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.

You may also like...

56 Responses

  1. Allan Katz says:

    Thanks for a very informative and insightful blog post. However, I feel that the question that needs to be addressed is finding a ‘ model for orthodox inclusiveness’, how can we allow women to participate in decision making within the community and yet be faithful to halacha and mesorah. Rabbi David Lapin, also a business consultant, author of the book – ‘ Lead By greatness’ in a blogpost coins the phrase circular inclusivenss where we start from the ‘ unchanged center’ extending the radius further out to include others. Rabbi Mirwis, the new chief Rabbi of the Uk, has appointed to his team ,a woman as a female halachik advisor – to give a place for women who may be bosses and employers to many men – and at the same time opened up a Kollel in his shul. In this way he has enlarged the circle to include both Hareidi and more liberal elements and yet staying faithful to his center

    So the article has told us what is not an acceptable role for women, I ask – what would be an acceptable role ?

  2. Ben Waxman says:

    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.

    When is it permitted to discard age old Torah practices? I am not asking this a joke. Chabadniks sleep outside of a Sukka, not because of the cold but for some spiritual reason which I don’t really understand. Rav Uziel agreed to abandon yibum. Is that an allowed discarding? I am sure that I could think of other examples.

  3. David G. says:

    I have a different question for the IRF.
    A few years ago, their leading rabbis – who also belonged to the RCA – all agreed to vote on an RCA statement which said something along the lines that the Orthodox rabbinate cannot accept women rabbis or members of the clergy regardless of the title given to them.
    How can those same rabbis now come out and fully support this move which is openly calling their graduates full members of the clergy (or even rabbis if that’s right for the venue/audience)?

  4. Eric Kotkin says:

    It is never permissible to discard of age old Torah practices. It is simply an issue of defining when certain practices apply in certain situations. I know that was unclear so let’s take the yivum example. The Torah gives two acceptable alternatives of behavior in the case of a woman who’s widowed w/o children. Under ideal circumstances, yivum (marrying the brother of the deceased husband) is better than halitzah (a divorce of sorts). However, circumstances are not ideal so we simply coach people to take the halitzah choice. If someone went and did yivum, it would take effect.
    The previous Lubavitcher rebbe didn’t sleep in the sukkah because the spirituality made him too uncomfortable to sleep, which is actually the same dispensation as weather. The Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l said therefore that’s how all Habadniks should behave. It’s a good question.

  5. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    One can go back to Rav Moshe Feinstein’s teshuva on feminism from the 1970s, in which he stated that basically these women have a complaint against HaShem and his Torah. I remember Professor Tamar Ross discussing what women could contribute to the halachic process and concluding that at some point, we will realize that when Chazal said something was dioraisoh, it was a political act to protect their position. I am confident that if we examine what these women write or say, we will find no small measure of kefira, minus, and apikorsus. I saw it 15 years ago, and nothing has changed since then.

  6. Charlie Hall says:

    “we structure a shul as it has traditionally been done”

    The Rav himself personally approved of shuls with far lower mechitzot than had been common because he believed that it was halachically permitted l’chatchila.

    “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”

    Look at your siddur and you will see many post-Chazal innovations: The texts of Tachanun and Selichot, Berich Shemei, the entirety of Simchat Torah and Kabalat Shabat, and for many of us the prayers for Medinat Yisrael (along with the new custom of reciting Hallel on Yom HaAtzmaut). And in many if not most shuls you will find new melodies for the communal prayers that were written in my lifetime.

    And of course there was no mesorah for the Rav to consider teaching gemara to women a chiyuv on the community.

    “Mesorah has been the bedrock of Jewish religious ritual and societal norms for millennia”

    No, *halachah* has been the bedrock of Jewish religious ritual and societal norms for millenia.

  7. ben dov says:

    Would JOFA justify betrothing minor girls? That too can be defended on purely technical grounds. Judaism is more than technical halacha.

  8. Avi Ben-Tzvi says:

    It is interesting that Saul Lieberman, possibly the greatest and most observant scholar in the Conservative Movement, couldn’t bring himself to accept the ordination of women in Conservative Judaism.

    JOFA and IRF are congratulating “orthodox” acceptance of a less-than-Conservative standard. The problem with “Open Orthodoxy” is that it is so open, that all Torah values fall out!

  9. Bob Miller says:

    A trivial point, but why does anyone spell halachik with a “k”?

  10. Kathy says:

    Don’t you find it remotely amusing that the RCA is invoking ‘mesorah’? RCA has been pushing the envelope on mesorah to their own benefit. Now their leanings has come to haunt them. I haven’t seen Charaidim give one wit regarding JOFA, simply because they are not threatened by any left leaners, who are just dismissed as “modern”.

    Oh and Mr Waxman, the concept of shev al taasa, is not the same as innovative practice.

  11. Todd Berman says:

    While I agree with much of what had been written, I have two comments. One, I find it incredibly disingenuous to quote Lieberman for a Halachik ruling, referring to him as R. , while denigrating him at the same time. And secondly, semikha given today is a medieval Ashkenazi construct not something dating back two millennia. Semikha itself was revolutionary after the real thing was stomped out, R”L. Beis Yaakov, Kollel, and many other new practices have been adopted. Not so clear to me why it is OK for Shira Smiles to give a shiur but not Sarah Horowitz?

