Who Hast Not Made Me a Liberal Rabbi . . .
by Rabbi Dov Fischer
Recently, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, one of six national officers of the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF) and rabbi of a West Coast Orthodox Union congregation, published a deeply disturbing internet article on the “Morethodoxy” website. The article explained why he no longer recites a brakhah formulated by Chazal that dates back to Gemara times. “[E]ach morning,” Kanefsky wrote, “we actually reinforce the inherited prejudice that holds that women possess less innate dignity than men.” Indeed, explaining his rejection of the brakhah “shelo asani ishah,” he also attacked certain great Poskim of the past and further lambasted large swaths of the contemporary Orthodox world whom he accused of forcing women to pray in cages. In Rabbi Kanefsky’s formulation: “[O]ften she must content herself with davening in a cage in shul.” He also accused Jewish courts of widespread corruption: “Women are still extorted routinely during divorce proceedings, as rabbinical courts urge them to forfeit various rights in exchange for her husband’s deigning to give the ‘get’ that she needs.” Therefore, he “cannot take God’s name in the context of this blessing anymore. . . .” He even wrote that the prayer recited by Orthodox Jews for 2,000 years and even published on page 18 of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) Siddur – he is an RCA member – is a “Desecration of [G-d’s] Name.”
Under blistering criticism, the national IRF leader took down his article 72 hours later and replaced it with a parallel piece that was rewritten to sound more genteel. But its views continue to be molded by exactly the same viewpoint and modus driven by the more Gentile. It is the Morethodoxy / IRF / Chovevei Torah (YCT) approach that, like Conservative Judaism a century earlier, begins the discussion with the Orthodox premise as a starting point for locating and then carefully hand-picking alternating halakhic opinions from among 2000 years of published Torah analysis to create a variant salad of Torah practice that deviates repeatedly from the universal norm. As Conservative Judaism, which never quotes The Mordechai, built a deviationist approach to minyan on the foundation of an isolated Mordechai commentary, so does the Morethodoxy universe first shoot its arrows, then paint its bull’s-eyes around them. In time, a minority opinion can be molded for everything, much as racist American legislators could build a contemporary deviationist American legal framework by citing rejected or minority Supreme Court opinions to justify incarcerating Japanese Americans, enslaving African Americans, and breaking signed and sworn pledges made to Native Americans.
“Morethodoxy” is self-described by many of the “Liberal Brethren” who populate the left-most boundary of the Sabbath-observant as their “safe place.” It is a tunnel on the web where mostly IRF members from YCT, but also including a few from the left wing of the RCA, can try propagating their views without being subjected to scrutiny and critique by those committed to a Mesorah-driven frumkeit.
Whether it be Rabbi Avi Weiss ordaining “women rabbis” backed by a formal “halakhic Responsum,” or whether it be Rabbi Kanefsky urging Israel to accept Arab demands to negotiate the possible division of Jerusalem, these moments are not mere cases of halakhic static but rather open the door to grave convolutions for communicating authentic Torah and the values of Mesorah to the general Jewish public. We all lose when a rabbi of a West Coast Orthodox Union congregation publishes that he no longer will recite a brakhah that appears everywhere including the RCA Siddur – published by the very rabbinical body of which he is a member.
The brakhah “shelo asani ishah” stems from the Gemara teaching in Menachot 43b that a Jew should endeavor to recite 100 brakhot every day. The Gemara there tells us that R. Meir would recite that brakhah everyday, and the Tosefta Brakhot 6:23 attributes the same brakhah to R. Yehuda. Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch comments beautifully on the matter at Vayikra 23:43.
Nevertheless, Rabbi Kanefsky wrote that he cannot recite the prayer “shelo asani ishah,” arguing that it goes against his conscience to validate a Judaism where a woman “can be a secular judge but not a dayan. A brain surgeon, but not a posek.” He elaborated: “Simply for lack of male reproductive organs, otherwise qualified women are still barred from the rabbinate. . . .” Ironically, the Rabbinical Council of America, the rabbinic body to which Rabbi Kanefsky belongs alongside his often contradicting national role in the extreme-left IRF, overwhelmingly adopted a policy resolution at their April 2010 national convention – passed in an open plenum, after extended and passionate discussion, without a single dissenting vote – upholding the halakhic principles at the core of the Mesorah on the issue: “[W]e cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.”
Rabbi Kanefsky’s article stated the unconscionable. Rabbinical courts are nothing like what he describes. And it is despicable to portray the female prayer experience as being tantamount to praying from a cage. I have been at Rabbi Kanefsky’s Orthodox Union synagogue. The women in that shul are not in cages. Similarly, the women in my Orthodox Young Israel shul have elegant seating equal to that of the men on the other side of the mechitzah. I have never seen a shul where women were assigned to a cage-like area. Thus, even if someone indeed can point to outlier experiences at some shuls that bear seating architecture repugnant to Rabbi Kanefsky, there are ample alternative synagogues for women to attend. That is how the Torah community thrives. People daven where they are comfortable. It is despicable for a national rabbinical officer to publish that women are made to pray in cages. Yet Rabbi Kanefsky wrote “This is no way to run a religion. . . . I cannot take God’s name in the context of this blessing anymore.” And what shall be said of a statement that accuses Orthodox Judaism of desecrating the Name, G-d forbid, by virtue of our reciting that brakhah?
All my life, I have been proscribed from ascending the shul bimah, spreading my hands in the mystical fashion, and pronouncing the Kohen blessing to my congregants. I am the most Torah-schooled and learned in the shul, but I was not born to a Kohen father. I was born a Yisrael. Yet I have never been jealous of Kohanim. I have never felt alienated from my faith or second-class. My Creator has His rules, and I devote my life to locating my place joyously within those rules. So I studied to be a rav. I taught yeshiva high school for a while, have been rav of a few shuls. I learn and teach Torah. I found my niche.
All sincerely frum Jews know how to find our respective niches with joy and without jealousy of others born to other stations. We are not all the same. I cannot get pregnant. The child of a non-Jew who seeks to enter the embrace of Klal Yisrael also begins from a different place. If he is a male Moabite, he cannot get in altogether, no matter what. If a female Moabite, who knows – she might be the progenitor of the Moshiach. A born non-Jew may never be a king of Israel, but neither may anyone outside the tribe of Yehudah. And the Maccabees, those wonderful Chashmona’im who were so blessed to be born Kohanim and to save us from the Greek pollution of the Beit HaMikdash, suffered the most severe tragedy when they endeavored to leave their Kohen portion for that of the royalty assigned to those born within the House of Yehudah.
Women have an honored role in Torah Judaism, as do men. Yisrael tribes have an honored role, as do the Levi groups of Kohanim and Levi’im. One group is not better, just different. Women have a monthly menstrual cycle that men do not have, and women get pregnant, carry babies into the world, and then nourish them. All the sociology courses in New Age Gender Studies cannot change that. When men stretch into becoming “egalitarian,” “sharing” the male mitzvot with their wives, halakhic chaos unfolds. A newborn enters the world, and suddenly the liberal husband stops coming to shul on Shabbat morning, deviating from his explicit halakhic obligation to be there, liberally alternating with his wife who is not commanded to be there at all. In the non-Torah movements, we have the seen the advent of women rabbis precipitate a thoroughly predictable drop in male temple attendance, leading the reform movement to hold special “men only services” at their annual conventions in order to attract male participation at the convocations. And that is no way to run a religion.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, rav of Young Israel of Orange County, is an adjunct law professor, a member of the national executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, and author of Jews for Nothing: On Cults, Assimilation, and Intermarriage (Feldheim).