Orthodox Women Rabbis: A Rejoinder to Rabbi Wolkenfeld

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30 Responses

  1. micha says:

    R’ Wolkenfeld is quoted as arguing, “This argument (of R Schachter) constructs a theory of tzniut that, however plausible it may be, is entirely irrelevant to the way that contemporary Orthodox Jews live.”

    I wonder if others know of examples of this sort of reasoning in other Orthodox halachic arguments. I read those words and before even getting to R’ Gordimer’s reply, I was struck by how much it sounded like things I saw in Conservative responsa. (E.g. Allowing suburbanites who would otherwise have no Jewish contact to drive to shul on Shabbos, permitting women to witness weddings, not saying Tachanun on Thanksgiving, etc…) But that’s just how it struck me. I’m not an expert in teshuvos to know if that impression is fair.

  2. Ellen says:

    Rabbi Wolkenfeld leads off his rejection of Rabbi Schachter’s objectsions: “….perhaps reflecting his well-documented and idiosyncratic antipathy towards Jewish feminism.”

    Aiming insults at the other side is not a halachic approach is it?

  3. Avi says:

    Why didn’t Rabbi W. identify himself as the VP of the IRF?
    That seems quite significant, no?

  4. Avi says:

    I also found it interesting that Rabbi W. was comfortable relying on what he judged to be Rav Schachter’s ‘creative’ interpretations when it came to building an Eruv, but refuses to fall back on what he judged to be Rav Schachter’s ‘creative’ interpretations when it comes to social issues.

    When it comes to Halachic matters where there are serious S’char V’onesh ramifications, RHS’ ‘creative’ interpretations were fine, but not when it comes to social matters where there are no S’char V’onesh ramifications.

    Very telling . . .

  5. Greg says:

    Here’s the question I’d like to ask R. Wolkenfeld if I could:

    Rabbi Wolkenfeld,

    Thanks for your article.

    Have you considered this article by Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Frimer where he examines Rav Soloveitchik’s positions in order to determine what he would’ve held on this matter?

    [YA – Rabbi Gordimer links to this article within his essay.]

  6. Bob Miller says:

    Judaism and halacha are such good things that many poseurs want to simulate them or at least misappropriate the associated words.

  7. ben dov says:

    No derech in Torah has ever been successfully established without the support of some gedolim. No gedolim support YCT. Open Orthodoxy cannot override this rule of history. They should quit now or suffer extinction later.

  8. wowB says:

    Wow- hows that for a “cheese specialist!” Boy, that was an intense and powerful rejoinder. NBA vs Biddy Basketball. Really testifies to the lack of deep knowledge of orthodox theology some schools give over now.

  9. Yoel Finkelman says:

    I still do not see in Rabbi Gordimer’s analysis an adequate definition of “Mesorah” or an explanation of how I know violations of mesorah in advance. (The question of why sermons in the vernacular are OK despite “Mesorah” based arguments against them in the 19th cent remains an important question for advocates of “Mesorah.”)

    The closest to a definition is”Mesorah, insomuch that it reflects halachic and hashkafic axioms.”

    Mah Nafshakh? If the arguments against a particular practice are essentially Halakhic, then make the Halakhic argument. (No, the argument from Serara is not a slam dunk here….) What does the term “Mesorah” add? If the argument is hashkafic, than a) find the texts and makes the argument and again what does “Mesorah” add? b) since when does dispute about hashkafah require the level of vitriol that has been leveled against those who want to see Women in clergy positions in Orthodoxy?

    More, what does “axiom” mean here? If it’s an axiom stated in the mekorot, just quote the text. If it is axiomatic because it is unstated, well we all know that arguments from silence are pretty weak.

    In the absence of an more substantive definition of “Mesorah,” the best I can come up with is that some thing is against the Masora if my religious intuitions tell me that it is really bad even though the straight halakhic arguments against it are weaker than my intuition about how bad it is. But that doesn’t sounds like a very good argument.