  12. Daniel Weltman says:

    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.

    Elusive? I think people would welcome a sophisticated discussion of the issues. The calculus of what to allow or disallow at the end of the day from a practical, communal and sociological point of view is complex: we can discuss all the moving parts, and agree on what is at stake. At the end of the day, we have to admit when an issue is not technically a halachik one, and therefore be very clear on what brings us to decide this way or that way. Today’s ploni-almoni is well-informed and smart, and should be treated to no less a sophisticated discription and discussion of the competing issues and concerns than he is accustomed to regarding the economy from the fed, or his medical condition from his physician. The need for public transparency and honesty is something that orthodox Jewish policy makers have been slow in recognizing. Perhaps the maharat issue, amongst others, is a good opportunity for growth in this area.

  13. Yoel Finkelman says:

    Can anyone say “no true Scotsman” fallacy!?

    [YA – Sure. Three times, quickly. That doesn’t preclude the existence of what to many is an obvious part of halachic decision-making. Your challenge only means that there will be more pieces coming, in time, about who and how this mysterious commodity is applied on a practical level.]

  14. Reb Yid says:

    To ordain women would be to empty the rabbinic title of its very meaning.

    True, but I think that argument would be lost on JOFA, YCT, and Yeshivat Maharat. They don’t necessarily view what they’re doing as part of a mesorah. They seem to have their own ideas about the role of a Jewish spiritual leader, and I think they treat their concept of “Rabbi” as an invention of their own, not part of a mesorah.

  15. dr. bill says:

    Mesorah is an important and nuanced principle. We give speeches in the vernacular before Mussaf in many an orthodox synagogue and we educate women in Torah studies to varying degrees; both were opposed based on a similar appeal to a mesorah as well as quasi-halakhic arguments.

    Let’s posit opposition to women serving as full-fledged rabbis, be it for any of a host of reasons. That said, an unfiltered appeal to mesorah might oppose women’s study of rabbinics and Talmud, women serving as yoatzot and toanot, or any changes that reflect the new reality wrt women’s expanding roles in society. Often masking in opposition to women rabbis is opposition to any changed role for women in our traditional society. That may be wise in various circles; I have no problem with suggestions limited to particular communities. I do have problems when one quotes even gedolai olam of 2 generations ago on a psak about current reality or essays that lack focus on what roles should be advanced versus focus on what should not.

    After the Grash died, JTS admitted women and 6 of his famous disciples left JTS. A number have since passed on, including one whose seforim are found in many a chareidi beit midrash. Cannot ask him, but you can ask those who remain. They would help you formulate a better view of what their master might have suggested be done today. Their guess has a fair bit more credibility. It would be respectful of his memory to ask and not presume how he might opine two generations later. (A perusal of his close to 10,000 pages of written material, would locate under 100 pages of what might be called psak. Only those close to whom, heard his views on psak in conversation.)

    In reality, it is not change but the pace and nature of change that challenges the mesorah.

    bob miller, a chaf is kh and a chet is h with a dot below in many journals. i and others tend to follow except where usage is overwhelmingly different.

  16. A. Gordimer says:

    Allan: You raise a good question, and it has many good answers. I personally feel that the best public religious role for a woman who seeks it is that of teacher and/or counselor. Although many may disagree with me, I think that people such as Reb. Kanievsky and yblch”t Reb. Jungreis, Reb. Heller and Mrs. Shira Smiles (although her husband is a true talmid chacham and a musmach, she does not use a “Rebbetzin” title) and countless others, be they famous or not-so-famous women, who teach, counsel, speak publicly or publish, have contributed more to Jewish life and Torah education than the vast majority of rabbis in the field, hands down.

    Ben: Many share your concern regarding sleeping outside a sukkah. I defer to those who follow or preach this practice for illumination on what seems to be a perplexing matter. As for Yibum, the Gemara in Yevamos speaks of instances in which Yibbum is disfavored or not allowed, due to other considerations, opting for Chalitzah. The notion of avoiding Yibbum is found in the Gemara and Rishonim. All other such cases of change that are authoritative minhagim are based on ancient precedent and axioms.


  17. A. Gordimer says:

    Todd: 1. The article did not denigrate R Lieberman. Comment was merely made about his JTS association, stating that despite that, he was Orthodox and his opinion on this halachic matter was thus meaningful. 2. Nonetheless, our “Semichah” is modeled after the ancient one. That is exactly what R Lieberman argues.

    Daniel: Of course, but the issue is that even if we do not know the reasons, Mesorah is meaningful, binding and determinative.

    Dr. Bill: The nuanced, borderline issues you raise need gedolim/baalei Mesorah to settle. Whether an issue is Mesorah or fluid practice requires their serious input.


  18. myron chaitovsky says:

    Dr Bill…re Bob Miller’s side point as to the spelling halachik and your response “chaf is kh and a chet is h with a dot below in many journals. I and others tend to follow except where usage is overwhelmingly different.” :

    It appears to me that Bob was challenging the final K, not the choice of ch vs kh in the middle of the word. A final K in halachik–however common–is simply unjustifiable. It is NOT a transliteration, and is no different than the ending of archaic or Semitic. It requires a c.

