Orthodox Women Rabbis: A Rejoinder to Rabbi Wolkenfeld


women-rabbisBy Avrohom Gordimer

In response to “Ordaining Women and the Role of Mesorah”, R. David Wolkenfeld, Vice President of the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF – the rabbinic organization comprised primarily of graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah), posted an article that attempts to justify Orthodox ordination of women and to refute the many halachic arguments raised in objection to this most recent innovation.

While R. Wolkenfeld does his best to argue his case, at times being matter-of-factly dismissive of opinions expressed by renowned halachic authorities and arguably using a tone of stridency and force that others would not use when waging battle against eminent poskim many times their age, he fails to muster any mekoros for his position to sanction the Orthodox ordination of women, and, in fact, his major caveat to circumvent the most potent objection to such ordination is disproven and undermined by the very people who are granting the ordination.

Let’s evaluate this all carefully.

After issuing a long and fierce shot across the bow, R. Wolkenfeld proceeds on an effort to dissect and discount R. Hershel Schachter’s initial objections to ordaining women:

Rav Schachter’s halakhic arguments are unconvincing and an argument based on “traditional communal norms” is more subtle than Rav Gordimer admits…Unfortunately, the three arguments that Rav Shachter (sic) presents in opposition to women rabbis are weak, perhaps reflecting his well-documented and idiosyncratic antipathy towards Jewish feminism.

Rav Shachter presents the halakhic prohibition of women exercising serarh (sic) using the words, “the Tanna’im understood the pasuk in Chumash as implying that women may not be appointed to the position of King” as though it were a well attested and universally accepted halakhic position. In fact, this halakhah is found nowhere in the Talmud, is mentioned by Rambam alone among the rishonim, and is not codified by the Shulhan Arukh (Rav Soloveitchik’s hiddush in Hilhot Shechitah notwithstanding).

Despite R. Wolkenfeld’s depiction of the prohibition of appointing women to positions of serarah (Rambam, Hil. Melachim 1:5) as non-normative Halacha, the Rambam’s position (which is in fact shared by the Ritva – Shevuos 30a) is not disputed by other Rishonim and has the support of many later authorities. To dismiss this halachic issue of serarah out-of-hand and with such brevity is troubling.

R. Wolkenfeld then argues that:

As an added element of irony, the entire profession of the rabbinate is entirely illegitimate according to Rambam, who categorically forbids earning a salary for teaching Torah. Since the entire Orthodox rabbinate rejects Rambam’s position on whether rabbis and Torah teachers can be paid for their work. How can we present Rambam’s purported opposition to women rabbis as though it were the only halakhic voice?

This is baffling! The Rambam’s position on accepting payment for Talmud Torah is totally irrelevant as regards his position on serarah for women. Using his own logic, R. Wolkenfeld should be taken to task for quoting R. Aharon Lichtenstein in his article, for R. Lichtenstein presented the RCA with a lengthy paper at its convention three years ago in which he argued against the ordination of women, in direct opposition to R. Wolkenfeld’s article. (Please also see a fuller treatment of the issue here.)

R. Wolkenfeld then takes on the issue of tzni’us, treating it as a separate factor in R. Schachter’s argument, even though R. Schachter explained in his essay about ordaining women that the prohibition of serarah is a function of the requirement for tzni’us. In this section of his article, R. Wolkenfeld musters no sources; he merely argues that since people in practice do not conduct themselves and do not harbor sentiments in consonance with R Schachter’s position, the position must therefore be incorrect:

This argument (of R Schachter) constructs a theory of tzniut that, however plausible it may be, is entirely irrelevant to the way that contemporary Orthodox Jews live. Do men with prominent communal positions experience their public leadership as though it were a painful but necessary sacrifice? Is it even true that contemporary Orthodox women refrain from speaking in public or serving the community in a visible and public way?… Rav Shachter’s theory of tzniut is incompatible with the choices that pious Orthodox Jews, men and women, make each day.

The lack of halachic weight, logic and methodology in the above critique of R. Schachter’s position needs no elaboration.