    [Reb Yoel,

    While the lack of a satisfactory definition of Mesorah may haunt you (and it should haunt all those who are mevakshei emes), it is side-show in our discussion, but not the main event. With a nod to Justice Potter Stewart, we make use of many concepts without a firm grasp of their definition or nature. (I assume you use electronics and prescription drugs. Please let me know when you can provide a satisfactory definition of an electron – making sure you specify whether it is a particle or a wave. Many prescription drugs are found to be effective and approved for use well before the reason for their efficacy is uncovered.

    The issue here is not defining the limits of Mesorah, but whether it exists at all. The Far Left effectively deep-sixes it; traditional Orthodoxy values it, even when imperfectly understood.

    This deserves fuller attention, as you correctly point out. But allow me a few observations from the traditionalist camp. I will tell you what Mesorah is not, and then (imperfectly – until I get a chance to write something lengthier) what it may approximate.

    It is not something limited to a text. The challenge “Show it to me!” is understandable, but it is not on the lips of those who value it. They understand that, as Rav Gordimer stated, it is always rooted in halachic or hashkafic texts, but there is not a text for every large or small issue in a system as complex as Toras Hashem.

    It is not something to be decided by personal intuition. In many cases it will have to be addressed by intuition, but not yours or mine. At least not mine. It is decided not by people who are competent, but people who are superstars. Not semi-pros, but clean-up hitters in the Majors. There are no such people on the Far Left, period. Sorry. I’m not going to get into ad hominem arguments, but most readers will know exactly what I mean. Some people will call those superstars “gedolim,” others will call them “baalei Mesorah,” yet others will call them “the greatest of our Torah teachers.”

    Now for an approximation. AJ Ayer argues that a person preserves his identity because he has succeeded in time and place to the same individual who occupied the same or contiguous space a nanosecond earlier. IOW, we change between childhood and old age. What makes us the same individual is the smooth connection of being, every second along the way.

    Mesorah works similarly. Of course we change, because Torah is the way HKBH wants us to engage a world that constantly changes. Mesorah maintains Torah identity. It makes sure that the rules, assumptions, weltanschauung of a moment ago are close enough to what they will be in the next moment (even when things are changing) that there is no disruption or discontinuity.

    Best I can do right before Shabbos.

    Kol tuv,

    [Since then moved to a full posting. I expect that comments will be received there.]

  10. emma says:

    “R. Wolkenfeld presents that article’s explanation of Mesorah and the RCA’s position on it as whimsical or commonplace “traditional communal norms…(such as ) rabbinic sermons in the vernacular; congregational singing during tefilot, or clean-shaven men” – as opposed Mesorah being an halachic or hashkafic-based concept. . . . After asserting that commonplace traditional communal norms, such as congregational singing and the like, are of course subject to change – something that no one contests – R. Wolkenfeld proceeds to apply this thesis to the coming of age of women in the Orthodox rabbinate (or whatever title or term one uses) in his permitting and promoting it.”

    While congregational singing may be “just” a “commonplace communal norm” without “halachic or hashkafic” grounding, the other two examples – sermons in the vernacular and clean-shaven men – most certainly are not. At some point they were seen (and in some communities still are seen) as deviations from halacha-and-hashkafah-based norms of mesorah, but are now largely accepted. That doesn’t necessarily mean R Wolkenfeld is right to say the same about women’s ordination, but R. Gordimer’s critique is too facile.

  11. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    R. Wolkenfeld’s argument is very reminiscent of Conservative “responsa” literature. He starts from the point of what he wants to prove and jerry-rigs irrelevant arguments in order to draw the bull’s-eye around where he shot the arrow. In the same spirit I would propose that it would be forbidden to pay a salary to a “rabba” according to the Talmudic principle of “kim lei b’d’RABBA minei”. I hope this will be received in the spirit in which it was offered and perhaps revisited around Purim time.

  12. Sheldon Grafstein says:

    FACTS: The three ordained Orthodox females have signed on their semicha “Rabbi Daniel Sperber, posek”. See The Canadian Jewish News and Daniel Sperber. Especially December 8th 2011. He is the institute chancellor who has backed and has punted forward a new “NON-DENOMINATIONAL” Yeshiva and Rabbinical School in Toronto. The Rosh Yeshiva is Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum (ordained by the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary) The provost is Rabbi Wayne Allen (ordained by the Conservative JTS) Of the seven rabbis on the faculty who will teach philosphy, Jewish thought and halachah etc. seven of the seven, 100%, — are all ordained by the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary.