  19. Gil Student says:

    For those interested, you can see the English translation of Prof. Saul Lieberman’s responsum on women’s ordination on my blog (published with permission). Google “torah musings lieberman women” and it will come up

  20. KT says:

    “…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.”

    This is the argument of Korach, not Beis Shammai/Beis Hillel (Avot 5:20)

  21. Noam Stadlan says:

    ‘ many strong objections’ may be in the eye of the beholder
    Serarah- The Av Beit Din of the RCA- Beit Din of America, Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz holds that there is no concern for serarah for women presidents if shuls. He has other concerns and I am certainly not saying that Rav Schwartz supports women rabbis, but the use of serarah here appears forced. Furthermore, from what I understand YU has given smicha to geirim, so it is logically untenable to apply concern for serarah in one instance and not another.

    Tzniut- how conferring a degree or title((specifically not its use) is a violation of tzniut is difficult to understand and again appears to defy logic.

    Doing what the non-Jews do- Again there is no consistency here. We borrowed upshearin, various modes of dress, drashot in the vernacular, and many other practices including a number from followers of Shabbatai Tzvi.

    Which leaves the Mesorah argument. I suspect that the author is probably on the ‘wrong’ side of the ‘mesorah’ on a number of issues. If we define ‘Mesorah’ as what the gedolim say, and then define the gedolim as the Chareidi leaders in Israel, then everything that is not consonant with their pronouncements is against the Mesorah, including working for a living, supporting the State of Israel, working to free agunot, etc. Even R. Schachter would be on the wrong side of the Mesorah.
    R. Mosheh Lichtenstein published an article last month stating that non erotic singing by women is not a violation if Kol isha. Is everyone now going to accept this as a normative part of the Mesorah? Are they going to argue that the Rosh Yeshiva of Har Etzion is not a transmitter of Mesorah?

    The argument against women rabbis, if there is one to be made, is that it is too much of a change for a religion that by nature and necessity is very conservative. However, those making the argument need to realize that they are choosing to value the status quo more than they value giving all Jews(including obviously the women) the opportunity for maximal spiritual and religious expression and growth.

  22. L says:

    Todd Berman, you write: “Not so clear to me why it is OK for Shira Smiles to give a shiur but not Sarah Horowitz?”

    I don’t think Shira Smiles would appreciate the comparison. For one, she is exceptionally loyal to the traditional concept of mesorah, and out of her own humility and personal sense of tniyus, chooses to speak only for audiences of women. She also doesn’t posit herself as a halachic authority (though she is clearly well versed in halacha) and instead speaks on Tanach, midrash/aggada, and inyanei hashkafah. Every shiur she gives centers around the question “how can we grow closer to Hashem”, with practical suggestions for making that a reality. Anyone who listens to her Torah and thinks “too bad she doesn’t have smicha” is completely missing the point of everything she stands for.

  23. Ben Waxman says:

    Eric and A. Gordimer, you didn’t address my point. My point about yibum was that until Rav Uziel agreed to cancel the practice, yibum was very much done in Edut HaMizrach. I am fully aware that there is a machloqet in the gemara. BTW Rav Ovadia feels that yibum should be done even today and very strongly disagrees with Rav Uziel’s psak on the issue.

    There may be very good arguments against ordaining women. But claims of a mesorah that doesn’t change isn’t one of them. Our traditions change, they are changing as we speak, and they’ll continue to change.

    One last point (a touchy one): thereby making it elusive save for those talmidei chachamim who have the requisite knowledge and insight.. The Jewish world, or at least the Orthodox Jewish world, has never been as well educated as it is today. RMF wrote in his introduction that rabbanim should check his work and not just rely on his word. Halacha can be understood. Yes, this is rocket science but rocket science can also be understood. We don’t need appeals to accepting daas torah; the case can be made without it.

  24. joel rich says:

    . However, those making the argument need to realize that they are choosing to value the status quo more than they value giving all Jews(including obviously the women) the opportunity for maximal spiritual and religious expression and growt
    r’ noam,
    That’s one possible formulation. Another might be they are choosing to value the good of the entire community more than they value giving specific subgroups of Jews(including obviously the women who feel a need for a title/percieved authorization) the opportunity for maximal spiritual and religious expression and growth.
    One could extend this to other subgroups as well.
    I don’t claim to know where the balance should be,

  25. Mike S. says:

    The nuanced, borderline issues you raise need gedolim/baalei Mesorah to settle. Whether an issue is Mesorah or fluid practice requires their serious input. As a theoretical matter of how practice should develop, this is obvious. But in practice it seems not always to be the case historically. Chassidus and the mussar movement, for example, were opposed by the leading rabbinic authorities for a generation or more. And, while the history is murkier, that seems to be true of older changes as well. For example, the gemara speaks of the practice of shiva nekiim on any blood (tipas dam c’chardal) as having arisen among the women rather than by rabbinic ruling. And Tosphos’s justification of marrying ketanos in their times (Kiddushin 41a s.v. Assur) despite the clear prohibition in the gemara there. And no one thinks the Rema’s explanation of why Ashkenazim stopped duchanen daily is anything other than a post facto justification for a practice that had arisen.

