A Place Outside Orthodoxy

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.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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21 Responses

  1. Yossi Ginzberg says:

    With all due respect, your learned lesson apparently did not include the confirmed truism that “the winners write the history books”. History shows the Gedolim predicted correctly- except when they did not.

    While I do firmly believe in the ability and insight of the Gedolim, I protest your tacit assumtion of exactly who these Gedolim are. Our opinions may legitimately vary without offending Halacha, and yet you unfairly lump together all those who protested the “Rabba” business as if they were anti-Gadol.

    I protested the “Rabba” title, but I protest also the statement made against it, because it offends me that of all the ills facing American Orthodoxy today, only this one merited an open comment and condemnation. I would support the statement had there first been statements condemning at least some of the many very public Chilul Hashems that have been in the news recently, and especially those committed by “Rabbis”.

    That makes me neither Conservative nor anti-Halachic. It simply makes me a thinking rational Jew.

  2. Micha Berger says:

    “…arguably the essence of Orthodoxy: The community’s learned elders are the wisest arbiters of what is and is not Jewishly proper.”

    Really? Not monotheism, ethics, or that the intersection between them is best revealed through the halachic process (to distinguish us from other movements that think they’re preaching Judaism)? And not just faith in my rebbe’s guidance, or the chain back from my rebbe to his rebbe to… to Moshe. We’re talking “the community’s learned elders“. Am I wrong, or is R’ Shafran here saying that Da’as Torah (or should I call it by the Lithuanian Yiddish “Das Teireh” so as to distinguish modern usage from the gemara’s original usage), a 20th century invention, is “arguably the essence of Orthodoxy”?


  3. Reb Yid says:

    There was a thread about KOE here several years ago. They’re not Orthodox by name, but functionally they are Orthodox. The Jewish Week was inaccurate in its article 8 years ago, and I believe we all agreed on this point.

    They very intentionally do not call Dina Najman “rabbi”–and she is clear about this as well–she is “Rosh Kehilla”. She paskens sheilot and is a communal leader but she certainly is not–and is not asking to become–a witness, for example. This is a very different kind of communal leader–it’s not a rabbi of a Reform, Reconstructionist or Conservative synagogue.

    Also as part of that session was another female spiritual leader in a Chicago Orthodox (OU) synagogue. She is not the rabbi of the congregation–there is a male YU musmach pulpit rabbi there, but as its website states:

    Rachel Kohl Finegold is the Education & Ritual Director at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation, where she holds the Dr. Carol Fuchs Kaufman Rabbanit Chair.

  4. L. Oberstein says:

    Time will tell what transpires. There is a very big difference between manufacturing pseudo halachic permission to drive a car on Shabbos, but only to the synagogue on the one hand and recognising a learned women as a communal or synagogue leader. The former was never serious, even the “posek’ who wrote the teshuva, Baltimore’s Rabbi Jacob Agus felt it was a big stretch and prefered to call it a ‘takana’ not a “teshuva”. In the heyday of Conservative Judaism, many people, most people in fact, believed it was the only way to save something and a little Tradition Lite was better than the bare-headed Reform Temple rushing towards intermarriage. Conservative Judaism dealt with unlearned, rapidly assimilating 2nd generation Americans moving to the suburbs. Halacha has never really had much to do with it. It is all sociology, not religion per se.

    Orthodox women who have a solid grounding in textual learning, who observe halacha and believe in Torah Min Hashamayim but feel unfulfilled in the traditional role of women in orthodoxy are dealing with a totally different situation. i am not “paskening” for anyone. My wife and daughters don’t seem to feel constrained, but there are those who do. In any change from the past, there will be battles and extremists and irresponsible people who will make a bad name for others.

    I may be totally wrong, not having the gift of prophecy, but I predict the following.There will be a split in orthodoxy with a growing element building higher mechitos literally and figuratively and another segment that will eventually make what Avi Weiss is doing seem old hat.

    I do agree 100% that we must follow “Daas Torah” and that true gedolim possess much more insight into the ramifications of actions on future generations than we simple people do. Tragically, we live in a time when there is a vacuum of leadership that the entire orthodox community respects We are truly an orphaned generation , having lost the giants of the past . If ortodox feminism does not have any gedolim on their team, then all bets are off.Klal Yisroel run by laymen is not the path to success. If only we had the gedolim who could lead us.

