Last week, in a message to its hundreds of member rabbis and synagogue affiliates, the Orthodox Union (OU) made a statement regarding women and leadership positions in synagogue life. Citing extensive research of a rabbinic commission, and releasing its 17-page rabbinic response concurrently, the OU concluded that its member synagogues will continue to not employ women as rabbis, but in a departure from previous statements, defined a range of leadership roles that are acceptable for women in synagogue and community life, with the caveat that those roles also must be acceptable by the rabbis working inside each specific community. The organization noted that it has established an office of women’s initiatives and has contributed significant resources toward its launch.
The statement addressed how women at this point have more access to high-quality Jewish education than at any other point in history, and how it is fitting that such women who have become highly qualified should and must be formally welcomed to work within the Orthodox synagogue to serve not just as passive learners and educators, but also in other roles. The statement said this: “Motivated by yirat shamayim [fear of heaven] and ahavat Hashem [love of God], they seek not only to learn, but to teach and inspire others. Similarly, highly qualified and dedicated women are increasingly assuming leading roles in Orthodox communal life, both as professionals and within the laity. These positive developments have transformed the face of synagogues and the Orthodox community.”
In addition to stating outright that women can and should teach and lecture on Torah, including at advanced and sophisticated levels, the OU statement said women may also assume communally significant roles in pastoral counseling, in bikur cholim (visiting the sick), in kiruv (community outreach to the affiliated and unaffiliated), in youth and teen programming, and in advising other women on issues of taharat hamishpacha (family purity) in the role of yoatzot Halacha, in conjunction with local rabbinic authorities when determined by a community’s local rabbinic and lay leadership to be appropriate.
However, in terms of yoatzot in particular, OU representatives stressed they are not mandating, under any circumstances, that communities must embrace new roles. “We asked our rabbis to define the outer parameters of acceptability,” explained Moishe Bane, chairman of the board of the Orthodox Union.
The OU’s action followed a resolution by the Rabbinical Council of America, which was passed last winter, forbidding its member rabbis from ordaining a woman as clergy. At that point, the OU appointed a committee to determine a process on how to address the issue of female clergy in the organization’s member synagogues. This committee of lay leaders selected the panel of rabbis to whom it presented the questions.
The panel included seven leading rabbis of national reputation, including Rabbi Daniel Feldman of Teaneck, Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger of Bergenfield, Rabbi Michael Rosensweig, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rabbi Ezra Schwartz, Rabbi Gedalia Schwartz and Rabbi Benjamin Yudin of Fair Lawn. The OU posed two questions to the panel: “Is it halachically acceptable for a synagogue to employ a woman in a clergy function?” and “What is the broadest spectrum of professional roles within a synagogue that may be performed by a woman?”
However, before many people had read the statement or the rabbinic response, they first read the headline on The Forward’s website last Thursday, which was shortly picked up by the JTA. Both articles used headlines like “Orthodox Union Bars Women Clergy,” and “Orthodox Women to Continue as Clergy Despite Ban.” The failing of these articles is that the Orthodox Union as an organization has never supported women in a role of a rabbi, even if, in several Orthodox Union-affiliated synagogues, women are employed in pastoral roles. Also, the Orthodox Union as an umbrella organization has no involvement in the hiring or firing of community-hired personnel.
“I want to be clear that this was a statement of policy. We have no mechanism for defining for shuls what it is that they should do,” said Allen Fagin, the OU’s Executive Vice President. “What we can do is define what our policy is and what we believe is appropriate as an OU standard,” he said.
“If you only read the headline, you would have seen far less of the rabbinic statement than the reality, which focused more on the roles that were entirely appropriate for women to be holding and the ones we celebrate them holding in terms of learning Torah, teaching Torah, pastoral counseling and management functions within a shul. There is an enormous array of important and meaningful roles that women can hold and contributions that women can make in our communities that are entirely consistent with halachic requirements. Those were areas we were trying to stress,” Fagin said.