R. Wolkenfeld’s final argument is that one can circumvent the prohibition on ordaining women by calling female ordainees by a different title – not “Rabbi”, but “Rabba”, “Maharat”, or the like:

R. Lieberman’s concern can be overcome with a simple “heker” – a distinguishing feature that makes it easier to separate between two things with different halakhic statuses. Male rabbanim are indeed receiving an imitation semikhah that is a carryover to the original Biblical semikhah, whereas women who serve in positions of spiritual leadership can be given another title to make clear that they are not eligible to serve as dayyanim (or to perform any other ritual role that halakhah limits to men). Indeed, R. Lieberman was opposed to the Conservative Movement ordaining women with the title “rabbi” – but Orthodox women have gravitated towards uniquely female titles (yo’etzet, maharat, hakhamah, rabbah etc.) that do not carry any of the connotations that concerned R. Lieberman.

According to this line of reasoning, R. Lieberman would have accepted “Maharat” and “Rabba” ordination, and we must conclude that R. Lieberman committed obvious and fatal omissions by not including this incredible and indispensible caveat in his ruling and by not suggesting to the JTS administration that it bestow a title such as Rabba upon its female ordainees, as that would have solved R. Lieberman’s whole problem with ordaining women according to R. Wolkenfeld’s logic. (The fact that the Conservative movement allows women to perform the same exact halachic functions as men is not pertinent, as those functions are not rabbinic in nature.) The notion that using a different title for a female rabbi renders it permissible to ordain female rabbis (or rabbas – excuse me) is a real stretch. (Much more on this later; please keep reading.)

R. Wolkenfeld then once again misunderstands a point in the article he critiques. R. Wolkenfeld presents that article’s explanation of Mesorah and the RCA’s position on it as whimsical or commonplace “traditional communal norms…(such as ) rabbinic sermons in the vernacular; congregational singing during tefilot, or clean-shaven men” – as opposed Mesorah being an halachic or hashkafic-based concept. The whole point of the article critiqued by R. Wolkenfeld was that, to quote it, “Mesorah is based upon halachic or hashkafic reasoning” and that “every aspect of our multi-millenia traditional religious communal modality is embedded in or predicated upon halachic or hashkafic axioms. These axioms may not be apparent to the uninitiated, yet failure to perceive them does not grant license to negate, dismiss or reform.” After asserting that commonplace traditional communal norms, such as congregational singing and the like, are of course subject to change – something that no one contests – R. Wolkenfeld proceeds to apply this thesis to the coming of age of women in the Orthodox rabbinate (or whatever title or term one uses) in his permitting and promoting it.

Again, and I am sorry to be so blunt, this argument misses the boat. The reason that Mesorah is meaningful to the topic at hand and militates against ordaining women is due to the halachic and hashkafic underpinnings of Mesorah, insomuch that it reflects halachic and hashkafic axioms (such as, in this case, serarah/tzni’us, and the legal underpinnings of Semicha), and is not because Mesorah reflects some type of sentimental or comfort-based sort of tradition that can be changed at will or by popular consensus. This point is the whole thrust of the article Ordaining Women and the Role of Mesorah that R. Wolkenfeld is critiquing! Rabbi Wolkenfeld, rather, overlooked the legally-binding definition of Mesorah and instead adopted a totally different, sentimental definition of Mesorah, and used it to justify ordaining women.

Let us now examine the Orthodox ordination of women that R. Wolkenfeld supports and posits is distinguishable from rabbinic ordination, Semicha, that is conferred upon men. After all, R. Wolkenfeld has provided a caveat, a heker, to grant the former legitimacy despite the clear and well-sourced objections of R. Lieberman that R. Schachter and others feel are so compelling.

The Yeshivat Maharat website tells us that, “Yeshivat Maharat is changing the communal landscape by actualizing the potential of Orthodox women as rabbinic leaders”, and “students will participate in courses in Pastoral Education, Practical Rabbinics and Professional Development”; the website is loaded with laudatory articles such as “Yeshivat Maharat to Ordain Women Rabbis on Sunday”, “”Orthodox Women Rabbis By Any Other Name”, “Orthodox Women Rabbis; It’s About Time”. It is eminently clear that the use of the terms “Rabba” and “Maharat” are a mere artifice. Yeshivat Maharat and its YCT and IRF affiliates have always sought to have female rabbis in the fullest sense possible; any argument to now distinguish female ordainees into a different “halachic category” is an afterthought that arose as a way to placate critics.

In fact, the Maharat ordination certificate utilizes full “Semicha” phraseology for the women being ordained, just like the Semicha certificate issued to male ordainees!

