I almost didn’t bother to write this piece. I’m not Orthodox, and in any case, the Orthodox Union (OU)’s recent statement barring women from serving as clergy feels like an announcement of its own obsolescence.
But as a scholar of Jewish women’s history; as the executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive which has documented the transformative impact of women rabbis around the world; as a Jew who personally benefits from the leadership of women in the Jewish community; and as a non-Orthodox feminist who supports her Orthodox sisters, I felt that I must respond.
It’s hard to know where to begin. Perhaps with the OU’s decision to make this particular statement in the current political context? (Are women clergy really the biggest threat to the Jewish community in Trump’s America?) With the tone of condescension, telling women not to focus on the limitations but on what they’re allowed to do? Or with the proposed solution of a “Department of Women’s Initiatives” – where, perhaps, they can work on assembling “binders full of women” who are qualified to lead in the Orthodox community but may now have trouble finding congregations willing to hire them.
The statement begins with a celebration of the scholarship and leadership of women in the Orthodox community today, which the OU acknowledges has enriched the community. This embrace of women’s learning, sparked 100 years ago by Sarah Schenirer, represents a significant shift in the Orthodox community over the past few decades. But offering this as an end unto itself is willfully obtuse. Education is necessarily empowering — and no one knows this more deeply than those who have previously policed its boundaries. Learning leads to wanting more and to the ability to do more. This is why slaves were not allowed to learn to read; once they could read, it was harder to keep them in their place.
The OU also acknowledges that women already serve successfully in the top leadership positions of the secular world, and that this fact challenges religious communities to provide women with similar opportunities. The OU rabbinic panel ultimately argues, however, that the “halakhic ethos” prevents the acceptance of women in clergy roles in the Orthodox community, because such roles are not normative and have no halakhic precedent. These are familiar arguments to me as a historian of women and gender, because similar claims about the non-normative, disruptive, and unprecedented nature of women’s public roles were once used to oppose giving women secular leadership, not to mention basic rights, like suffrage.
Ultimately, the most interesting aspect of the OU statement is that while attempting to provide a clear and definitive decision, the OU inadvertently builds the case for the policy that it opposes. Even as the rabbinic ruling (made by a panel of seven male rabbinic scholars) lays out the new policy barring women from clergy positions, the OU also quotes extensively from the community forums it convened to hear the perspectives of women and men serving in communal and lay leadership roles. These forums testified to the great benefit communities and synagogues experience when women serve in a variety of public roles and the “tragic forfeiture of communal talent” that results when the leadership of women is not encouraged. The OU statement cites the compelling demand that “We should fully utilize [women’s] talents and commitment, thereby fostering shmirat hamitzvot (observance of the commandments), enhancing limmud torah (Torah study) and expanding the richness and vibrancy of Jewish life.” What does it mean to “fully utilize” the talents and commitments of women if not to open to them the central role of clergy? That implied question speaks louder than the policy ruling itself.
This blind spot is unsurprising, given the all-male rabbinic panel empowered to make the ruling. The assumption that women cannot serve as authority figures resulted in a policy that women cannot serve as authority figures. It’s the vicious circle of patriarchy: a panel of men, reinforcing their own power.
Don’t be too upset, the OU comforts the reader, for “the exploration of halacha must reflect the aspiration of uncovering G-d’s will, even when uncomfortable or difficult to comprehend.” So true. But perhaps the rabbinic panel needs to reflect on its own words. Who, really, is feeling uncomfortable or having difficulty comprehending God’s will? Is it those who support the women ably and wisely leading Orthodox communities in rabbinic capacities, or is the men who are trying to stand in their way?
The marches of recent weeks have reminded us that when women stand together, we can capture the world’s attention. There is no doubt that this statement from the OU will have negative consequences for Jewish communities and the women who are trained to lead them, and that is a shame. But while the OU may have tied itself in knots with its circular, contradictory statement, those of us fortunate enough to stand in the light of women’s leadership are unfettered, and we stand strong.
Judith Rosenbaum is the executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive.