Beth Jacob stance prevents break over women clergy after OU says no
March 28, 2017
For two weeks last month, Los Angeles Modern Orthodoxy held its breath as a statement from New York threatened to sow disunity in its rapidly growing, multi-faceted and yet tightly knit community.
The Orthodox Union (OU) had released a statement Feb. 2 prohibiting women from serving as clergy, and there were those who wondered whether one of the West Coast’s three largest Modern Orthodox shuls — B’nai David-Judea on Pico Boulevard – would still be part of it. B’nai David has had a woman serving in such a role for more than two years.
On Saturday, Feb. 11, Rabbi Kalman Topp of neighboring Beth Jacob Congregation gave the beginning of an answer in his Shabbat morning sermon. Rabbi Topp told his congregants B’nai David was definitely still an Orthodox shul, even though he agreed with the statement’s conclusion that women should not serve as clergy.
“While the OU came out precluding women clergy, which is consistent with my view,” Rabbi Topp told the Boiling Point in an interview a few days later, “it is my belief that any Orthodox shul who hires a maharat or morateinu still should be viewed as an Orthodox shul and as a part of our Torah community.
“The unity of our Jewish community is paramount, so now more than ever we need to highlight not just those things which separate us, but those things that bring us together as a community.”
In fact, Rabbi Topp said, the OU’s statement served to normalize roles for women that had previously been controversial, in effect increasing the inclusivity of Orthodox Judaism in general. For example, the statement specifically condones women’s serving as yoatzot halacha, or halachic advisers on women’s issues.
“Even though they forbade certain things, they legitimated many things on the other side of the line including yoetzet halacha and women serving in shuls as community scholars,” said Rabbi Topp.
“So I think that this is a big deal,” he said. “One could say it’s a re-centering of what’s legitimate in the Orthodox community, and things up until now that would have been considered controversial or trailblazing or leftist have effectively been shifted to the center.”
Some Orthodox institutions still do not have women studying the Talmud – which is normal practice at Shalhevet and other Modern Orthodox schools around the U.S.
“These positions are controversial, certainly to shuls and individuals to the right,” said Rabbi Topp, “so because of this ruling those voices of opposition to women learning Gemara, the opposition to women serving as scholars in residence, to women serving as yoetzet halacha, those voices have been weakened.”
Among those feeling reassured were the leaders of Bnai David, including Senior Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky.
“I am extremely grateful to Rabbi Topp for having so publicly and forcefully said that,” Rabbi Kanefsky said in an interview. “I think that his point of view reflects a significant number of Orthodox rabbis in shuls who themselves would not hire a female clergy and don’t feel that it’s appropriate, but who also don’t regard this disagreement about female clergy to be a litmus test for Orthodoxy.”
He said only Rabbi Topp had spoken to Bnai David directly, but that rabbis with female clergy staff elsewhere in the U.S. had received local support as well.
“I know of things second-hand through other colleagues who are in my position and who have received those kinds of assurances from their colleagues,” Rabbi Kanefsky said.
The statement on women serving as clergy was issued to every OU-affiliated synagogue on Feb. 2.
“Accordingly, we note that just as the Rabbinic Panel has made clear that women serving in clergy roles or holding clergy titles is at odds with halacha and our mesorah,” or tradition, the statement said.
It also encouraged women to take positions it said were not at odds with halacha, such as institutional scholars, scholars-in-residence, synagogue administrators, professional counselors and educators.
“The Panel has also proclaimed – and celebrated – the important, and fundamentally successful roles that women can and must play within our communal and synagogue structures, including as educators and scholars,” read the statement.
B’nai David currently employs Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn, a graduate of Yeshivat Maharat in New York, which provides women with a four-year program of rabbinic training like that offered to men in s’micha, or ordination, programs.
Rabbi Kanefsky disagreed with the rabbinic panel’s decision in a Feb. 3 letter to congregants, calling its rationale “deeply flawed.”
“One cannot escape the feeling that from the outset the rabbinic panel deeply believed that women in the clergy was one concession to modernity too many for our deeply traditional system,” Rabbi Kanefsky wrote in the letter. “and that the rest was simply justifying a pre-ordained conclusion.”
In a Feb. 24 email to the Shahevet community, Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal disagreed.
“I believe that the rabbis engaged in good faith and appropriate halachic analysis, but I also believe that there exists more than one supportable answer to the question,” wrote Rabbi Segal.