  13. shmuel says:

    I would ask R’ Wolkenfeld (sincerely) why he feels he (1) needs to and (2) can rely on a rabbinic scholar much greater than him for Shabbos issues, but at the same time feels (1) no need to and (2) apparently that he “can’t” (because he believes the arguments are “weak”) rely on the same scholar on societal issues. Does he lack expertise in eiruvin, which, while challenging, has an extensive literature surrounding it, but somehow possess expertise in whether women rabbis are permitted?

  14. DF says:

    I’m not sure why R. Wolkenfeld calls R. Shachter’s position “idiosyncratic”, which means, “peculiar to the individual.” To the contrary, the latter’s rejection of feminsim represents mainstream orthodoxy. It is R. Wolkenfeld’s position that is idiosyncratic. Recall that the entire universe of practicing “Morethodox” Jews can fit into two or three good sized shuls in Monsey. Like a blowfish or a hedgehog extending its spikes to appear larger than it really is, it is very easy for organizations to use a sympathetic media, or the internet generally, to create the illusion of movement and size. Despite its grandiose title and a few shuls, as it were, who’ve hired its graduates as political statements, “open orthodoxy” is a non-entity. It is to the left what the Neturei Karta is to the right – a group whose wild positions garner it far more attention that it deserves.

    As for the halachic discussion – I think its a mistake to engage them in specifics. By doing so you can only lose, as you will not convince them, and will cause your own arguments to dillute. [Yes, this will mean the morethodox will go it alone, but it already is destined for oblivion, as others have pointed out.] For my money, as I’ve said before (but the topic keeps being raised) the best reason to reject morethodoxy is not halacha, but sociology. The feminist movement has been a disaster in large society generally. It would be very foolish indeed to import this 50-something year old passing ideology, into the millenia-old tradition of Judaism.

  15. Frummie says:

    Why don’t these arguements take into account that these women are by all other norms orthodox? They are for covering hair, wearing skirts, keeping shabbat , kosher and taharat hamishpacha according to orthodox standards. They are not looking to be counted in the minyan or wear tallit.

  16. Toby Katz says:

    “They are not looking to be counted in the minyan or wear tallit.”

    Not yet. One thing at a time. They’re not stupid.

  17. Nathaniel Helfgot says:

    In Rabbi Gordimer’s original version of the essay posted on Cross-Currents he referred to the IRF as the “rabbinic organization primarily made up of graduates of YCT Rabbinical School” In a private e-mail to him I noted that of the approximately 150 members of the IRF, the largest cohort- 72 have semicha from RIETS-YU with YCT graduates coming in a distant second at 45 and other musmachim from hareidi yeshivot, the VChief Rabbinate of Israel and Rav Zalman Nehemiah Goldeberg. He wrote me that he would correct that line which he has technically done by changing the formulation but continues to highlight YCT participation (above all others) and engages in labeling- “far left” those who he disagrees with.

    [YA – Dear Nati: It is always a pleasure to hear from you, even though it is seldom that we can agree on the matters that make our lives intersect. Rabbi Gordimer should not have to take any heat for applying the “Far Left” label. It is out there in the public domain. It is the common way in which lots of people differentiate between left-of-center Orthodoxy and….what lies to the left of that! The only other label I’ve heard applied is “neo-Conservative,” which is hardly going to make you any happier (other than relative to the position of a major posek at YU who removes the “neo-” from the formulation.) I understand that labels can be hopelessly simplistic, eradicating much nuance – and therefore hurtful. But the use of those labels should not be surprising. When an institution (yours!) proudly waves the banner of “Open Orthodoxy,” it certainly must consider what it is saying about everyone else. And it they then don’t anticipate pushback from traditional Orthodoxy, their naivete is going to give them a hard time in the rough-and-tumble world of the rabbinate. Yehi Ratzon Hashem that all of us should become so enlightened by His Torah, that we will be able one day to enjoy what we share, abandon the rest, and resume relating to each other without suspicion and without skirmish.]