Many rabbis, far more authoritative than I, have commented throughout the years that the Open Orthodox movement is very much on the same trajectory as the Conservative Movement was half a century ago, in which the goal was to revise Halacha and assimilate it to reflect contemporary secular mores, and then to conjure up the halachic arguments in favor of such, as forced as such arguments may have to be. Although R. Wolkenfeld is sincere in his belief in the legitimacy and permissibility to ordain women (as rabbas or Maharats), the movement with which he affiliates has yet again demonstrated that it first shoots the arrows wherever it wishes and only afterwards draws the targets around them.

Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America and the New York Bar.

This article first appeared on Cross Currents.

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  1. Thank you Rabbi Gordimer! You are truly ahn emeseh link in our mesorah. May you be zocheh to the brocho of Baruch asher Yakim es divrie HaTorah HaZos.

  2. Tl; dr. Irrelevant discussion.

    YCT is not an “Orthodox” institution.

    We don’t engage in polemics with the reform or conservative, so why bother with these resha’im?

  3. Mayim and Albert Einstein, is it not possible to make your point with Derech Eretz? Could you not have found nicer words with which to disagree with Jews? Is the Mashiach closer now? Please, lets choose our words more carefully even if we disagree. Thanks

  4. No, it’s not irrelevant. We need a vocabulary for these and other social issues. Kudos to Rabbi Gordimer for his well-thought and written essay.

  5. Thank you rabbi Gordimer, but how can you defend yourself asb member of the RCA, who have clearly shown themselves to be anti-Torah and pro-toeivah. Gordin said that YCT was “premature” in its decision to ordain women. What’s premature quickly becomes mature. Quit giving legitimacy to these reshaim!

  6. Resha’im? Really? During bein hametzarim? Did you not think about your treatment of other people when you were fasting on Tuesday? Your point on polemics is patently false (v. Rav SR Hirsch), but that’s hardly the point.
    Let’s make a distinction between a person and their views, shall we? I will mourn this attitude on Tisha B’av and hope you will reconsider it as well.

  7. R’ Gordimer, very well argued. I have read a number of articles on the topic by the young generation of YCT but I am curious to read something written by a seasoned senior halachic authority that can present a cogent argument against Rav Shacter without being so dismissive. Who are their poskim? have they written on this issue?

  8. Why make a chazer kosher is absolutely correct. This is a non-issue. Our values are based on the Torah, not based on how we fit Torah into secular society. To paraphrase R’ Gifter ZTL: we are not Orthodox jews, we are torah jews.

    If we need to debate this point then we see how far off-base some people are. However, this is nothing new. We have always had the “enlightened” ones, who have tried various tactics and various forms to take us away from the Torah. This is another form.

    Based on what I see here from the IRF, these people lack basic learning skills that a 12th grade yeshiva bachur has. The lack of basics is somewhat amusing. Learning only daf yomi or with the artscroll will not help you acquire these skills. Yet the arguments here reflect that low level of scholarship.

    I daven that these people should do teshuva and see the light.

  9. While the issue of women “rabbinical” figures may be hotly contested, what can be said for sure is that Rabbi Wolkenfeld’s arguments are unconvincing. While the applicability of Serarah in this case may be debated, there is no doubt that it is a fully important halacha, and same with Tzniut. Arguing based on current behavior is never the way to prove a point (in halacha).
    At the end of the day, I believe that women who spend their time learning Torah and Halacha should be granted a certificate of some kind. A woman is often better situated to advise on issues of Niddah and Kashrut than a man is as women may feel more comfortable asking a woman than a man. In order to ensure clarity in the system, we need some kind of “ordination” for women, certifying them in areas of halacha that are uniquely relevant to women (namely, Niddah, Kashrut, and possibly Gittin). These would be women who would be on equal level of competency as a standard rabbi who isn’t a posek. A rabbi’s #1 job is or should be to provide a basic clear cut psak for his community on black/white issues. There is nothing special about the title of “Rabbi” in that job, and so women should have similar training is relevant areas.

    In short, women need women “rabbinical” figures. Call them whatever you want (except Rabbi).

  10. #7, Derech Eretz: Derech Eretz is not for scoffers of Torah. Those who went against the mesorah have brought devastation upon our people and it is wrong to be polite. Look at the assimilation of what the Reform, etc. movements have done to Yiddishkeit!