  26. Bob Miller says:

    Every generation has its own special form of subversive phony baloney masquerading as halachic discourse.

  27. Yoel Finkelman says:

    R. Adlerstein,

    Yes, the segulah works better if you say it three times quickly 🙂

    [YA – I always knew you had a chassidishe side, even if well repressed. ]

    More seriously, you are right. A few posts on defining “mesorah” in a halakhic/policy context would help explain “what I don’t understand” about the notion.

    [YA – I am either a coward, lazy, or both. I.e., I was hoping that my posting R Gordimer’s opening salvo, others would rise to the occasion and begin writing thoughtful stuff that would continue the work he started. If no one does, readers will have to settle for whatever I can come up with.]

    To succeed, those explanation would (given that every community changes and is changing, including communities that think that they are not) have to explain why some changes are positive and others negative and how you know in advance.

    [YA – Alternatively, they would have to show the necessity for such a construct and/or their assumption within hundreds of years of halachic material. If that can be done, the burden shifts. Once the construct can be shown to be important, answering every question about it and accounting for every exception or contradiction will not be quite as important. There are lots of things we accept because they work, even if we understand them imperfectly.]

    It would have to account for historical examples where controversial ideas that was once rejected as non-traditional are now commonplace (sermons in the vernacular) or practices that were borrowed from goyim are now part of the mesorah (schlissel challah). It would also have to not be circular (i.e. the ba’alei mesorah tell us what the mesorah is), not sneak “my/our intution” into the definition through the back door.

    [YA – That would be helpful to lots of people, but I am not convinced that the validity of the concept stands or falls on the basis of your challenge. If I write the pieces, I will try to demonstrate why this is true.]

    To the extent that the definition relies on “the gedolim” telling us what the mesorah is, it would have to offer a non-circular definition of a gadol that could explain why talmidei chachamim with stellar character traits who are not viewed as gedolim, perhaps because they aren’t haredi or because they advocate changes that aren’t part of the proposed mesorah, don’t have a voice.

    [YA – I can’t help you here. I believe they have a voice. There are, however, protocols for dealing with the existence of multiple and contradictory voices. A voice may be heard, but then drowned out by those who disagree – at least beyond the immediate sphere of influence of that gadol, in which his voice should be the one heeded.]

    Also, it would have to explain why the concept of mesorah is powerful enough not only to make a certain suggested policy a bad idea, but why it would make that suggested policy illegitimate (non-Orthodox?)

    [YA – It may not be. There are other good reasons why many see the Far Left as chutz le-machaneh. I prefer not to have to render such decisions. I’m not sure that HKBH particularly cares about the label “Orthodox.” OTOH, I do believe that the approach a group consistently takes to matters of halacha can be so different from the assumptions of others, that they inhabit a different religio-cultural place. I think that this may be the case in regard to the Far Left. That is a distraction, however, from the more important conversation we are beginning here.]

    Offering such a definition I think would be a big step forward in the Orthodox public conversation.

    [YA – I’ll say!]

  28. Just Wondering says:

    Question to ponder…

    The Chassidim innovated additions to the siddur. It was met with great opposition for reasons that seem similar to the issue we are reading about right here. At some point in time, their changes were accepted. For around 200 years now, we have a new nusach that is accepted as kosher. (Even Artscroll has a nusach sfard siddur so it MUST be kosher!)

    Is it possible that we are in the middle of a similar process and in 50+ years people will be looking at this subject the same way? How does the change get ratified? Is it just from the facts on the ground?

  29. YM Goldstein says:

    I had a conversation with a former Chavrusa who is a YCT Ordained Rabbi and his wife around the time that Sara Hurwitz was ordained. The Mrs. mentioned several interviews that my friend has been on (he was graduating that May) where they turned to her and said “…and you can teach this class and that class, etc” In other words, they expected the Rebbetzin to serve as informal clergy without pay or recognition. They said that if women are expected to serve, they should be given professional recognition and should be paid.

    It should be noted that both locally and world-wide, there are quite a few well known female Rebbetzins and Morahs who are well accepted in the Orthodox world. I also know that one of the hospitals in New York City employs the wife of a Chassidic Rebbe as a chaplain; she uses the title of Rebbetzin in her chaplaincy work.

  30. A. Gordimer says:

    Noam: Please click the hyperlink in the article (which opens to http://www.hakirah.org/Vol%2011%20Schachter.pdf) and you will see that R Schachter addresses the Serarah and Tzni’us issues.
    The Mesorah point in my article is unrelated to the “Da’as Torah” concept, and the sources quoted for it are not part of the Chareidi world.


  31. A. Gordimer says:

    Ben: 1. Yibum may have been done in Edut Ha-Mizrach lands, but there is precedent going back to the Gemara not to do it due to other considerations and opt for Chalitzah. 2. Traditions change within the same halachic or hashkafic framework, but ordnaining women is a break and violates Tradition. 3. This is not a Da’as Torah issue. It is one of attaining a very keen, deep understanding of the undercurrents of Torah, which only those with the highest level of mastery achieve.