  18. Lisa Liel says:

    As a caveat up front, I’m very much against the whole Maharat/YCT/Open/Morethodox axis. However:

    Despite R. Wolkenfeld’s depiction of the prohibition of appointing women to positions of serarah (Rambam, Hil. Melachim 1:5) as non-normative Halacha, the Rambam’s position (which is in fact shared by the Ritva – Shevuos 30a) is not disputed by other Rishonim and has the support of many later authorities. To dismiss this halachic issue of serarah out-of-hand and with such brevity is troubling.

    To the best of my knowledge, gerim are able to receive smicha. Please correct me if I’m wrong about that. But they would have the same issue with serara under the Rambam’s halakha. Which seems to make this argument a flawed one. Granted, it may be that smicha for gerim is problematic, but I haven’t heard anyone objecting to it.

  19. Avrohom Gordimer says:

    Lisa: The difference as regards gerim is explained above in the hyperlinked article by R. Frimer.

  20. L. Oberstein says:

    Time will tell if Open Orthodoxy merges (unofficially perhaps) with Traditional Conservative Judaism. I happened to converse with an ordainee of the UTJ Seminary recently. First, he admitted that they hardly exist and have come upon hard times. Secondly, he said that because they are the right wing of the Conservative Movement, they cannot be as egalitarian as Open Orthodoxy.If they were, then why did they break away in the first place.
    How normative certain practices are depends on where you live. Nowadays, the more yeshivish world has adopted chassidic practices, like no pictures of females,etc. The Centrist Orthodox world is ambivilent about women scholars in residence speaking before men and women audiences. When I visit my children in Riverdale, there always seems to be a female scholar in residence and I am not referring only to Avi Weiss’ shul. In Baltimore, I haven’t seen it. So, what is allowed varies and only time will tell what communal norms will be. One prominent orthodox rabbi told me that the main problem with the Rabbah is that it was done to garner publicity and notoriety and that what she does at HIR is done in other orthodox shuls by women without fanfare . That isn’t done where I live but I am told that women scholars are on the staff of many major shuls and what seperates them from Rabba Sara is sematic, more than halachic. My concern is how do we deal with the reality that our females are just as educated as our males, often earn more than their spouses and live in a society where women can be anything they want to be and then expect them to be attracted to our segregated society. The truth is that they seem to be doing OK with it, which is counter intuitive, but it is what it is. The bottom line is that the frummer people have more children and are growng faster and that is the way it is.

  21. David Wolkenfeld says:

    Rav Gordimer et. al.,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog-post with such care. I hope to write a response in the coming weeks which I will post to the Morethodoxy website. I apologize that it may be some time before I can prioritize sitting down to respond to what you have written. Thank you for your patience. I think I have a better understanding now of your original point. Hopefully, I can write something which can more directly respond to your claims.

    Best wishes,

  22. Avrohom Gordimer says:

    Dear Rav Wolkenfeld,

    Thank you for the kind message.

    I wish to emphasize that the stridency in my article was related solely to the ideas you put forth and not to you as a person. I look forward to continuing the discussion, and I wish you much success with your new pulpit.

    I wish you a good Shabbos.


  23. David Avraham says:

    There are several non-“Far Left” Rabbis essentially conferring full-fledged smicha (“heter-hora’ah”) upon women in Israel.

    I’m not sure why Maharat is getting all the attention (perhaps because its website is in English?) and the program at Lindenbaum none. You may say it is because R’ Avi Weiss is more “in your face” about the matter, but that argument falls short: if the merits are to be debated, let’s debate the merits, and ignore the sideshows.

    How does the OU, the RCA, and the non-“Far Left”, feel about Lindenbaum’s program?

  24. James says:


    The distinction here is that tzniut has a deep sociological component to it. What contemporary Orthodoxy does with respect to shabbat is not relevant to a discussion of hilchos bishul. Not so tznius.

  25. Daniel says:

    Rabbi Gordimer,

    I do not know why you are engaging in debate with these people. Would you debate with a conservative rabbi who was ordaining women?
    One does not debate with people whose goal it is to destroy our religion.

