Women as Orthodox Religious Leaders?

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Recent news stories have focused on the controversies within the Orthodox Jewish community relating to women serving in roles of religious leadership. In due course, I may comment on the specific charges and counter-charges. But for now, I want to comment on a statement issued by the so-called "Council of Torah Sages" of the Agudath Israel.

The "Council of Torah Sages" (Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America) is a group of rabbis who claim to speak on behalf of Torah-true Orthodoxy. In a statement released February 25, 2010, they took umbrage with Rabbi Avi Weiss's decision to appoint a woman to a role of religious leadership in his synagogue. They said that this represents "a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah [sic], and must be condemned in the strongest terms. Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox."

For whom was this statement intended? I assume that members of Agudath Israel generally oppose--and would never consider--women for positions of religious leadership. I also assume that non-Orthodox Jews care very little about what the "Council of Torah Sages" has to say about the role of women in Judaism. They already have made their decisions on this topic. So this statement of the rabbis of Agudath Israel seems to be aimed at the "modern Orthodox" community, those who may be wavering about what to do about women who are trained for and seek positions of religious leadership within the Orthodox community.

The modern Orthodox community might rightly reply: this is our decision to make, not yours. You do not have the right or authority to declare who is Orthodox and who "cannot be considered Orthodox." The modern Orthodox community might also rightly reply: if you have a halakhic/hashkafic point of view, please express it fully and with proper citations to Torah, Talmud and sources in rabbinic literature. Don't make proclamations, but give us reasoned, well supported position papers. That way, we will be able to see if there is merit in your position. We will also be able to offer a reasoned and well-supported response, if we feel your judgment is not the only one possible within Orthodoxy.

There is certainly no unanimity of opinion within the modern Orthodox world about the role women should/could have within synagogue and communal religious leadership. Yet, the virtue of the modern Orthodox community is that we are thinking about this issue, and trying to deal with a radically different world than that which existed even 25 or 30 years ago, let alone centuries ago.

We have a growing cadre of Orthodox women who have studied Torah, Talmud, halakha etc. They have gone to Orthodox schools and studied with Orthodox rabbis. An increasing number of Orthodox women have gained proficiency in Jewish law and lore, and have gained training and competence in communal leadership. What are we to do with these women? Shall we say that 50% of the Orthodox Jewish population should be automatically disqualified--because of gender--from positions of religious leadership, even if they have the knowledge, skills and competence to contribute much to our communities? Or should we be thinking of ways--fully within the boundaries of halakha--to draw on their talents, and strengthen our communities thereby?

The "Council of Torah Sages" has declared that "any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox." Well, what exactly is included in "a rabbinical position of any sort"? May a woman be a "pastor"--visiting the sick, counseling the distressed, comforting the mourner? This is surely an aspect of a rabbinical position--is this forbidden by the "Council of Torah Sages"? May a woman be principal of a synagogue Hebrew school, or teach Torah to children? This is surely an aspect of a rabbinical position. May a woman be a synagogue program director, administrator, educator, lecturer, outreach worker? All of these things are part of what can be considered a rabbinical position. Would these things be forbidden by the "Council of Torah Sages"? If any of the above things is forbidden according to the "Council of Sages," they need to explain exactly what the prohibition is. Indeed, there are a great many synagogues and schools--quite Orthodox--that employ women in the above "rabbinical positions" and who would be surprised to learn that the "Council of Torah Sages" has deemed them non-Orthodox violators of "mesoras haTorah" [sic].

So here is the question: if a properly qualified woman can perform a great many responsibilities totally within the halakhic framework, shouldn't the Orthodox community be seeking ways to encourage this phenomenon? Surely, we are not arguing for abrogating halakha or for women taking on responsibilities that are forbidden by halakha. But there are a great number of "rabbinic responsibilities" that a woman can do within the framework of halakha. Instead of issuing general prohibitions, it would be good if Torah scholars could devote their time and talent to coming up with some constructive suggestions.

Perhaps the "Council of Sages" is concerned that if women take on roles of visible, public religious leadership, this can begin the "slippery slope" toward non-Orthodox practices. If this is their fear, they should so state. But one can also express concern in the other direction: if the Orthodox community cannot find meaningful ways to utilize the talents and energies of properly educated Orthodox women, will Orthodoxy lose a substantial source of strength, and ultimately lose a substantial number of people alienated by Orthodoxy's inability to cope with new realities?

I fully appreciate that this is a complicated issue, and that there are valid concerns on both sides of the question. Indeed, the issue is so serious that it must be confronted with all due thoughtfulness, and with the recognition that there will be various approaches and suggestions. What we need is candid, well-reasoned discussion--not unilateral proclamations that essentially say: do as we tell you, or you're not Orthodox.

One of my concerns is: does the modern Orthodox community have the inner strength to deal with the issue of women's religious leadership, or will we simply cave in to the pressure "from the right"? The "Council of Torah Sages" believes it can prevail in defining Orthodoxy, and in casting out those who disagree with them. Does the modern Orthodox community have the confidence and integrity to demur, and to insist on its own right to discuss and debate and make its own decisions?