    Mike S.: There is of course precedent for a minhag, with a good makor, to arise without being legislated, and there are other halachic considerations that are brought to support the latter two issues you note. Another example: Not wearing tefillin the whole day. The halachic factor of guf naki balanced against the wearing of tefillin all day, and so it is with the other issues also. My point is that there needs to be authoritative halachic precedent or basis to factor into each change.

    Just Wondering: The Chassidim claimed very old precedent for their nusach. This is in stark contrast with the ordination of women.

  32. Dovid Kornreich says:

    I second Rabbi Gordimer’s examples of Reb. Kanievsky and yblch”t Mrs. Smiles as women who make enormous contributions to the spiritual enrichment of Klal Yisroel comparable to any rabbi. Un-remarkably, they have found ways to achieve “maximal spiritual and religious expression and growth” without overstepping traditional feminine roles or mimicking male titles.

    I’m asking honestly: what spiritual advantage is conferred upon a woman who receives the ordination title “Maharat”? If she will not be respected enough for her Torah knowledge by her community (or by herself) to be an effective teacher without the male equivalent title, it reveals a problem that goes much deeper than the divergence from traditional practice (which is bad enough).

  33. noam stadlan says:

    R. Gordimer- thank you for the response and the reference. Indeed that article is what I had in mind when I wrote the comment.

    R Schachter states that you can give s’micha to a ger even though there are many instances that he cannot serve as a rav due to issues of serarah. It follow then that there should be no problem giving s’micha to a woman even though there are many instances where she cannot serve due to serarah. The only difference between a woman and a ger in this regard is in serving on a beit din for geirim, and I doubt that this is the only function that geirim with smicha are serving. Therefore raising the issue of serarah is not a logical objection. You can work around it for women in the same way you can work around it for geirim.

    Rav Schachter describes a tzniut that mandates avoiding exposure to the public. He extends this to conferring smicha on women. If the argument is that we shouldn’t confer degrees or certificates of achievement, then Stern college shouldn’t be giving out degrees. No where does he explain why his concept of tzniut should apply to smicha and not to other similar situations. If he is going to claim that women should not be acknowledged publicly for their accomplishments, then the annual Skokie Yeshiva Women of Valor luncheon is actually an incitement to sin. If it is not giving drashas on Shabbat morning, then Rabbanit Henkin has violated that many times. etc. etc. The problem is that he states a concept(and I am not sure that all would agree with his concept or application), and then applies it only in one particular situation without explaining why it should be applied only in that situation and not others. It does not make logical sense.

    The Chareidim consider Da’as Torah to be part of the Mesorah, and rejecting Da’as Torah to be outside of the Mesorah. That is exactly my point. I dont know your positions on issues, but I suspect that rhe chareidim would consider some of them to be outside of what they consider the Mesorah. The point being that Mesorah to some extent is in the eye of the beholder. I emphasized the point by bringing an opinion from Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein and asking you if that was part of the Mesorah or not. Your choice would be to either to accept it as a legitimate part of the Mesorah or to reject Rav Lichtenstein as a conveyor of the Mesorah. I note that you did not respond to the question.

    R. Joel- thank you for the response. In the narrow sense you are absolutely correct. the number of women who would take advantage of an opportunity for s’micha is small. However, I think that women’s issues attract attention because they are the arena where deeper differences in philosophy and approach to halacha become manifest(I think the other common area is the intersection of science and halacha). Therefore, despite a lack of personal involvement, there are many who may feel invested in the process and result. Not only that, but the concepts in play would have wider application to other situations

  34. Avrohom Gordimer says:


    1. Although I cannot speak for R Schachter in terms of how he would address your questions and I was only citing his halachic conclusions, the fact that a ger may sit upon a beis din for gerim indicates a degree of Serarah, albeit it limited; this stands in contrast with a woman. (Again, the best thing is to please directly ask R Schachter on these points, as I am sure that he had in mind very valid distinctions when penning his article.)

    2. I apologize for not having replied to your comment about Kol Isha. Since that halacha is due to ervah, the extent and contours of its application are in dispute, as is the case with so many halachos in that category. (V. e.g. Aruch Ha-Shulchan regarding men walking behind women.) R M Lichtenstein is working **within the system ** on this, even if his psak is not agreed to by most.

    3. I am merely stating that which is outside of Mesorah, not giving a comprehensive view of all that Mesorah may include. As one esteemed RCA colleague told me yesterday, the intuition of the greatest rabbinic authorities of the generation, especially in matters that are not on the books and really have no mekoros, are to be sought here – sort of like the mechitzah issue, whose application for a shul is not codified. This may be what some call Da’as Torah, but it is a different type of it (not telling one for whom to vote, but how to conduct oneself in gray areas, that can only be addressed through intuition based on halachic and hashkafic mastery.)

  35. joel rich says:

    As one esteemed RCA colleague told me yesterday, the intuition of the greatest rabbinic authorities of the generation, especially in matters that are not on the books and really have no mekoros, are to be sought here – sort of like the mechitzah issue, whose application for a shul is not codified

    R’ Avrohom,
    Exactly the point being debated imho. ISTM we live in times where this opinion may need to be sold to amcha rather than just assuming that providing it will be sufficient.