The statement, then, was a reflection of standards of and for the OU culture, depending on the community, Bane told The Jewish Link. He shared that much of the response in opposition to the news articles came from people who are not working from the same halachic system of understanding. “I wonder how many of those who are criticizing the poskim’s (halachic decisors) position on this issue do not share the underlying perspective on the halachic system and how a decision should be reached. Therefore, the disagreement is not about women rabbis; the disagreement is about the entirety of the halachic system,” said Bane.
“There are schools of thought that a posek is trained in, in terms of how to weigh halachic questions, that have been passed down from generation to generation. In this instance, because it’s reflective of a whole series of attitudes toward Halacha, the entire system is different,” he explained.
“One of the unfortunate things about some aspects of the reaction to this is that many of those people had not read the statement or the rabbinic response. It’s a sign of the times. This can’t be boiled down to a five- or six-word tweet,” said Fagin.
Fagin added that many Orthodox Union-associated women have reacted by welcoming this statement, which expands the current definition of roles for women in communities and provides specific directives for those who might seek greater involvement in synagogue life. “I think, in many respects, this statement really changes the dynamics of the conversation with regard to women’s roles in the synagogue structure, by trying to focus not just on the areas where it is halachically impermissible for women to function, but on focusing on the areas where it is perfectly appropriate for women to function,” said Fagin. “I think it is an innovation of the rabbis and the statement that we are focused as much on ‘the can’ as ‘the cannot,’” he said.
For example, Debby Pfeiffer of Bergenfield works as a hospital chaplain. She is one of three Orthodox women she knows who work as chaplains in the tri-state area. Her training is in clinical pastoral education (CPE), which, in order to be board-certified, requires 1,600 hours of training in an intense, usually in a multi-faith, hospital setting, sometimes involving overnights or “on-call” hours. “There is a misconception that to be a chaplain you need to be a rabbi. There is nothing I do that requires rabbinic training,” she told The Jewish Link.
Pfeiffer added that she does not pasken halachic questions and is careful not to make decisions for patients. “Just as I would never make a medical decision on behalf of a patient, if someone presented me with a religious shaila I would never pasken. I can share what Judaism believes on a specific topic, but I don’t pasken shailot. If I personally have specific questions I consult with rabbinic authorities.”
Chaplains are there for patients and their families to address their spiritual and emotional needs, in crisis situations, often involving a patient who is gravely ill or dying. While it’s not a skill everyone has, both women and men serve as effective chaplains in many environments, such as in hospitals, hospice, prison and military. “Women, in particular, have a special innate and natural ability to be compassionate and are empathetic listeners. These are essential qualities needed of a chaplain,” she said. “Knowing that someone is there to walk with them through their medical journey, and that someone truly cares, goes a long way in the healing process,” Pfeiffer added.
Careers such as the chaplaincy, which are significant, demanding and extremely focused on spirituality, could then be a very meaningful role for women living in Orthodox communities.
This type of role typifies what the OU’s new department of women’s initiatives could explore on a more formal basis. “We can be true to our Torah values, true to Halacha, and also find substantial meaningful roles for women on the professional side and the lay side,” said Fagin.
Fagin added: “The responses we’ve received within our community for the most part were quite positive. There certainly were a number of voices that were critical, not so much in terms of the substance of the statement that was issued, but much of the criticism came from individuals who questioned why it was necessary for the OU to do this at all, even where they agreed with the substance of the rabbinic response and the OU statements.
“In circumstances that are both challenging and [hold] significant sensitivity, it’s often easier to want to ignore the issue than to confront it. And I think we are seeing a number of people who simply felt more comfortable in ignoring an issue we have been dealing with for a number of years,” said Fagin.
Fagin added that the OU has put aside a significant sum of money to staff the new department of women’s initiatives, and is currently putting together a strategic plan. “We find it disappointing that instead of focusing how we can accomplish this, the focus is on trying to maintain the divisions, which in most respects are really unnecessary,” he said.
The OU statement is available here: https://www.ou.org/assets/OU-Statement.pdf, and the rabbinic responses are available here: https://www.ou.org/assets/Responses-of-Rabbinic-Panel.pdf.
By Elizabeth Kratz