Is Rabbi Riskin Ordaining Female Rabbis?
(This article originally appeared in the Jewish Press.)
Last Wednesday, May 16, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin conferred the titles of “Morot Hora’ah U’Manhigot Ruchaniyot” – “Halachic Authorities and Spiritual Leaders” – upon three women, who completed the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL) program at Midreshet Lindenbaum/Ohr Torah Stone (OTS) in Efrat, where Rabbi Riskin serves as Chief Rabbi and founder of OTS.
Aware of the controversial nature of ordaining women as clergy, Rabbi Riskin and WIHL avoided rabbinic verbiage by coining the Morot Hora’ah U’Manhigot Ruchaniyot title. But has anything been accomplished thereby?
The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), which is the largest Orthodox rabbinical organization in the country, stated in an unopposed April 2010 resolution that:
(W)e cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.
This RCA resolution, including its precise wording, was fully endorsed by major halachic authorities, including Rav Hershel Schachter, Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz, and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. The RCA affirmed its position again in 2013 and in 2015, and it has been unanimously agreed to by the highest levels of rabbinic leadership throughout the world, including the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox Union, the Conference of European Rabbis, and Igud Ha-Rabbonim/Rabbinical Alliance of America. And less than a year ago, leading Dati Leumi/Religious Zionist Israeli rabbis, including Rav Shlomo Aviner and Rav Baruch Efrati, and the North American TORA Rabbis organization, specifically criticized the WIHL program for its breach of the rule that women may not be clergy.
In response to Rav Aviner’s condemnation last year, WIHL claimed that it is not in the business of ordaining female rabbis, explaining that “the role of a rabbi is to serve as synagogue leader, by conducting services and reading from the Torah; in contrast, WIHL graduates are not referred to as ‘rabbi’ and do not ritually lead synagogue services.” This attempt by WIHL to rebut Rabbi Aviner was based on an artificial and misleading distinction, as the title “rabbi” in Judaism does not signify leading services and reading from the Torah. Rather, the title rabbi signifies – you guessed it – “Halachic Authorities and Spiritual Leaders”, which is exactly the title conferred by Rabbi Riskin.
A brief glance at the WIHL program demonstrates beyond question that its curriculum is one of rabbinic training. The training undergone by WIHL students is indistinguishable from that of a male semicha program, and Rav Aviner last year quoted a direct statement from WIHL leadership that it was training women to become “dayanot” – rabbinical judges, which is in violation of the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 7:4).
In fact, prior to Rav Aviner’s condemnation and the subsequent revamping of the WIHL webpage, the WIHL webpage revealed the following:
Dayanut: Ten-year advanced training program launched in 2013 for women who have completed the heter hora’ah program, equipping them with the knowledge base to serve as judges for conversion and divorce. For the first time since Devorah served as a judge, Jewish history will once again see women trained for the task, and their very presence will restore – and ensure the preservation of – women’s rights in areas of personal status.
And, at last year’s WIHL conferral ceremony, the Rosh Bet Midrash at Lindenbaum-WIHL publicly stated about the occasion, in the presence of Rabbi Riskin (who did not protest these words):
The inclusion of women in the rabbinic world is able to provide an opening for inquiry and understanding. The inclusion of women in positions of rabbinic leadership progressively creates a space for identification and personal connection…
Moreover, in a 2017 interview with JTA, Rabbi Riskin stated that WIHL graduates “teach and direct Jewish law, just like a rabbi.” (Rabbi Riskin and WIHL co-director Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner are on the advisory board of Yeshivat Maharat, which ordains women with semicha certificates and grants full rabbinic titles.)
Thus, WIHL leadership itself has publicly affirmed that the Morot Hora’ah U’Manhigot Ruchaniyot program is rabbinic in nature. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…
Despite WIHL’s efforts to portray it as something else, the Morot Hora’ah U’Manhigot Ruchaniyot program is in violation of the ruling of the generation’s greatest rabbinic authorities across the spectrum. The Orthodox Union ruling, like the RCA statement, specified that it pertains “both to the designation of a title for women that connotes the status of a clergy member, as well as to the appointment of women to perform clergy functions on a regular ongoing basis – even when not accompanied by a rabbinic-type title.” Included in these clergy functions are “the ongoing practice of ruling on a full-range of halakhic matters”. This certainly places the WIHL program out of acceptable bounds.
It is very worthwhile to read the 2017 TORA Rabbis statement about WIHL (Midreshet Lindenbaum), which says in part:
TORA, the umbrella organization of traditional Orthodox rabbis of the United States and Canada, finds the purported ordination of women at Midreshet Lindenbaum deeply disappointing and unnecessarily divisive. There is a consensus among the worldwide Orthodox rabbinate that granting semichah to women – in name or in practice – lies outside the contours of our mesorah. We, together with our dynamic Rebbetzins, are committed to inspiring all Jewish men and women to actualize their potentials and contribute to Torah Life in accordance with halakha, our tradition, and the guidance of the genuine Torah leaders of our generation. Changes in community practice within halakha are possible, but only when guided by the leading halakhic decisors of our nation, none of whom stand behind this move.
It is deceptive to argue that the recent ceremony at Midreshet Lindenbaum conferred nothing more than recognition of academic success. The graduates were given the titles of moros hora’ah – the traditional title for ordination… the recipients had studied the classic areas in halakha concerning which ordination candidates are tested. This ceremony is part of an emerging and disturbing trend. It comes at a time when others are trying to place women rabbis in Orthodox synagogues in America, in an attempt to circumvent the traditional halakhic process.
TORA asserts that actions such as these are void and not only painfully divide Orthodoxy at a time when the community desperately needs unity, but also diminish the already powerful role played by Orthodox women in education and community service. From time immemorial, women have served in pivotal roles in the Jewish community. The implication that a lack of rabbinic ordination diminishes their contributions insults the many great women leaders of the past and the present.
May the inspiration of the recent Shavuos holiday provide us all with Torah clarity and the motivation to practice Judaism according to tradition.