  36. dr. bill says:

    Just wondering, no need to wonder. your issue has been dealt with by prof. katz and a number of his students. how change happened for most of our history is not how some believe it should. idealized models are just that – idealized inventions. in reality, when the pace of change became too rapid at the dawn of modernity and jewish emancipation in the 19th century, the reactions became more extreme with deviations from tradition on both sides. those extremes are obvious today. some have become the basis of a new (invented) tradition; some have adopted modernity in place of tradition.

    To be clear, the Rav’s respect for minhagim was based on his ability to find their halakhic origins. when circumstance changed, the application of halakha and certainly traditional behavior have to be re-evaluated based on the present. a chicken is not treif because one was last week. for many, behavior absent halakhic rationale, does not make for mesorah.

  37. shaya says:

    Noam, I believe gerim can also sit on a beis din in a case not involving gerim, if the parties agree.

  38. Noam Stadlan says:

    R. Gordimer- Thank you for the reply. I appreciate your taking the time. To begin with The conmection that Rav Schachter makes between smicha and dayanim appears to be based on an unproven historical link. Current yoreh yoreh smicha does not as far as i know cover issues usually seem in beit din so as as practical matter there is no commection. Furthermore, According to the Ran women may sit in a Beit din if it is agreed to by the parties. I am not sure who disagrees with the Ran. The Sefer Hachinuch also allows for women judges as do the contemporary authorities cited by R Daniel Sperber in his article published in the Edah journal.

    Regarding the Mesorah issue, According to you R Mosheh Lichtenstein and his ruling are within the Mesorah, and R. Daniel Sperber and others who are not opposed to women rabbis are outside. The crucial question is: what makes them outside the Mesorah? Is it who they are(or aren’t)? How they arrived at the conclusion? Or the conclusion itself? And on what basis was that determination made?

  39. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    What makes some outside the mesorah? R. Daniel Sperber made the following comment at the Conference on Feminism and Orthdoxy 15 years ago. “There are biblical commandments that have been struck out of our halachic code.” If one looks at the 9th of the Rambam’s 13 principles (look at his introduction to the 10th chapter of Mishna Sanhedrin, not the Ani Maamins printed in the siddur), one finds that the Rambam states that it is impossible to abolish a single commandment of the Torah. To state that commandments have been struck from our halachic code violates this principle of faith, and renders him outside the mesorah. Others would say it does far more.

  40. Sholom says:

    In that artical in Hakira, R’Shachter also reports that modern day semicha, which he views as an imperfect attempt to continue the ancient tradition of Biblical semicha, is granted to geirim, because there is precedent for the Biblical semicha occasionally being granted to geirim in ancient times. He does not view this as the case for women, and therefore discourages semicha also on those grounds.

    The halachic discussion is of fundamental importance, but I do think extra-halachic factors are relevant to community policy, when guided by common sense. From my standpoint, the feminist project of the past century, while bringing some necessary change, has also resulted in a massive amount of damage to families, and society as a whole. The incitement of jealousy against men for any real and imagined inequity has a major downside, even if it sometimes drives necessary social change. I for one do not view it as reasonable to assume that all of the women of JOFA, and their ilk, are purely motivated l’shem shamayim. They, like the rest of us, are products of the times.

    There are plenty of Rebbetzins that teach classes in the Jewish world, and function in an educational capacity, formally and informally. If they are brilliant, let them demonstrate their brilliance and scholarship along these lines. Seminaries are flourishing, and if the discussion at issue is regarding how to improve the education in these spheres then great; it’s not like yeshivat Maharat invented the idea of Jewishly educating women. Rather the issue appears to be that of granting a title, and chasing after kavod, while simultaneously putting “the old boy’s club” in its place.

  41. Sholom says:

    Noam, your reply to R. Goldimer wasn’t visible to me at the time I wrote the above. I think the extra-halachic concerns still apply. A more competent halachic expert can discuss whether the Ran, and Chinuch that you bring can be applicable in isolated communities. I am not aware of these opinions holding sway over even a significant minority of klal Yisrael at any time in history. Without intending to sound flippant is that Mesorah?

    I still think the extra-halachic concerns, alluded to above, still apply, although it would not at all surprise me if voices from the left view such concerns as mere “fear mongering” (of course I disagree).

  42. Bob Miller says:

    Nowadays, any Jewish woman can self-identify as a rabbi or some other title with a similar intended meaning, but this is evidently not enough. Some such women and their supporters expect us to validate the choice of title whether or not we accept the concept. A Jew is under no compulsion to accept or even consider innovations that his/her own poskim view as incompatible with Torah.

    I guess we Orthodox Jews should be flattered that Orthodox validation of people’s career choices is considered desirable.

  43. A. Gordimer says:


    Thank you for the message.

    Yoreh Yoreh is part of ordination (Sah. 5a), and R Lieberman’s ruling includes this feature.

