal issues basing himself primarily on biblical passages and religious feelings rather than halakhic sources. If a certain decision is perceived by the halakhist as necesssary to maintain the Torah community, he will reach it. The halakhist places these new rulings at the very center of the religion, and one who violates them is no longer to be regarded as a faithful Jew. It seems clear that the method of decision-making Katz is describing is fundamentally not really different than the contemporary notion of Daat Torah. I thus do not accept the popular view that Daat Torah is a twentieth century [emphasis added] concept. Even in pre-modern times one can point to rabbis deciding communal matters based on non-halakhic points. What this means is that the halakhist was intuitively convinced that his community needed to adopt a certain approach and, lacking the precise halakhic sources, supported his position by citing Bible, Midrash etc. By making a case without traditional halakhic sources it is impossible for an opponent to marshal contrary halakhic arguments. A ruling could be opposed, but not refuted. The only real difference between the modern exponents of Daat Torah and the earlier authorities seems to be that the earlier authorities felt the need to expound upon their opinions with numerous Scriptural and Aggadic proofs. The modern exponents of Daat Torah often feel no need to offer any justification of their views and it is here where one finds their originality.Cf. an article by Katz, "DA'AT TORAH - The Unqualified Authority Claimed for Halachists". In this article, Katz argues that while the term "Daat Torah" is a creation of the twentieth-century, that nevertheless, the phenomenon of Daat Torah is a nineteenth-century phenomenon, witnessed in the battle of Hungarian Ultra-Orthodoxy against the Neologs (conservative right-wing Reformers).
Our focus is on the final observation of Shapiro just quoted, viz. that,
The only real difference between the modern exponents of Daat Torah and the earlier authorities seems to be that the earlier authorities felt the need to expound upon their opinions with numerous Scriptural and Aggadic proofs. The modern exponents of Daat Torah often feel no need to offer any justification of their views and it is here where one finds their originality.Rabbi Angel's article on women's ordination criticizes precisely this phenomenon of apodictic rulings devoid of any citations or justifications or supports.
Rabbi Angel's article also offers some good arguments (presented in the form of questions) regarding women's ordination. His article can be read as Women as Orthodox Religious Leaders?. Rabbi Angel's piece really is extraordinary, and is a must-read.
It would also be interesting to examine Rabbi Marc Angel's own views on women's ordination. In an interview with Gilah Kletenik of Yeshiva University's Kol HaMevaser (here), we read:
KHM [ = Kol HaMevaser]: It’s hard not to pick up on the male-dominated storyline; after all, it is about a Lithuanian yeshivah. Still, certain characters advocate for an expanded, even emancipated, role for women in Judaism. What do you think is the ideal place for women within all areas of the community and how might this be achieved?I've spoken with Rabbi Angel on various issues, and I've found that he often prefers to avoid legislating or deciding for the future. He'll often tell me that based on the present situation we see today, the relevant halakhic principles are A and B and C, and that the resulting halakhic conclusions are X and Y and Z, but he refuses to express an opinion on possible future developments. He refuses not only to offer conclusions, but he even often refuses to speculate on whether other relevant principles (besides A, B, and C) will exist in the future. It is a common practice of his to avoid deciding for the future, because he is humble enough that he doubts the reliability of such predictions, and in any case, he doesn't wish to tie the hands of anyone in the future by setting a precedent that may later prove to be inconvenient and limiting.
RMA [ = Rabbi Marc Angel]: I don’t have the ideal place. The issue of Orthodoxy and women exists because the world has transformed. Today, women study Talmud; this used to not be the case. But you have a glass ceiling; you can only go so far. We’ve created a dynamic by educating our women, and we don’t know how to deal with it. We don’t have an answer yet. I’m in favor of opening options: women’s tefillah groups, women’s Megillah readings, and women as members on boards. In our synagogue (Congregation Shearith Israel), we have Lynne Kaye filling the position of Assistant Congregational Leader – she does everything a rabbi would do except for the ritual aspects. Sure, these developments may be a dead-end, but how do we know unless we experiment? These boundaries – how flexible are they? A pesak on these matters would freeze the process. We must see how things unfold.
It would be interesting to see how Rabbi Angel sees Rabbi Weiss's move to ordain women as "Rabba". We've seen that Rabbi Angel seems to neither support nor oppose women's ordination very vocally. At the same time, he is a vocal supporter of Rabbi Weiss. What does he say about Rabbi Weiss in our present case, then? According to The Jewish Star: "RCA, Rabbi Weiss agree: Todah, no Rabba", Rabbi Angel has said,
Rabbi Weiss is a visionary; an Orthodox rabbi who has the courage to grapple with many issues that other rabbis fear to confront. Whether or not people agree with him, they should respect the seriousness of his endeavor and his absolute commitment to make Orthodoxy grow and thrive in a meaningful, vibrant and ‘open’ manner. Whenever someone suggests a change in old patterns — even when the change is organic and halakhically proper — there will be those who reflexively oppose the innovator, and who prefer to keep Orthodoxy closed, hierarchical and authoritarian.We see that Rabbi Angel is supporting Rabbi Weiss without either supporting or condemning his specific policies. And we see that in general, Rabbi Angel at least supports and respects innovation and advancement by others, even if he doesn't himself always advocate it himself.