“Halachic decision-makers draw not only on precedent and clear-cut textual sources, but on what they take to be the spirit that animates the halachic system in its totality, a spirit that they have deduced from a comprehensive study of halacha and its sources.”
However, Rabbi Segal had “issues” with the statement and disagreed with its conclusion.
“Put plainly, I believe that women clergy is right for some shuls and not right for others…” wrote Rabbi Segal. He said that “legislating communal practice — at a national level – is not going to work and will only drive members away from the OU.”
In an interview with The Boiling Point Rabbanit Thomas-Newborn said her work at B’nai David would not change.
“I plan to continue serving in my role,” said Rabbanit Thomas-Newborn in an interview. “My response is to continue teaching Torah and serving my community and connection to mitzvot, each other and serving Hashem. My response is that the work I am doing is meaningful and greatly needed.”
The OU, meanwhile, has not yet decided how to implement its new policy, and a spokesman said the organization would now seek to determine what specific roles Orthodox female clergy are filling in their shuls.
In an interview with The Boiling Point, Mr. Allen Fagin, OU’s executive vice president, said the group planned to begin by having conversations with leaders of synagogues whose clergy staff include women.
Mr. Fagin called the Feb. 2 letter “a statement of OU policy.”
“How we intend to implement that policy is something that will be worked out over the next period of weeks and months,” Mr. Fagin said. “And as a starting point — what our statement indicated and what we intend to do — is to have conversation with our shuls and then we’ll take it from there.
“Certainly, the beginning of the conversation is to understand better what it is that their female clergy are doing—that is what roles they are carrying out,” continued Mr. Fagin. “The starting point of the conversation is to understand the facts, and the needs, and the circumstances and we’ll have an in-depth conversation.”
He said the organization had spoken to “at least one” synagogue so far as of March 22. He declined to name the synagogue.
“We are currently in the process of contacting all member shuls with female ‘clergy’ ….that process will occur over the next few weeks,” wrote Mr. Fagin in an email to The Boiling Point.
Rabbi Kanefsky said the group had not reached out to B’nai David as of March 24.
He said B’nai David would not be contacting the OU and that the synagogue “absolutely” still plans on paying the organization’s membership fees.
“We’re moving on and doing our thing, and I have no need to process it specifically with the OU,” said Rabbi Kanefsky.
Rabbi Segal thought that the OU should have clarified the purpose of the statement as an answer to a question, while clarifying that “If your shul decides not to act in accordance with these recommendations, we fully respect that decision and we are honored to call you a member shul.”
The Feb. 2 statement was a reaction and summary of a 17-page response to the questions of “1. Is it halachically acceptable for a synagogue to employ a woman in a clergy function?” and “2. What is the broadest spectrum of professional roles within a synagogue that women can perform within the bounds of halacha?” according to the statement.
The longer document was written by a seven-member panel made up of Rabbis Daniel Feldman, Yaakov Neuberger, Michael Rosensweig, Hershel Schachter, Ezra Schwartz, Gedalia D. Schwartz and Binyamin Yudin. All of the Rabbis are either Rosh Yeshiva or Rabbinic faculty at Yeshiva University except for Rav Schwarz who is the head of the Beit Din of America and the Chicago Rabbinical Council.
The document calls them ”rabbis each enjoying an exceptional national reputation for scholarship and integrity, each a significant, recognized talmid chacham; individuals to whom large segments of our communities’ rabbis routinely turn for psak on issues of significance and who have, as a consequence, dealt with national issues in communities both large and small, and both homogeneous and heterogeneous,” according to the OU’s letter to synagogues.
The seven-member panel said it considered “legal sources, historical precedent, and the halachic ethos” when making its ruling, according to the response.
“Our group believes that the combination of these two considerations, precedent and halachic concerns, precludes female clergy,” wrote the seven rabbis. “Given the status quo that we feel is meaningful and intentional, the burden of halakhic proof rests on the side of changing the established practice.”
They cited the Rambam’s (Maimonides’) opinion that women may not hold positions of serarah, or formal communal authority.”
Another basis for their ruling was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s view that the ruling of the 16th-century Rabbi Moshe Isserles, known as the Rama, “barring a woman from being appointed as a community shochet (butcher) which they said was representative of “a general preclusion of women from all formal religious appointments (minuyim) over the community at large.”
