YU Roshei Yeshiva Address the Topic of Women Rabbis
Editor’s Note: This article has been edited to more precisely convey the opinions represented.
The Rabbinic Council of America (RCA) passed a resolution on October 30 stating their opposition towards the ordination of female rabbis and sparking controversy in the Orthodox Jewish world.
Many within the RCA opposed the resolution, noting that the RCA’s position on these matters had already been expressed in previous resolutions and predicting that this redundant new resolution would cause unnecessary controversy. Others disagreed, though, feeling it important to restate their firm opposition, especially in light of a number of Orthodox Union Shuls hiring female clergy. Lastly, a minority within the RCA body support female ordination and therefore oppose the resolution on principle. Among the YU Roshei Yeshiva, this resolution elicited a number of varying responses, most notably a shiur on the topic from Rabbi Jeremy Wieder.
Rabbi Wieder started his shiur by quoting Rabbi Naftali Berlin, who wrote that the intentions behind causing a controversy must be completely pure and directed towards the service of God. He then listed three areas to contemplate when considering the possibility of female rabbis: legal issues, practical issues, and philosophic ideas. In terms of jurisprudence, Rabbi Wieder mentioned a number of considerations that might preclude the possibility of female rabbis, but concluded that none of them compellingly bar women from ordination.
With respect to the importance of tradition, Rabbi Wieder analyzed whether the concept of female clergy violates Jewish tradition. He argued that when there is a stream of Jewish tradition in halacha (Jewish law), it is necessary to follow that stream in order to properly follow Jewish law. The question of whether women may hold leadership positions, however, has been around for only ninety years, so there is no binding tradition on the matter.
Discussing modesty, Rabbi Wieder differentiated between varying communal practices. Within communities where it is commonplace for women to speak in public, there is no problem with women speaking in front of a shul. On the other hand, in communities where having a woman speak publicly is generally taboo, a female rabbi would be a breach of modesty.
Concerning the practicality of women rabbis, Rabbi Wieder mentioned a number of rabbinic roles that women cannot perform. Within the current framework of Jewish law, women cannot lead prayer services or read from the Torah in shul. Furthermore, women may not serve as judges or witnesses in Jewish courts or as witnesses to Jewish marriages. Since many rabbis are expected to perform these tasks, Rabbi Wieder noted that a community hiring a woman rabbi would need to recognize the practical obstacles that the above prohibitions pose.
Lastly, Rabbi Wieder talked about the issue from a philosophical standpoint. He argued that expanding the pool of rabbinic students could lead to an increase in qualified rabbinic candidates. Rabbi Wieder added that he has observed the yoetzet halacha program increase overall halachic observance in the communities it serves and he expressed his optimism that women rabbis could generate similar improvement.
Rabbi Wieder emphasized that change in the Orthodox community should be done slowly and with modesty. He likened the desirable form of change in the Orthodox community to the desirable form of change in orthodontry. A quick, drastic blow breaks teeth, but slow, gradual pressure makes a smile.
He ended the shiur by saying that a community that wants women rabbis must invest in female Jewish learning. Just as most men who become rabbis through RIETS spend a number of years learning many hours a day, women rabbis must have a framework where they can learn for many hours a day over a number of years in order to be qualified for the job.
Rabbi Hershel Schachter, considered by many the most authoritative Rosh Yeshiva, offered a different view on the subject. Citing a number of factors, he argued that Jewish law forbids women rabbis. He cited the obligation of imitatio dei (imitating G-d), noting that G-d is very modest. Rabbi Schachter said “G-d is so modest in fact that many people don’t know He’s there at all.” He elaborated that really no one should be a rabbi, since, by its very nature, this position violates the commandment to act like G-d since it requires a breach of modesty. “However, since there is a need for someone to be a rabbi,” Rabbi Schachter said, “we should choose the men since in Jewish law the value of modesty is much more stringently applied to women than to men.”
He then quoted an argument in the name of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. He noted that the Shach in Yoreh Deah 1:1 says that tradition includes facts beyond just the law itself, such as Jewish communal actions. Since there were no female rabbis in past generations, ordaining women rabbis would be a serious violation of the the Jewish imperative to guard and transmit our tradition.
In a private conversation, another Rosh Yeshiva, who prefers to remain anonymous, mentioned a number of reasons why he, and many of YU’s Roshei Yeshiva, oppose female ordination. The first reason resembles Rabbi Schachter’s interpretation of mesorah. Ramban on the Torah comments that Jews must guard the Torah by observing its commandments and transmitting it to the next generation, and this Rosh Yeshiva noted that the Torah has always been transmitted through men. He was cautious about inserting women into this process of transmission, saying “we don’t have the audacity to assume that we know why G-d set up the system of Torah the way he did, and therefore we can’t say that we should change it.” He further wondered what repercussions women rabbis would pose for the Modern Orthodox and Jewish communities at large. Therefore, in his opinion, “it’s better to play it safe and stay with the status quo.”
Lastly, he noted that women rabbis in Modern Orthodox shuls could cut off the Modern Orthodox community from other branches of Orthodoxy who consider female ordination heretical. This would be disastrous for both Modern Orthodoxy and the Jewish world at large.
There have been many debates and polemics back and forth on this subject. Within YU, many interesting and conflicting opinions reside under one roof, and thus a multitude of views about female ordination exist within the same institution. Only time will tell what the Modern Orthodox stance on female ordination will be, but this debate will surely continue in one form or another for generations to come.