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Halachic Template For Women’s Ordination Isn’t New
Mon, 07/15/2013 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Bruce Ginsburg
Rabbi Bruce Ginsburg

The Modern Orthodox Yeshivat Maharat’s investiture of three women as halachic and spiritual leaders has drawn rapturous praise from the non-Orthodox world, including the liberal Jewish press.  The ordination ceremony — attended by enthusiastic representatives of the progressive and Orthodox communities alike — has been acclaimed in print as “a landmark event in Jewish history” and “a revolution … to be praised and admired.”

But for all the commentary this news item has generated, one important fact has been overlooked. Unlike their sisters in the other movements, the three maharats have chosen to work within the decidedly non-egalitarian parameters of Jewish law — and yet, they and their teachers have been spared the slightest ripple of condemnation from those to their ideological left. How times have changed.

More than 30 years ago, the founders of the Union for Traditional Judaism created the halachic template upon which Yeshivat Maharat’s ordination has now been established. But in contrast to their counterparts at Yeshivat Maharat today, they were not hailed as “visionaries and risk-takers” at the time. On the contrary, they were caricatured as reactionaries and misogynists — despite the fact that they asserted the legitimacy of women serving as spiritual leaders, so long as a handful of halachic parameters would be respected.

And what were those parameters? Namely, the age-old requirement that a minimum of 10 men be present for communal prayer; the necessity of delegating a man to chant the core liturgy and read the statutory Torah portion; and the obligation to call upon men both to serve as witnesses for documents like ketubahs, or marriage contracts, and constitute beit dins, or religious courts, for purposes like conversion. 

This prototype, articulated three decades ago, is precisely the Jewish legal framework now undergirding Yeshivat Maharat’s ordination. While faithfully adhering to Jewish law, it fully enables women to perform the great majority of the functions expected of congregational rabbis: among other things, to teach, counsel, write and preach; to visit the sick, officiate at life cycle events, oversee synagogue programming, distribute tzedakah, champion Israel, and work with the broader community.

The UTJ’s pioneers believed that women interested in making a genuine contribution to Jewish life would find such a leadership position worthy of their talent and effort. Convinced that the legitimate issues raised by the international women’s movement would someday need to be addressed by the halachic world, the UTJ’s founders felt that the only real questions pertaining to women’s religious stewardship of the Jewish community were how it would be achieved and by which institutions.

Given the fact that, at the time, Orthodoxy was as monolithic in its dismissal of Jewish feminism as Reconstructionism and the Reform movement were in embracing it, the founders of the UTJ hoped that by adhering to the halachic process, the Conservative movement could make an enduring contribution to the Jewish future. Alas, this was not to be.

The model proposed by the UTJ’s founders was rejected. In fact, even after initially presenting the decision to ordain women as conditioned on the candidates’ simple acceptance of the obligation to pray three times a day, the Jewish Theological Seminary soon dropped that pretense — asserting the “ethical imperative” of eradicating role distinctions between men and women. At JTS, there would be no limitations imposed by Jewish law on a woman’s exercise of the rabbinic office. In the tug of war between egalitarianism and the halachic process, egalitarianism won.

It was then that some of us in the UTJ offered the counterintuitive forecast that the enduring paradigm of women serving as religious leaders would ultimately be realized within the Orthodox community. We speculated that unlike the women applying to non-Orthodox institutions in the 1980s, for whom the interchangeability of ritual roles was an article of faith, those who would ultimately apply to Orthodox schools would view adherence to halacha as a matter of principle.

Seemingly, that prediction has been vindicated by Yeshivat Maharat; happily, its graduates are drawing cheers from the liberal Jewish establishment, not jeers. Of course, no one is capable of reading another’s mind. Do the maharats’ fans in the progressive community truly see them as role models worthy of emulation? Or do they view them as slow sisters who simply need time to catch up with the egalitarian vanguard?

Time will tell. But to the extent that certainty is ever granted to human beings, of this we can be sure: the Torah’s future will emerge directly from the Torah’s past.

Rabbi Bruce Ginsburg, a past president of the Union for Traditional Judaism, is the spiritual leader of Congregation Sons of Israel in Woodmere, L.I.

