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.