Rabbi Kanefsky called those findings inconsistent.
“The panel also chose to dismiss the ruling of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and numerous others, who limited the definition of serarah to positions of coercive power which are imposed upon a community without its consent,” he wrote in a letter to B’nai David congregants.
At B’nai David, the shul’s board approved of Rabbanit Thomas-Newborn’s appointment and successive titles several times over the last two years.
The OU rabbinic panel also stated that s’micha, rabbinic ordination, is an extension of the Talmudic s’micha, which “involved, and in fact may have centered on, designating individuals to serve as court judges.”
“Since the majority halachic view is that only men are eligible to be ordained as judges, even contemporary ordination would be restricted to men,” the statement said.
Rabbi Kanefsky disagreed and wrote that the two types of s’micha are different. Once again citing Rama, he wrote that the panel “chose to not give weight to the ruling of Rama … in the Code of Jewish law that distinguishes between the ancient ordination of the days of the Sanhedrin, and present-day ordination,” he wrote.
“Rama rules that the latter is simply a designation that a person is learned and qualified to answer halachic questions, a designation that does not distinguish based upon gender,” he wrote.
In addition to prohibiting certain titles signifying clergy positions for women, the panel also mentioned specific clergy responsibilities that should still only be conducted by male Rabbis.
“These common functions include, but are not limited to: the ongoing practice of ruling on a full-range of halachic matters, officiating at religiously significant life-cycle events, (e.g. brit milah, baby naming, bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, weddings and funerals), the regular practice of delivering sermons from the pulpit during services, presiding over or ‘leading services’ at a minyan and formally serving as the synagogue’s primary religious mentor, teacher, and spiritual guide,” the statement said.
Rabbi Kanefsky thought differently.
“I don’t think there should be any limits on the leadership role that a woman can play aside from the halachic limits, those being the leading of davening, counting towards the minyan…those are the things a woman cannot do,” said Rabbi Kanefsky. “Outside of that, in terms of leadership, I don’t think it makes sense for there to be any formal limitations, with the understanding that different congregations have to make their own leadership choices.”
While Rabbanit Thomas-Newborn is not the “primary religious leader” at B’nai David, she sometimes officiates at life-cycle events and gives speeches from the pulpit. And she rules on halachic matters, he said.
“She obviously does so relying both upon her own training and also very, very meticulously consulting with me, consulting with her own teachers,” Rabbi Kanefsky said. “She is extraordinarily meticulous about getting it right.”
As for “presiding over” services, Rabbi Kanefsky was not sure what the OU meant.
“I have no idea what that phrase actually means,” said Rabbi Kanefsky. “Is she leading the davening? No, she doesn’t lead davening. Is she often the clergy person in the room when davening is happening, such that if a question were to come up, ‘do we say Tachanun or not,’ she is the one who would be asked? Yes. Does she give divrei Torah after Shacharit and between Mincha and Maariv? Yes.”
Beth Jacob’s Rabbi Topp agreed with the panel’s conclusion.
“While some argue that the OU statement may have been unnecessary and unwise, I think that both the psak (ruling) and the statement are nuanced, are balanced and thoughtful and deserve our careful consideration,” said Rabbi Topp.
“Even with all the positives of women’s expanding roles, our traditional modern and centrist Orthodox community has not accepted the notion of female clergy.”
Beth Jacob has already had preliminary discussions about adding a woman to their educational staff with a possible title of community scholar, he said.
“We’ve just begun discussions,” said Rabbi Topp. “She wouldn’t be a rabbi, but she would be a full member of our educational staff who would give high level and engaging shiurim,” or classes, “and would be involved in the Torah programming in the shul. “
“Women’s voice as a lay leader and as a religious leader adds a profound dimension that greatly enhances our community conversation, and there’s something missing without it,” Rabbi Topp said, “and I believe women scholars, teachers, leaders serve as wonderful role models for our young girls and teens and show them the heights that a woman can reach in Torah knowledge and community leadership.”
The OU panel likewise called women’s leadership outside of clergy roles was “critical” and listed a range of acceptable positions.
It concluded that women are halachically permitted to teach classes, serve as visiting scholar[s]-in-residence” or “institutional scholar[s],” and be in “senior managerial or administrative positions.” A woman may also serve as a “synagogue staff member in the role of professional counselor to address the spiritual, psychological, or social needs of the community,” and serve as “teacher[s] and mentor[s] to guide females through the conversion process.”