In any case, there were rumors that apparently even the RCA was set to discipline or even oust Rabbi Avi Weiss, according to Jewish Week: "Rabbis Set To Rumble Over Rabba?" and Forward: Woman ‘Rabba’ Roils Orthodox World. It was clear that at least, there would be a confrontation between the RCA and Rabbi Weiss, and that either one would cede to other, or that the two would form a rift and separate.
More recently, under pressure, Rabbi Weiss has decided to backtrack and disavow the title "Rabbah"; he is returning to the term "Maharat". See
- The Jewish Star: "RCA, Rabbi Weiss agree: Todah, no Rabba"
- The Yeshiva World: "RCA Statement In Regards To Rabbi Avi Weiss & His ‘Rabbah’ [& His Response To RCA]"
- JTA: "Avi Weiss: No more rabbas"
- The Riverdale Press: "HIR's Rabbi Weiss reaches accord with Jewish leaders over 'rabba' title"
They’re [the RCA and Rabbi Weiss] negotiating. The RCA does not want to kick him out and he does not want to be kicked out, but this is an intolerable activity. ... He [Weiss] is an impetous fellow, which is okay. Everything is in how he words it. If I had to guess, when Rabbi Weiss retracts, he’s going to say this was the right thing at the wrong time and I regret doing it, and I commit to not doing it for a period of time.Another unnamed source said,
It was made pretty clear that the alternative was death; even she [Hurwitz] is better off. They were going to expel him and expel the shul. If you look at the Agudah statement they declared him non-Orthodox, not wrong, not mistaken, but not Orthodox.According to the Forward,
But Weiss also has his allies. [Rabbi Marc] Angel said he agrees with Weiss that women should be able to serve as Orthodox clergy since "90% of any rabbi’s job can be done by a woman as well as a man." In time, Angel said, "what Avi is doing will be widely accepted." But for now, it’s causing a great deal of pushback. The RCA, Angel said, is saying to Weiss "'listen, you’ve taken a stand which is causing a lot of flak in the right-wing Orthodox world, our members are upset, and you’ve gone too far.' His response is that he thought he was working on something he believes in that fits in with Orthodoxy." "The last thing Avi wants is a confrontation with the RCA or anyone else," Angel said. "If he pushed too far too fast, okay. He’s a smart fellow and realizes there’s pressure on him to concede something to stay within the overall consensus. He’s still on the far left but doesn’t want to be outside the overall consensus." Both parties, Angel said, "are trying to find a way to come out smelling good."In short: Rabbi Weiss wants to push the envelop, but he doesn't want to be written totally out of Orthodoxy. He needs to stay within the consensus, even if only barely so, in order that he can still exert a salutary influence upon Orthodoxy. However, one claim by the Jewish Week, ("Rabbis Set To Rumble Over Rabba?", op. cit.) is erroneous; we read there,
In a twist, one Rabbi Weiss school, YCT, won’t recognize the rabbinic credentials of the other Rabbi Weiss school, Yeshivat Maharat, with Rabba Hurwitz being denied membership in the International Rabbinic Fellowship, also founded by Rabbi Weiss and primarily composed of YCT rabbis.
**Update: In the comments section, "Steg" said, "[T]here are at least about 150 rabbis in the IRF — and only around 50 YCT musmakhim in the world ... the idea that the IRF is composed primarily of YCT rabbis is therefore absurd."On 4 December 2009, an email was sent to students who are University Network members of Rabbi Marc Angel's Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. Rabbi Angel wrote,
The International Rabbinic Fellowship, a new modern Orthodox rabbinic association founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss and me, had a conference last month. About 60 rabbis from throughout the US attended, as well as rabbis from Canada and Colombia. The group reached a consensus that it would be appropriate to include women members, even though they do not have, and don't have the opportunity to have, semikha. A committee was tasked with coming up with suitable criteria for membership. Some rabbis were concerned that admitting non-rabbi women into the IRF will undermine our credibility as an Orthodox rabbinic body, and will impede our efforts in such areas as conversion to Judaism, the agunah issue, Jewish education etc. What do you think? How do you envision religious leadership for modern Orthodoxy 10 years from now?In short: the IRF "reached a consensus that it would be appropriate to include women members", and the only question was what criteria should be used to judge women applicants for membership, given that most suitably learned women do not have the ability to earn formal semikha, meaning that an alternate litmus test must be found. Some rabbis had the same concern as Rabbi Weiss is evincing now, viz. that even if a certain act is correct and justified, that nevertheless, we may need to refrain from acting if this will cause us to be ostracized, causing any salutary influence we have on Orthodoxy to cease. Similarly, according to an IRF Press Release (here),
Though Orthodox Judaism does not ordain women as rabbis, several Orthodox women who serve in a handful of Orthodox congregations in rabbinic capacities were present. A long discussion was held at the conference on the question of admitting women acting in a rabbinic capacity as full voting members among the Rabbis. The group voted to task the membership committee with creating criteria for the potential consideration of admission of women. If the IRF votes to admit women, criteria for membership will also be voted on in June. The IRF recognizes that there are highly capable women serving in rabbinic roles and as such the group might benefit from their presence, ideas and guidance.This heralds the first time that an Orthodox rabbinical group has entertained the possibility of admitting women as full members into its ranks.