“We’re going to blink and there’ll be 100 Orthodox women rabbis in America that have been given ordination”. –R. Adam Mintz, professor of Talmud, Yeshivat Maharat
Within the week, three Orthodox-identified rabbinical ordination programs for women granted semicha (ordination) to their graduating classes. (Please see here and here.) While the mainstream organs of Orthodoxy do not recognize or approve of the ordination of women (here are RCA statements about the matter), the reasons for not accepting the legitimacy of semicha for women remain a mystery to some.
Various articles have been published about the topic (please see here for R. Hershel Schachter’s article); I would like to take one approach and provide some elaboration.
Halachic analysis of contemporary rabbinical ordination of women was first put forth by R. Saul Lieberman (please see here for R. Gil Student’s important presentation thereof), who in 1979 expressed his opposition to such on the part of Jewish Theological Seminary.
Although R. Lieberman’s tenure at JTS was the subject of controversy and was certainly not viewed favorably by Orthodox leadership, R. Lieberman was Orthodox and was very well-versed in our topic; his ruling on it is thus quite pivotal and precedential. R. Lieberman’s position was discussed in my initial article on rabbinical ordination for women, but that article focused more on the definition of Mesorah (Torah tradition). Let us turn here to the actual issue of semicha for women.
R. Lieberman demonstrates that even though modern-day semicha is not the original semicha that was conferred by Moshe upon Yehoshua and that continued to be conferred upon subsequent scholars until one-and-a-half a millennia ago, modern-day semicha is most certainly a carryover and model of the original semicha. The original semicha empowered one to serve as dayan, rabbinic judge, and that is exactly what contemporary semicha represents, as evidenced in the earliest of rabbinic literature that discusses the purpose and function of contemporary semicha. Since women cannot serve as rabbinic judges (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 7:4, with the exception of cases of binding arbitration, in which the status of dayan is forgone [Sanhedrin 24, Rambam Hil. Sanhederin 7:2] – and modern-day semicha is decidedly not modeled on this), the rabbinical ordination of women is not valid and is distortive of the very essence of semicha. To grant semicha to women makes no sense, and to do so would “make ourselves objects of derision and jest”, proclaimed R. Lieberman.
The end of the matter is that it is clear from the sources that being called by the title “rav” (“Rabbi he shall be called”) reflects on the fitness to issue legal decisions and to judge, and we should not empty the title “rav” of its meaning from the way it has been understood by the Jewish people throughout the generations. Since a woman is not fit to judge, and she cannot become qualified for this…
Those who promote the ordination of women as rabbis either erroneously assert that modern-day semicha is a novel contrivance that has no controlling precedent, or they turn to the example of Devorah the Prophetess, who judged the Jewish People. (Shoftim 4:4) However, Devorah did not have semicha and did not sit on the Sanhedrin. Rishonim (medieval halachic authorities) explain that she either was a leader and teacher, that she practiced binding arbitration, that she provided instruction for dayanim, or the like. To use Devorah – someone who did not have semicha and did not qualify for it – as the precedent for women rabbis is quite a stretch.
Unfortunately, many of those involved with the ordination of women lack fealty to the fundamentals of Torah. For example, one of the women just ordained with “Maharat” semicha rejects halachic marriage, and she has created her own alternatives to Kiddushin and Nisu’in, halachic marriage, as presented in her book Tradition and Equality in Jewish Marriage: Beyond the Sanctification of Subordination.
One of the rabbis who ordained two women last week at an Orthodox-identified coed semicha program has written that one need not believe that the Torah reflects accurate facts and that it was dictated to Moshe via oral prophecy. This rabbi, who prominently touts his Orthodox credentials, has written that God did not necessarily speak to Moshe in a literal sense, but that the entirety of Torah was a non-historical development in which God communicated by placing His existence and truth in man’s heart:
The significance of the biblical narrative according to this tradition rests not in its historical accuracy but in the underlying spiritual content.
