The Orthodox Union has adopted a new policy barring women from serving as clergy at its 400 member congregations across the United States.
At least four synagogues that are members of the Orthodox Union currently employ women in clergy roles.
A new rabbinic ruling by seven leading Modern Orthodox rabbis — adopted as official OU policy at a board meeting on February 1 — concludes that “a woman should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position.”
The ruling bars women from holding a title such as “rabbi,” or even from serving without title in a role in which she would be performing clergy functions, such as regularly leading services, delivering sermons, ruling on matters of religious law, or officiating at weddings and funerals.
“We have received a number of requests from member synagogues and their lay leadership and or rabbinic leadership for halachic guidance in this area,” said Allen Fagin, executive vice president of the OU. Fagin said that the OU had, in turn, requested the rabbinical ruling. He said that while the ruling bars women from clergy jobs, it encourages women to take other synagogue leadership roles.
News of the new policy drew immediate condemnation from rabbis and leaders on the Modern Orthodox left.
“The OU should stick to tuna fish,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, spiritual leader of Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., an OU congregation that employs a female clergy member, Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman. (In addition to its role as a synagogue umbrella group, the OU runs the largest kosher certification agency in the world.)
It’s not clear what the OU will do about member synagogues that currently employ female clergy. The OU statement says that the OU’s Synagogue Standards Commission will “enter into a dialogue with synagogues to encourage and facilitate implementation” of the rabbinic ruling.
Fagin said that it was the OU’s “really strong hope” that congregations that currently have female clergy would not split from the OU. “Part of our responsibility here, together with our shuls, is to try to find common ground in those small number of instances where there may be the need for further thought,” he said.
Groups that have advocated for increased roles for women in Orthodox religious life expressed frustration at the new policy. “There are various ways of practicing Judaism, halachic Orthodox Judaism,” said Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. “We are disappointed, however, that the OU is attempting to squash that healthy debate and impose their [religious ruling] on hundreds of synagogues, thus centralizing power… and not giving autonomy to communities’ lay and professional leaders.”
OU synagogues have become increasingly split on matters of women’s roles in spiritual leadership. On the left, rabbis affiliated with the so-called Open Orthodox wing of Modern Orthodoxy have embraced clergy roles for women. A yeshiva for women, Yeshivat Maharat, has already graduated 14 female Jewish clergy. On the right, the leadership of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Modern Orthodox rabbinic organization with close ties to the OU, has already come out against female clergy. In the meantime, more traditional Orthodox groups like Agudath Israel of America have come out strongly against female clergy and those who ordain them.
The OU’s statement appears to have been controversial within the organization’s board. In a letter circulated to board members, the vice chairman, Mordecai Katz, and his wife, Monique Katz, argued that decisions about female clergy should be left to individual congregations.
“What is clear is that the OU will only divide the community if it starts to strip some of its member shuls which have female clergy of OU affiliation,” the Katzes, who are major philanthropists, wrote. “By issuing the statement, the OU will be responsible for further dividing not only the Orthodox community, but individual families as well.”
The religious ruling adopted in the statement sets aside certain synagogue roles that in considers appropriate for women, including teaching and lecturing, holding senior administrative and managerial positions, and serving as community educators or professional counselors.
The ruling is equivocal on the question of female advisors on Jewish law, called yoetzet halacha, who advise women on questions regarding the intersection of sex, religious purity and Jewish law. The ruling says that some of its authors oppose such advisors, but that they feel that they provide a “valuable service,” and that that the use of yoetzet halacha should be “evaluated carefully.”
Seven leading rabbis collaborated on the religious ruling, including Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a rosh yeshiva at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, who leads the RCA’s Beth Din of America, and Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, a prominent New Jersey rabbi, among others.
Updated, 3:30 p.m.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.