For those of you who aren’t in as many ortho-fem facebook groups as me, and maybe haven’t seen what has happened this week, the RCA (the main accreditation body for Modern Orthodox Rabbis in North America, and a body that has strong links with Yeshiva University) issued a statement reiterating their opposition to women becoming members of the ‘Orthodox Rabbinate’.
The main argument that is used across the statement is that the acceptance of women would be ‘a violation of our mesorah (tradition)’. What has been said raises several points:
There is no Halakhic obstacle to overcome. The RCA, and particularly its leadership, are a group of extremely learned men, with rigorous smakhot from venerable institutions. If there was a halakhic argument to be made against stopping excluding women from the Rabbinate, it would have been made by them already. That they haven’t tells us that there isn’t one. As I understand it, the semikhah that we have today is not the ‘original’ semikhah that traces its way back to Biblical times, but rather a facsimile put together out of necessity. As such, semikhah has very little halakhic meaning, and is more like an academic qualification than anything else. As such, if we do not exclude women from Torah study, we should not exclude them from having their Torah study recognised in a way that means little other than the title it conveys.
Would it be a violation of our mesorah? The Imahot, Devorah, Huldah, Esther, Salome Alexandra, Beruriah, Yocheved, Miriam and Rachel (the daughters of Rashi), Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, Nehama Leibowitz and so many more would beg to differ. Jewish women have always led us, and led us well. And even if it was…
Mesorah can be violated when we need to violate it. It was a violation of our mesorah to end the exclusion of women from studying the Talmud. It was a violation of our mesorah when polygamy was ended. It was a violation of our mesorah for us to participate in the Zionist project. It could even be said that it was a violation of mesorah to restart the line of semikhah. When there is an overwhelming need, the mesorah ceases to be binding. That is why it is not halakhah. We are at a stage where there is an overwhelming need. Ceasing to forbid women from studying but saying to those that do study ‘we’re the men, we’re still in charge, and we’re not going to allow your study to go anywhere, to culminate in a position of leadership’ is ludicrous, and a massive chillul Hashem.
It is sad that Rabbis who claim to be Modern Orthodox do not seem to want this. The Modern Orthodox project is based on engagement with the outside world, and using what is good about the outside world to enhance Judaism. Having Rabbis who have spent time in the academic world has led to a strengthening of our Torah. Interfaith work has led to a far stronger case to be made for shekhitah. Being unafraid of the Internet has allowed for outstanding dissemination of Torah to anyone and everyone (A quick YouTube search shows me that there are several different Daf Yomi playlists out there). This engagement with the outside world has shown us that women are not incapable of anything. Doubling the number of eligible people for semikhah would certainly enhance our Judaism.
The statement is the last gasp of a group that knows it is swimming against the tide of progress. There are now at least 3 programmes offering semikhah to women (the ones at Yeshivat Maharat, Midreshet Lindenbaum and Yeshivat Har’el spring to mind), and dozens of women with semikhah working in communities around the world. These people are not going to stop their work because the RCA has told them to, nor should they. The cat is out of the bag.
The RCA statement is a statement that is neither grounded in the real world, nor in-keeping with Modern Orthodox values. It is a retrograde step in our quest to make Halakhic Judaism the best that it can be. If you haven’t already, please sign the petition urging them to reconsider here.