    And why do you wish him success in his new pulpit? Do you want him to succeed? I would hope you do not.

  26. moshe says:

    R. Gordimer seriously distorts Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstien’s position on these matters. His letter to the RCA rejected only the bestowal of the title “rabbi” upon women, something that not relevant to the discussion, since we are discussing people who call themselves “Maharat” not “Rabbi” or “Rabba”. RAL does not not feel that serera is major issue and is quite sympathetic to women’s desires for greater leadership positions and is an aggressive advocate for women learning gemara and halakha at the highest levels. He is much closer to R. Wolkenfeld’s position to than to Rav Shachter’s.

  27. Avrohom Gordimer says:


    The logic of RAL applies to ordaining women with any clergy title, including Rabba and Maharat; the RCA resolution that immediately followed his written presentation to the RCA also evidences this.

    It is true that RAL did not invoke serara in his paper, but the point of his argument precludes any ordination.

    Also, as my article states, the proponents of Maharat ordination continue to describe Maharats as rabbinic figures; the lack of the title “Rabbi” is to placate critics and is an issue of semantics.

  28. moshe says:

    RAL clearly alludes to Serara in his final paragraph when he refers to the halakhic issue of “the role
    of [an] officer in a shul, and makes it quite clear that that he does not see it as an obstacle to women serving communal functions in a shul. He said this in other contexts as well. This would presumably include most rabbinic functions which do not require ordination.
    it is disingeuos to suggest the the RCA resolution reflects RAL’s position. He did not approve or sign off on it to the best of my knowledge. Even if had said that women rabbis’ were %100 percent fine the RCA would no doubt, legitimately, have taken R. Shachter’s position.

    I admit that on re-reading RAL is ambiguous about what constitutes “ordination” of the sort that he finds problematic for women. I would not be so presumptuous as to assume what he thinks of the title “maharat”.

    still there can be no doubt that RAL is not satisfied with the current status of women in the Orthodox community and feels that more can and should be done, even acknowledging the risks involved. He makes it clear that while he sees a unsurmountable technical barrier in the way of actual ordination of women, he is interested in promoting women’s spiritual and halakhic community to the extent that is permitted in his understanding of the halakhah. And his understanding of the halakha allows for a much great role for women than does R. Shachter’s. In the penultimate paragraph he concludes his general discussion of the status of women in Orthodoxy by declaring that poskim should
    “I believe, give greater weight than, in recent
    generations, has been assigned, to the dispensation of לעשות נחת רוח לנשים, cited in
    the Gemara and in Shulhan Arukh as the basis for permitting what might otherwise
    have been proscribed.”

    This position is radically more sympathetic to the feminist cause than R. Shachter or any of his colleagues and not all that far from Rabbi Wolkenfeld’s.

  29. Avrohom Gordimer says:


    RAL asked those at the RCA convention three years ago, to which he sent his paper, and which I attended, to vote for the RCA resolution. The resolution barred ordination of women under any title.

    While I agree with you that RAL is more liberal with the involvement of women in Talmud Torah and perhaps associated leadership roles than is RHS, I would be very hesitant to identify RAL with R Wolkenfeld’s position (even if RAL is more sympathetic to feminism), as it is a radical jump from RAL’s position to that of R Wolkenfeld’s position that supports ordaining women. RAL himself made it very clear that he opposes ordination of women.

  30. moshe says:

    I basically agree. My claim is that the ordination issue is for RAL essentially technical. This does not mean that it is a minor issue. But many men who are called “rabbis” in every segment of the Orthodox community lack any smicha or have a “smicha” rav umorah, which is not the “Heter horaah” that the term “smicha” traditionally represents. IF women can function in the same way as these “rabbis” but with out the title “Rabbi” the result is little different from what Rabbi Wolkenfeld advocates. They are arguing about the title used and the text of the diploma.
    again I do not deny chas veshalom that there are not significant differences between RAL and the far left. Rather I am arguing that there is a middle position between the two which is rather poorly represented in the American Orthodox community. It is the lack of this middle ground that makes this conflict so divisive.

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