The purpose of the Torah, according to the “sod” tradition is not to convey historical truths but rather to gesture toward a deeper and more profound spiritual reality. It is possible, then, to accept that the Torah in its current form is the product of historical circumstance and a prolonged editorial process while simultaneously stubbornly asserting the religious belief that it none the less enshrouds Divine revelation.
God stirs our hearts and He stirs in our hearts; that is the revelation. The rest is interpretation.
This rabbi’s theology is extremely close, if not identical, to the Conservative movement’s notion of a divinely-inspired Torah – which is hence not literal, not fully binding, and is subject to evolving revelation/modification, for it was not actually commanded to Moshe at Sinai.
Inclusion and acceptance of rabbis who proffer heretical views has sadly become de rigueur in the “Open Orthodox” rabbinate, whether dealing with the ordination of women or anything else. One musmach of Open Orthodoxy, whose apostasy is well-known (please see here for older material, and here, here, here, etc. for more recent assertions of this rabbi that the Torah was written by men), was recently honored by International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), the Open Orthodox rabbinic organization (whose vice president is a female rabbi), to serve as editor of a new book about the halachic significance of brain death. Apparently, IRF is not bothered by the fact that the editor of its new halachic publication denies the Torah’s singular divine authorship.
The chair of the department of Talmud at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) recently reposted his approach to Torah She-b’al Peh, the Oral Law:
Chazal were the R. Riskin’s of their time. They too were committed to creating a yiddishkeit which is in constant dialogue with their ethical sensibilities. They read Torah with a critical lens and whenever they encountered a perceived injustice they did whatever they could (within legitimate boundaries) to undo the challenging misread.
This week’s parsha is a perfect example.
Simply read, the biblical sotah procedure seems capricious and patriarchal. The rabbis, incorporating Divinely ordained hermeneutics, drastically revised the procedure. The result: a process that is sensitive and somewhat egalitarian.
They were the progressives of their time, and, relative to their milieu, quite radical. They too were vilified, but in the end they prevailed. Ultimately their enterprise received the divine imprimatur.
It is because of their courage that Rabbinic Judaism is still around today. Their interpretations allowed Judaism to survive, thrive and ultimately triumph.
This rabbi describes Chazal, the Sages of the Talmud, as revising Torah law to meet their own sense of ethics, and that the hermeneutic tools for this are divinely-sourced, granting Chazal poetic license, as it were, to reform Biblical Law that they find objectionable. This radical approach to halachic authorship is clearly contradicted by the Rambam in his Introduction to Mishneh Torah and his Introduction to Perek Chelek, Yes, Chazal have at their disposal certain legislative tools, but reforming the interpretation of Biblical Law to conform to human ethics is not in the arsenal and violates the divine character of Torah Law. Please read the referenced words of the Rambam and see for yourself.
Although it does not pose the stark theological objections discussed heretofore, a YCT rabbinical student and his bride recently created a novel wedding ceremony, whose link was proudly posted in various fora by YCT rabbinic leadership:
We made a list of particular needs that we had, and researched potential solutions. We wanted the women to feel involved during the tisch, we wanted the bedeken to be a moment where we each covered the other, and we wanted female participation under the chuppah.
As I was marched in, on my brothers’ shoulders, for the bedeken I covered Marti’s face, and she too covered me. She replaced my regular kippah, with a new kippah that she made for me. As I kneeled in front of her, it was one of the holiest moments of my life.
Our good friend, Rabbi Rachel Silverman, recited it (an eighth beracha, for the Sheva Berachos) for us under the chuppah.
It is regrettable that Open Orthodoxy is becoming the new Conservative movement, but that is precisely what is happening. Denial of a Singular Divine Author of the Torah, denial of the objective truth of Torah She-b’al Peh, ordaining women rabbis, creating gender-modified rituals, and so much more; the “Orthodoxy” has been swallowed up by the “Open”.
The Torah requires the Jew to subordinate his ideologies and actions to God, to the objectively true and authentic mandate of Sinai. Reshaping Judaism as we see fit has no place in this mandate. Let us recommit to Hashem and the eternal, unchanging charge of Sinai, and pray that all of our brothers and sisters will join us.
This article first appeared at CrossCurrents and is published here with permission of the author.