Union For Traditional Judaism, Yeshivat Maharat

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David Sher is right. I love Halivni (I consider myself mainstream Orthodox, but I love him despite that), but I did not even know until a few years ago that UTJ existed. The acronym just falls into the abyss of Jewish organization acronyms.

David, you're hardly alone among mainstream Orthodox who appreciate the scholarship of Rabbi/Prof Halivni. a couple of years ago i came across a large collection of seforim being catalogued for sale, including copies of R Halivni's Mekorot u'Mesorot. when i asked to whom the seforim belong, i was told a Rabbi from Boston. upon further probing, i learned they belong to the Talner Rebbe, R. Twersky, tz'l. so, you're in good company.

Reb Yid apparently wants to see his name in print even if he has no idea about the issue. He clearly does not know that UTJ was founded in reaction to Conservative Judaism acceptance of the ordination of women.

actually, if you look at the UTJ vs the now-defunct Edah, many will tell you that what doomed the UTJ from greater growth was its reluctance to embrace the "women's issue" as a cause celebre. that cost them hundreds of thousands, if not 7 digits in potential donations. the other reality was that since it was founded by non-Orthodox though halachicly-based disciples of R Saul Lieberman, tz'l, it would never have captured even the mainstream Left of Orthodoxy to fully embrace it.
over the years, many of its members have traveled comfortably between Edah, YCT, Drisha, JOFA, etc. Truth is they all approach halakha very similarly ...
in my view, UTJ will never receive the full credit it deserves for its Mi Yehudi proposal, its Pesach Hotline, Kosher Nexus, Lieberman yahrzeit program (hope they revive that one), and its interesting Tomeikh K'Halakha, which provided a more moderate halackicly-based responsa before there was YCT or the Inst for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. but it is equally clear that many of its ideas were embraced and more successfully marketed by others.

There is nothing "un-egalitarian" about a minyan being composed of ten men without the inclusion of women. Just as women may have babies and not men, so the minyan composed only of men is encoded into the laws of the olam. Do not dare to say that a minyan is un-egalitarian. The maharats, even this word itself, are not Orthodox Jewish at all. It is a measure of ahavas yisroel to warn other Jewish people against
them and their associates.

It is true that UTJ preceded YCT in its approach to these issues. Unfortunately you seem to have a terrible PR department. If you want to really make an impact you need to market the approach using all of the latest tools. Firstly, a new name, UTJ is very out of touch with the anti-establishment feelings of our young people. UTJ feels so 1960s. Choose a Hebrew name perhaps. Secondly, your website is as uninspiring as the name and it contains very little that would make a person stop and read. If you look at the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals website, you will notice how they made the whole thing visually interesting and tied it to content.

UTJ did pave that path. Why is that important? because despite claiming to be "non" demoninational or "post" demonination, the botton line is that it is a Conservative organization (perhaps at this point the "purest", as JTS has rapidly morphed into what is clasically reform.

But why is that important? Becuase it highlights the fact, as has been noted by JTS luminaries, that YCT - irregardless of their refusal to admit it - is a conservative organization.

The Union for Traditional Judaism was anything but traditional. One can debate whether it was halachic or not; but certainly, having women rabbis and and women leading parts of the prayer service are not part of the Jewish tradition.

I find it quite sad that the ability to bear children remains what restricts women from being counted in a minyan, being acceptable as shlichot tsibur for all parts of the service or being legal witnesses in rabbinic matters (unlike secular courts). In these three areas, it would be logical to view the equal ability of men and women to be intellectually learned and deeply spiritual, rather than the difference in physical organs. Despite all of the lovely midrashic explanations of why women are kept out of these areas, I find only one that is logically satisfying: the male desire for power and dominion.

Dear Shoshana,
Did you ever think that maybe it is not a requirement that an idea be logical for someone to embrace it? Is a human intellect the ultimate judge of the truth? What about the fact of thousands of years of tradition? What about the fact that in the non-Orthodox movements there has been a decline in the willingness of men to participate? Do you really believe that your intellect is better than the Torah which contains so much wisdom?

Shoshana, using your approach, what form or process would you like to see for a traditional, halakhic-based Judaism? I would guess that even Avi Weiss, Marc Angel, etc, would fail your litmus test for not going far enough. it seems that the Conservative Movement's majority has removed all barriers (not sure where they stand on eidut) and would endorse your view.