Seven months after one of Orthodox Judaism’s oldest and biggest institutions barred women clergy from its synagogues, the decision is threatening to create yet another split in a community already riven by the issue of female rabbis.
Founded more than 100 years ago, the Orthodox Union is a coalition of synagogues and other organizations, most known for its kosher certification business, the largest in the world. It also supports 1,000 congregations in addition to youth programs, political advocacy and schools. Despite its size, the organization has remained unified even as other notable Orthodox groups have parted ways.
Now, tensions over the fate of five O.U. synagogues that employ female clergy are making some leaders fear for the unity of the O.U. itself. As the O.U. has already announced the ban, the question now is whether it will officially purge those congregations from its ranks.
“My hope [is] that the O.U. not take steps that would result in schism,” said Benham Dayanim, a former member of the O.U. board who signed a recent scathing letter to the organization’s leadership in mid-September urging the O.U. not to take that step.
The question of the renegade synagogues has brought anxieties about the boundaries of Orthodoxy into collision with lingering controversies about the role of women in Orthodox life. The result has the potential to tear apart the movement.
Dozens of rabbis sent their own letter to the O.U. executive committee, opposing any expulsion. The New York Jewish Week, which has a substantial Orthodox readership, also editorialized against the O.U. enforcing the policy. And members of the O.U. board have received a barrage of communications from synagogues.
“If this is a battle between the center and the left of Orthodoxy, it’s rather disappointing that the women are being used as pawns in a turf war,” said Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
The O.U. board did not take up the issue at its September meeting. But Allen Fagin, the group’s executive vice president, said that it is under active consideration by the board’s executive committee.
“We are enormously mindful of potential consequences of any action that we take, as we are mindful of the consequences of action that we don’t take,” Fagin said.
Fagin said that preserving communal unity was not solely the responsibility of O.U. leadership. “One of the things that I’ve found surprising in the discussion that has surrounded this entire issue is the suggestion that somehow the reaction to conduct is the only thing that affects communal unity,” he said. “Those that have taken action that has precipitated reaction don’t feel a concomitant obligation to preserve communal unity.”
The O.U. exists in the hazy space between the liberal American Jewish denominations and the ultra-Orthodox groups. For the past half-century, its member congregations have largely followed teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the defining figure of “Modern” Orthodox Judaism — so called to differentiate it from those Jewish communities that shun the secular world. Yet followers of Soloveitchik’s theology span a broad gamut of religious observance, from synagogues whose practice is indistinguishable from that of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox to those led by female clergy.
Since Soloveitchik’s death in 1993, the O.U. has fought to maintain that space while distinguishing itself from Conservative Judaism, which allows, among other things, female rabbis and same-sex marriage. That balance has been challenged by the so-called Open Orthodox movement under the guidance of Rabbi Avi Weiss, which has aggressively pushed for women’s spiritual leadership roles.
Elsewhere in this world, schism has been impossible to avoid. The Modern Orthodox rabbinic association, the Rabbinical Council of America, now stands alongside the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a rabbinic association for graduates of the seminary that Weiss founded.
Yet the O.U. has remained unified. Dayanim, who served on the O.U. board until 2011, said that that is thanks to the leeway that individual congregations have been given to govern their own affairs. The O.U. has “afforded synagogues a tremendous amount of autonomy,” he said. “That’s simply all we’re asking the O.U. to continue to do here.”
The letter from lay leaders that Dayanim signed raised the specter of an expulsion leading to a broader splintering of the O.U.
“Shutting off further discussion about women in leadership would sow division and discord,” reads the letter from lay leaders, first reported in the Washington Jewish Week. “Will the O.U. next consider scrutinizing Orthodox shuls that allow a person who drives to shul to be an officer? Or those that leave their parking lots open on Shabbat?”
The O.U. has tried to draw lines before. But in the past, change has often come slowly. It took more than five decades after Soloveitchik issued a religious ruling saying that women and men must sit separately in synagogues for the last congregation with mixed seating to leave the O.U.
The statement on female clergy adopted in February came after the board’s executive committee asked a panel of seven rabbis for their opinion on whether it is acceptable for a synagogue to hire a female rabbi, and what other professional roles a woman can hold at a synagogue. Their decision, and the statement the O.U. board issued in support of the ruling, drew immediate condemnation from some corners of the Orthodox world.
Even within the boardroom, the ruling was controversial. A board member who asked not to be named because the conversations were private told the Forward that the board’s decision was far from unanimous. The member also said that board leadership had said at the time that the statement was simply a statement of policy, and would not be acted upon.
Fagin said the board was told that any implementation would “await further discussions” and that the board would make any final decision on implementation.
The decision came at a time when the role of women in Orthodox institutions is in rapid flux. The O.U. elected the first women to its executive committee in 2014. At the time the decision on women in clergy was being prepared, the O.U. was working on a parallel track to create a new program to reach out to women members. Last summer, the O.U. hired a consultant to propose programming for a future “women’s initiative” that would engage women in the Orthodox community. Rivka Press-Schwartz, associate principal of SAR High School, in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, worked at O.U. over the summer of 2016 to develop ideas for future programming.
“The Women’s Initiative was framed as, we would like to make sure we are making positive and affirmative steps to make sure we engage women broadly in the Orthodox community,” Press-Schwartz said. “Whatever the halachic parameters, we are doing whatever we can to maximize engagement and participation of women.”
The O.U. has yet to unveil the Women’s Initiative. Yet Fagin said that the organization had in recent years worked to seek out women to take on senior staff roles.
“We have spent a good deal of time and attention on recruiting, retaining and training; mentoring; promoting highly qualified and talented women in various parts of the organization,” he said. “I think you will see far more women in senior positions, professional positions, than we have had.”
So far, the decision on women clergy has served to complicate life for some female Orthodox leaders. The Jewish Journal reported in July on the controversy over a Modern Orthodox day school’s hiring of Ramie Smith, graduate of Yeshivat Maharat, the seminary that trained the female clergy at the six synagogues. According to the Jewish Journal, while other graduates of the yeshiva go by the title “maharat,” the day school where Smith teaches has decided not to designate a specific title under which she will work.
“We aren’t determining a title, and so parents and students will work out what they call her directly with her,” the day school’s principal told the Jewish Journal.
O.U. leadership appears to be frustrated by the amount of media attention the February ruling has drawn. A second member of the board, who also asked not to be named because of the private nature of the discussion, said that much of the controversy was a media creation. “There seems to be more attention to this issue in the media than among the board and officers of the Orthodox Union,” the board member said.
Fagin echoed the idea: “Frankly, this seems to be a much more interesting subject for the press than it is for the community.”
Yet for activists like Dayanim, the matter is crucial to the future of the O.U. “I think that there is and continues to be a range of belief and practice within the Orthodox community,” he said. “The key to me is that they all are Orthodox…. It’s my hope that that continues.”
Fagin said that he and the board chair, Mark Bane, will be meeting with the authors of the rabbinic letters. He would not say when he expects the board to make a decision on what to do about the six renegade synagogues.
“We have taken our time to try to deliberate over it as carefully and as prudently as we can,” he said.
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Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.