  5. Simcha says:

    Why the need to beat a dead horse? Rabbi Weiss is no longer using the “Rabba” title yet the condemnations continue. I agree with Yossi above, there are other, far more pressing issues that should be addressed but are largely ignored and brushed under the carpet while Rabbi Weiss continues to be attacked, even after he rescinded the title.

  6. dr. bill says:

    So the nephew of the late R. Louis Finklestein, entirely estranged from his tradition, a young lawyer at a firm with a distinguished orthodox partner, not that common 40+ years ago, wants to marry. his intended is divorced and when he introduces her to his venerable uncle, he ascertains that she is in need of a get. after a get is arranged and gotten, dr. finkelsttein tells the couple that they must now wait three months! the rest of the story … well u can figure it out.

    i am not a fan of a rabbah or a maharat and i do not think recent events help the overall adgenda. But, is it worse than some of the knee-jerk condemnation of a yoetzet, i doubt it! what history has taught us is that pioneers often die, pioneers are often rash and premature, but often the the world is also in their debt. I think Rabbi Lamm expressed it best about a year or so ago, and all this continued dbate is either superfluous or worse. and BTW the comparison to driving and no mechitza is more the latter than the former. is it even remotely fair? why all the rhetoric? i think there are more important issues in the chareidi community! need one look outside to find topics to discuss and areas to apply energy?

  7. dg says:

    R Shafran did not say that was arguably the essence of Torah, he said it was arguably the essence of Orthodoxy. I believe the term Orthodox, truly new on the stage of Jewish history, is meant to refer to the way our movement answers the primary challenges to Judaism in this period in history.

  8. Shlomo says:

    I have heard my personal Rabbi, Machon Shilo’s HaRav David Bar-Hayim state that he is against the ordination of woman rabbis. I accept his judgment. But, I must comment that the best insurance policy against assimilation and halachic anarchy is neither going far to the right nor to the left. The answer lies in Eretz Yisrael. Life in the Exile is a punishment, not a normative, normal state of affairs according to the Torah. If we want to insure our spiritual (and physical) future the solution is a return to Eretz Yisrael, and the Torah of Eretz Yisrael, the Talmud Yerushalmi. This is what HaRav Kook ztz”l believed in and HaRav Bar-Hayim is continuing his way.

  9. Miriam says:

    “….I predict the following.There will be a split in orthodoxy with a growing element building higher mechitos literally and figuratively and another segment that will eventually make what Avi Weiss is doing seem old hat.”

    This prediction strikes me as skewed. It leaves out the ordinary majority in between – from the toanot din to the women reading the denier number of the stocking packages (ok yes some are both, some are neither).

    True there are Charedi extremists who believe their birthrate will outdo any need to maintain “elu v’elu” on any level. And there are mavericks attempting to overturn the longstanding system without significant Rabbinic backing.

    But most people are somewhere else. Keeping Torah, following their Rav, raising their children, doing chessed, learning, growing. Disappointed in the one-size-fits-all version of Das Torah, and mildly sympathetic but mostly put off by calls to overturn status quo, we are a growing majority and have been finding our voice despite all the screaming on both ends.

    I think I’ve described most people reading this.

  10. L. Oberstein says:

    Happy Indepndance Day. It is the fervent wish of all of us that the present State of Israel will indeed flourish and last forever. I would rather argue with someone about the nature of a Jewish State in a Jewish State than in a ghetto surrounded by Nazis. If they still have a big parade, I hope it instills pride and courage in the hearts of all Israelis who will no despair that we are still not accepted by our neighbors and I wonder when they ever will. For once we are not helpless victims. As far as the hashkafah stuff, let a thousand flowers bloom. I just like Jews

  11. Sam says:

    The curriculum regularly taught today to young ladies in Bais Yaakovs all over the world was universally considered apostasy less than one hundred years ago. The secular curriculum regularly taught today in all American Yeshivos is not much different than the curriculum advocated by the haskalah movement. Things change. The issue is only the pace.

  12. Zach Leiner says:


    While I cannot claim to have conducted extensive research on comparing the Maskilim’s agenda to today’s American yeshiva curriculums, one can reasonably conclude that the respective INTENTIONS of each were and are quite distinct, and never the twain shall meet (I hope).

  13. Barak says:


    I think that you have an important point. Indeed, life outside of the Holy Land makes us a bit meshuga. We need to return to Eretz Yisrael and build ourselves up halchically, spiritually, and in every which way-and then we shall guarantee our future.