“Female role models are, of course, absolutely critical for the spiritual growth of our community,” the response said. “Communities depend, and have always depended, upon women’s participation in a wide array of critical roles, both lay and professional, that are wholly consistent with Torah’s guidelines.
“While by no means an exhaustive list,” it continued, “these examples are illustrative of the myriad contributions that women can provide within the synagogue structure without assuming a formal clergy role. With the guidance of their local rabbi, communities can explore the opportunities that can be best implemented to deepen and enrich the Torah learning and religious experience of men and women alike.”
Mr. Fagin, the OU official, acknowledged that women clergy are performing important duties in shuls.
“There are numbers of women throughout the United States employed by synagogues that are performing outstanding services in a whole variety of positions and fulfilling a whole variety of duties, including catering to the needs of the congregants,” Mr. Fagin said.
“But they’re not functioning as rabbis, and there’s a very important halachic distinction to be made. So the issue is not whether women are doing things that are important or useful to the community. I have absolutely no doubt that that’s the case.”
Female halachic advisors, yoatzot halachah, are becoming increasingly prevalent in Modern Orthodoxy. Judaic studies teacher Atara Segal is currently enrolled in a yoetzet halakha program at Nishmat in Israel.
The panel did not take a stand as to whether or not the position should be allowed, but stated that synagogues with a yoatzet halachah should still be considered Orthodox.
“In light of all of the above-referenced considerations, the utilization of yoatzot halachah should continue to be evaluated carefully by poskim and communities alike,” the statement said. “Under all circumstances, a yoetzet halakhah should only be employed with the approval of the synagogue’s or community’s rabbis, and should continue to work in close consultation with the local rabbi(s).”
At Shalhevet, during January senior girls spent a week learning halakha with the Los Angeles community’s yoetzet halakhah, Shoshana Samuels. According to yoatzot.org, Ms. Samuels is the yoetzet halacha for Beth Jacob, B’nai David, Young Israel of Century City, YULA and Shalhevet.
Ms. Samuels offers counsel and answers shailot (halachic questions) pertaining to the laws of taharat mishpacha, which involve marriage, intimacy and reproductive issues.
Senior Nicole Miles said that having a woman in that role made sense.
“Taharat mishpacha is a core value of Modern Orthodoxy and Judaism as a whole,” said senior Nicole Miles. “Therefore, there needs to be a leadership position for a women who’s an expert in halacha that pertains to taharat mishpacha and Jewish sexual ethics, so women can turn to her for advice in order uphold that value.”
Though Rabbi Topp’s sermon seemed unifying to some, others viewed the OU’s statement as divisive because it effectively reprimands particular Orthodox synagogues like B’nai David.
“I think that it will be divisive,” said senior Adam Taryle. “I think that the statement is very well based, with a lot of precedence, but the issue of women and clergy should not divide the Orthodox movement.”
Mr. Fagin said the OU shared this concern but said synagogues who employ women clergy should share the same responsibility.
“We’re always concerned – you’ll see that concern reflected clearly in our statement,” Mr. Fagin said. “But I’ll also add that activities that are engaged in by various synagogues, luckily a very small number, also have the capacity of dividing the community, and we all need to be cognisant of that and try to be as careful as we can be to maintain the unity of community but it’s not a one-way street.”
Senior Leon Levy believes the OU statement was unnecessary, but agreed that women should not be clergy because it makes shul policy political.
“It is something that is at the very least arguably halakhically wrong and while it may not be the worst sin, a shul should put adherence to halakha and halakhic values as its priority,” said Leon. “This just brings too much politics which does not belong in a shul.
“A shul should strive to have articles written about their divrei Torah [sermons] and not about them going against the boundaries of the community and arguable halakha.”
Freshman Neima Fax, who prays at B’nai David, supports female clergy.
“I think it’s good to have a leader for women that women can relate to,” Neima said, “that they can ask more personal questions that they wouldn’t necessarily ask a male rabbi.”
But on the ground in Los Angeles, for now at least the two sides don’t seem quite as far apart as they did on Feb. 2 when the statement was first released.
“It’s really important that we all focus on achdut,” unity, said Rabbanit Thomas-Newborn, “and having conversations with each other when we disagree or especially when we disagree.
“And being unified, I think especially in Modern Orthodoxy, is so essential and needed.”