There has been much vibrant discussion as of late about the search for increased women’s spiritual leadership in the orthodox community. This past summer, Tradition, a publication of the Rabbinical Council of America, included in its recently Spring 2016 issue a collection of articles under the title, “Perspectives on Women’s Leadership in Orthodoxy.” Additionally, a designated panel of seven leading Poskim and Rabbanim have been appointed by the Orthodox Union to provide halachic and hashkafic guidance to a small working group in the OU with regard to the ordination of women and related issues. At the same time, in Israel, a Modern Orthodox synagogue recently hired Rabbanit Carmit Feintuch as a spiritual leader of that synagogue, alongside Rav Benny Lau. Both here and in Israel, there is a clearly a sense of change in the air. Albeit at different levels and at different paces, American and Israeli communities are working to address the growing demand for increased participation of woman in Orthodox spiritual leadership.
It seems that the facts on the ground are changing, and Rabbinic leadership is attempting in a serious way to respond to this new climate, and to provide leadership in a sensitive manner. However, the issue is a very tricky one. At the most basic level, it must be asked - is female spiritual leadership a halachic issue or a hashkafic issue? Those who consider it a halachic question cite the problem of “serarah,” where the Rambam seems to prohibit women from assuming any position of authority. From there, further questions arise: Do we pasken like the Rambam? If so, how do we distinguish between women’s spiritual leadership and other forms of leadership that orthodox women attain in the business world without criticism from the mainstream orthodox Rabbinate? Does a fair reading of the Rambam only prohibit communal and spiritual leadership? And what is the definition of “leadership?” Only if she is the head Rabbi of a synagogue? Only if she is the head Rabbi of a community? If we pasken like the Rambam, can we carve out certain limitations on a female spiritual leader that would satisfy the supporters of the Rambam in this regard? Perhaps 90% of what Rabbis do seems to be halachically acceptable for women to do – pastoral services, teaching, inspiring, and counseling. It seems to me that with enough creativity, we may be able to create positions of spiritual leadership for women that would not violate the Rambam’s prohibition of serarah.
The other issue, and one which for some is more emotionally laden, is in the hashkafic realm. That is, how do we balance the spiritual needs of a community that can benefit from a female spiritual leader, with the issue of mesorah or tradition? Does the fact that the Torah only provided for male spiritual leaders in the form of Kohanim and not “Kohanot” convey that the hashkafa of the Torah is that only men should have public leadership roles in conducting services, whether in the Temple or any communal mikdash me’at, perhaps for modesty reasons? Or should we not draw any conclusions from the limitations on women joining the priesthood as it relates to spiritual leadership in our synagogues today?
Some voices within our community have expressed concern about Rabbis getting involved in helping form policy decisions about women’s ordination for the Orthodox Union. They are afraid that the Rabbis will “get it wrong.” There is concern that the Rabbinic leadership won’t be sensitive enough, or may take positions that are too extreme for OU synagogues that currently retain women as clergy members or congregational interns. These individuals worry that an imperfect Rabbinic response may create a rift within the orthodox community. I understand these genuine concerns, but I disagree. In fact, I am personally in favor of the OU involving itself in this important communal conversation. We need to involve our poskim in these issues because these issues and the decisions they produce will shape the nature of our community for years to come.
There is a genuine thirst for increased women’s spiritual leadership and this cannot be questioned. Responding to this thirst may require a change in past practice. Only those who clearly demonstrate their fidelity to the mesorah have the authority to make serious changes to past practice. As an example, Rav Soloveitchik changed past practice by teaching Gemara to women and perhaps by supporting the creation of the state of Israel as being a gift from God. The Rav was able to do this, as he was known as someone who lived by the mesorah, whose very essence was governed by the mesorah. We need such leaders today to meet the demands of the day with the sensitivity, ingenuity, and communal confidence that the Rav embodied. As such, I hope and pray that we do not abdicate leadership on the topic of women’s ordination. We should instead support the very difficult and complicated OU initiative to approach our baalei mesorah, in order to help provide guidance in this area in a serious and sensitive manner. These debates are healthy, and when done l’shem shamayim they are the products of a vibrant and engaged orthodox community. Let us continue these conversations together, conducting them in a way that is consistent with spirit and values of our community.