  14. Izzy says:

    Among those of us that do accept the wisdom of our leaders on issues such as the ordination of women (Agudah issued a pretty strong one), how can we be sure that the situation was accurately presented to our leaders, and that they were not misled, as they were for example in the Elior Chen case (see YA’s comment note to that effect here: http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2010/04/16/why-the-antipathy/comment-page-1/#comment-383339), and in other situations recently?

  15. Micha Berger says:

    Public apology:

    It was made clear to me that some of my words could not have been taken in the manner intended by people who don’t know me. My calling the concept “das Teireh” was not intended as ridicule. Both my grandfather and my rebbe spoke Litvisher ‘Iddish, and I would not consider it derogatory to use that dialect. I just wanted to distinguish terms; and the easiest way to do so would be to write them in two different languages and accents. It was shown to me that if you didn’t know my own warm spot for this accent, it would read very differently.

    Second, I do agree with R’ Shafran’s basic thesis. I just feel that his opening line reads as being pretty divisive to those of us who do not follow a panel of elders, whether it’s the Moetzes Gedolei haTorah or some other panel. It’s clear that that was no more R’ Shafran’s intent than it was my intent to be pejorative. However, the words do read as though an approach to religious leadership that is uniquely Agudah’s is somehow the essence of Judaism. Perhaps instead he could have written something that more clearly limited the scope of his statement to halakhah and spiritual guidance.


  16. Echad Meir says:

    For the record – KOE has a mechitza. It has occasional women’s kriyah, separate from the men, and a woman will get an aliyah on simchas Torah. And that’s prett much it, though it is a friendly minyan that over the years has done tons of learning and chesed. Indeed, for eyars membership dues included volunteering in a local nursing home. As for Louis Finkelstein, yes, he was the head of the Conservative Movement. He was also one of the people who made it possible for Talmuists and adherents of Rabbinic Judaism to gain stature and significance in American society. His appearing on the cover of Time Magazine in the 1950s with a black yarmulke on his head and speaking unapologetically of his commitment to halakaha and Hazal, both of which he understood in terms far more traditional than those of JTS today, was a real milestone and one of the things that made possible, yes, Avi Shafran’s stature as well. And anyone who wants to learn Sifrei is deeply indebted to his extraordinary edition, which shows his incredible erudition (as do his other works, which were less successful as scholarship, if still impressive in their own time).
    When will the Haredi world ever learn a little hakaras ha-tov for the people who made their own institutions possible, even if they disagree with them?

  17. Moshe says:

    I also agree with Shlomo. We need to get out of this galus and back to Eretz Yisrael. This will
    help us get properly recalibrated to where we should be as Torah Jews. Rabbi David Bar-Hayim has the right idea.

  18. Dovid Kornreich says:

    To Echad Meir:
    Rabbi Shafran’s point was simply that Louis Finkelstein was not Orthodox.
    You noted that he promoted Talmudists and Rabbinic Judaism in American society.
    You noted that he wore a black Yarmulke on the cover of Time Magazine.
    You noted that his commitment to halacha and Hazal far more traditional than that of JTS today.
    You noted that he had incredible erudition.
    But you never addressed the point under discussion:
    He was not Orthodox!
    Don’t you think that from an Orthodox religious point-of-view, this outweighs anything else on your list? (and all of them combined?) Don’t you think its a little obtuse to criticize Rabbi Shafran for having Orthodox religious priorities?

  19. Shmuel says:


    All the same, Avi Weiss stillgot what he wanted; title or no, he still has a woman holding a very important position in his shul,one of influence and prominence. The focus on the official title is peripheral, and is a smokescreen for the far more severe issue at hand…

  20. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding the comment by Dovid Kornreich, April 21st, 2010 at 4:18 pm:

    I guess we’re supposed to get all giddy when someone resembles us superficially. Jewish Conservatism started off as the ostensible Orthodox Lite, lacking “only” the total commitment to Torah MiSinai. From Frankel and Graetz onward, this school of thought was a consumer fraud.

  21. Reb Yid says:

    Of course, at one point the Orthodox world did not know from a Bat Mitzvah, either. At one time, this innovation from (primarily) the Conservative movement was rejected by the entire Orthodox world…”halachic” and other objections were duly proffered.

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