This past week, The Jewish Week published an article by Noam Stadlan, entitled, “Why Would You Ask Rabbi Schachter.” In this article, he questioned why Rav Schachter was included among the Rabbis to provide input on women’s religious leadership in the synagogue. After all, he argued that Rav Schachter believes that requests for changes in the roles of women are heretical, similar to the Reform movement and early Christians, and that women have an obligation to remain as private as possible and are forbidden from taking any public role, unless a qualified man is not available to fill it. Further, he argued that if the entire Modern Orthodox community followed Rav Schachter’s opinion, then women and girls would be forbidden from achieving anything that would thrust them into the public eye or the spotlight, that we would not honor women at our dinners or events, and that they would be forced to stay home or at least out of the public realm. He concludes that Modern Orthodox communities should not ask Rav Schachter for a psak on women’s issues because he does not represent the Modern Orthodox philosophy in this regard.
I disagree with Dr. Stadlan’s assertion and conclusion for one very simple reason: Rav Schachter signed a Rabbinic response that states that it is appropriate for women to teach ongoing shiurim, to serve as a visiting scholar-in-residence and to serve as an institutional scholar or professional counselor for a synagogue. All of these are public roles. How could Rav Schachter have signed on to such a document if he believes that women cannot serve in public roles? Either some of the comments attributed to him were taken out of context, his position may have evolved, and/or he has the humility to accept some of the findings of his Rabbinic colleagues even if he personally disagrees. There’s no question that a woman’s role in communal spiritual leadership is not only a halakhic issue but it is a hashkafic issue, as well, and, therefore, multiple factors and new circumstances can inform a Posek’s decision. It seems very reasonable to assume that Rav Schachter felt comfortable with the positions referenced in the Rabbinic response after going through the process of meeting with many members of the modern orthodox community and after consulting with his Rabbinic colleagues on the panel. Bottom line is that he was a signatory to a letter affording women public roles, contrary to what Dr. Stadlan asserts was Rav Schachter’s official position on the matter.
Historically, whenever our community has faced a halakhic or meta-halakhic decision of great significance, it has turned to its Poskim to render a ruling for the community. The OU followed this time-honored process in selecting its Poskim and it is certainly appropriate to include Rav Schachter as he is, in all areas, an individual with whom many modern orthodox Rabbis and the OU routinely consult for guidance on a whole host of issues. The reality is that even if Rav Schachter wasn’t on the Rabbinic panel, the members of the panel would likely have come to the same conclusion because, as far as I know, none of the OU Poskim at this time support women’s clergy. But since Rav Schachter was included in the Rabbinic panel, he became a signatory to a decision that provides women with more public roles than what was assumed to have been his position previously. And that is a good thing for modern orthodoxy.