    All three factors you note determine what is within or without the Mesorah. The Rav considered halachic conclusions based on external/secular disciplines used for inherent halachic purposes to be invalid; likewise, if one does not adhere to traditional halachic methodology is his approach outside of Mesorah.

    Have a good Shabbos.

    Avrohom Gordimer

  44. Noam Stadlan says:

    R Reisman- I don’t know the context of the quote from R. Sperber and that is in fact quite crucial. You could say that the statements regarding Ben sorer u’moreh and ir hanidachat, that they never were and never will be (Sanhedrin 81) are similar.

    Shlomo- it is more than isolated opinions- to quote R Sperber- Rav Yitzhak Isaac Herzog, z”tl, so ruled and Rav Bakshi Doron, (Binyan Av, (Jerusalem, 1982), 65:5, p. 287) wrote that women can be “of the great ones of the generation and serve as decisors, teaching Torah and halakhic rulings, for which the authority stems from personal abilities.”

    I would frame the issue as- ‘smicha should be given to all who have fulfilled the requirements’. Just like everyone who does a the same job should be paid the same. If there is no halachic problem with women getting smicha, why are you denying them the opportunity? Why are you casting aspersions on their motivation?

    Bob Miller- would you study to be a doctor and forego the MD and the opportunities that go along with the degree and title?

    Rav Gordimer- my question was: what is it specifically that makes R sperber’s opinion outside the Mesorah? Your answer did not contain any specifics. R Sperber specifically states in his article that he used methodology considered traditional by all.
    Thanks shavua tov

  45. Avrohom Gordimer says:


    I Did not read R Sperber’s article on this and thus did not state state my answer as a reply to the article. All that I can say is that seeing that R Sperber is the chancellor of The Canadian Rabbinical School, which is a non-Orthodox seminary staffed almost exclusively by rabbis from JTS (R Sperber appears to be the only rabbi there who identifies as Orthodox), as well as R Sperber’s other many controversial rulings that are quite unorthodox, I am not so sure how within the Mesorah his positions are, despite his claim that he utilizes traditional methodology. I do not write this as one who is “closed-minded”; I attended YU and am very much part of the outside world, but my feel from what I know and have seen is that we need not seek to justify R Sperber’s positions.

    Shavua tov.

    Avrohom Gordimer

  46. Steve Brizel says:

    Yasher Koach to R Gordimer for a superb article that explains the importance of adhering to Mesorah and emphasizing the very different roles that men and women are expected to adhere to in being a Shomer Torah UMitzvos. As far as Dr Sperber is concerned, his views on Nusach HaTefilah clearly illustrate why his views on Jewish histtory are fascinating, but that his views on Halacha and Nusach HaTefilah are not rooted in Halacha and Mesorah.

  47. Noam Stadlan says:

    Steve- please provide justification for your assertions

    R. Gordimer- thank you again for your response. R Lieberman was appointed dean of JTS in 1949. Therefore he had already been head of JTS for quite a while when he wrote on women rabbis. Therefore it isn’t logical for you to quote him approvingly while disqualifying R Sperber on the basis of being head of a non Orthodox seminary

    R. Sperber has written an argument showing what there is no problem having women in positions of authority. If you want to claim that this is against the Mesorah, I suggest the way to do it is to address his arguments and show where he is wrong. Stating that he doesn’t count is not going to convince those that don’t already agree with you.

  48. Bob Miller says:

    Noam Stadlan wrote above, “Bob Miller- would you study to be a doctor and forego the MD and the opportunities that go along with the degree and title?”

    If for some technical reason I belonged to a group whose members could not legally hold a certain professional position, or if the position itself was not held in that profession to be a valid job description, I would not study with that position in mind. I might study the material for its own sake or to become better informed.

    I doubt that any woman goes into the professional studies at issue here with illusions that the Orthodox world in general holds her intended career path to be valid. Tons of specious propaganda won’t alter thst (I hope).

  49. Noam Stadlan says:

    All of the Maharat graduates who wanted a Shul job have a clergy job at an Orthodox Shul. I guess your doubts are misplaced.

  50. A. Gordimer says:

    Noam: I was not invoking R Lieberman on his own accord; had his ruling not been accepted and promulgated by R Schachter, I would not have quoted it.

    I have read the reasons for R Sperber permitting the ordination of women (albeit not in his article – he penned a piece about it when Sara Hurwitz was ordained as Rabba, and he has explained his position to reporters – all of which I have read), and he does not address the points raised by R Schachter or R Lieberman. His arguments are very practical and not conceptual.

    That being said, I again did not state that his position on this topic is outside of the Mesorah, but that he has identified himself with positions and an institution that raise questions in general about his commitment to Mesorah-based halachic interpretation.

    Avrohom Gordimer

  51. Bob Miller says:

    Noam Stadlan wrote, “All of the Maharat graduates who wanted a Shul job have a clergy job at an Orthodox Shul.”

    Here, we get into definitions…I guess such a job and job site are as normatively Orthodox as the Maharats themselves are!

  52. Noam Stadlan says:

    R Gordimer- if you are taking the position that women rabbis are outside of the Mesorah, and R. Sperber says women rabbis are ok, by definition you are saying that his position is outside the Mesorah. It is very reasonable to ask what makes his opinion outside the Mesorah and so far there has not been a specific answer. If his opinion is not outside the Mesorah then neither are women rabbis.

    You seem to be relying on R Schachter both for his hechsher of R. Lieberman(the fact that you think RSL needs a hechsher is incredibly sad to me) and for his opinion. Is everything that R Schachter says automatically part of the Mesorah? Does everyone have to agree with Rav Schachter’s statements? Rav Adam Fertziger(orthodox) has written that Rav Schachter has essentially made up a meta Halachic narrative equating feminism with heresy. Should that affect the reliability of his pronouncements on the issue of women rabbis?

    Since you are trying to eliminate R Sperber from the Mesorah, I think the burden of proof is on you, not on R Sperber to defend himself

  53. A. Gordimer says:

    Noam: I did not state that R Sperber’s ruling on this is outside of the Mesorah; whether it is or is not, I did not make that claim. Rather, I am uncomfortable with R Sperber’s positions, methodology and associations, which do challenge the Mesorah.

    R Lieberman taught for nearly half a century at JTS, which is the brain of the Conservative movement. Although he protested the ordination of women, he knew that his rabbinical students would be mesader Kiddushin for Kohanim to converts, would not practice or preach the rules of mikveh, and so much more. Despite his personal observance, his association with JTS and the training of its rabbis raises much concern. I would only accept the rulings by such a person if an established rosh yeshiva (RHS) authorizes such.

    Kol tuv,
    Avrohom Gordimer

  54. Noam Stadlan says:

    Thank you for all your responses. Although you noted that there are halachic grounds for opposing women rabbis I think I showed that as presented they are not very persuasive unless one is inclined to accept them based only on the name/position of the author. You have argued that the Mesorah is important but that doesn’t actually have an impact on the discussion unless you are also arguing that women rabbis is a violation if the Mesorah. And, if that is your position, you then need to show how R. Sperber’s position is a violation of the Mesorah, something that you have declined to do.
    Therefore, I am not sure how you are supporting your opposition to women rabbis. Just saying it is against the Mesorah without explication is not a compelling argument from my point of view.
    I appreciate all your responses and willingness to address my points. I think ultimately we have very different views regarding whether our Mesorah is best defined via statements by some or even most contemporary rabbis, or if it indeed is best understood by looking at the entirely of what has been handed down to us, from Sinai until the present.

  55. Avrohom Gordimer says:


    Thank you for the comments.

    R Sperber argues that since there is no technical reason to invalidate women as rabbis, it is permissible; moreover, other types of female religious leadership have precedent, so that if anything, the Mesorah points toward permitting female rabbis, in his opinion

    What R Sperber fails to address is R Lieberman’s thesis – that it is clear in the earliest sources for contemporary semicha that such semicha is indeed a replication of real semicha, and hence cannot apply to women. The argument of R Lieberman is one of conceptual logic, and R Sperber fails to address or refute it. Furthermore, the arguments of R Schachter are not really addressed by R Sperber either, as R Schachter refers to a sublime definition of Tzni’us, and not a pragmatic one, the former of which has plenty of support in the Talmud. Furthermore, R Schachter presented at the RCA convention three years ago the case of ordaining women as being something originating from non-Orthodoxy, which by definition must be therefore shunned, as Orthodoxy adopting the practices of non-Orthodoxy is prohibited. R Soloveitchik has lots of mekoros for this in his writings, and RHS quoted this in his presentation.

    R Sperber’s logic would very readily allow us to do away with mechitza and would enable a total revamp of tefillah, as there is no codified technical prohibition to do away with mechitza and to station the Aron Kodesh in the middle, or even in the women’s section, or to have women lead much of tefillah (as R Sperer permits in some cases), or to daven in Hebrew, etc. These notions are all Orthodox practice not because they are codified in the Shulchan Aruch, but because of Mesorah, meaning that they are based on conceptual halachic categories, albeit not codified. R Lieberman brought very clear mekoros to show the relevant halachic category regarding semicha and women; R Sperber failed to address it, and his statements on this topic and others fail to account for this critical level of Halacha.

    Kol tuv,
    Avrohom Gordimer

  56. Noam Stadlan says:

    Rabbis Broyde and Brody have addressed all the points you mention in their article in Hakirah and show that R. Schachter’s conclusions are far from unanimous and not the most compelling on these issues.
    Aside from what is in their article, consider what you have written regarding the sublime tzniut. As I pointed out previously, this concept appears to be applied in an entirely non-uniform fashion, essentially used when there is a need for support against women doing something in public. Furthermore, the Gemara absolutely does NOT support it. We learn that women can read the Megilla. I am not aware that the Gemara argues that women cannot read the Megilla due to tzniut issues. There are kavod Hatsibbur issues, later there are specific mitzvah issues. But as far as I know, the Gemara and probably early geonim do not oppose women reading Megilla based on tzniut. This is a public reading in front of the congregation and the opposition does not mention tzniut.
    In the article, Rav Lichtenstein is brought to address the issue of imitation. I would note that on reading the Mesoret HaRav siddur, RYBS opposed Yigal in Shul because it was imitating the non Jews in reciting dogma.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This