It happened … once again, and not in a very subtle, nuanced deliberation. The RCA, the Agudath Yisrael of America, hard-lined leaders of Orthodoxy in America, combined forces, both verbal and strategic, to denounce, reject, and neutralize the existence of a growing Modern Orthodox trend that accepts women clergy in synagogue leadership roles.
The attack is aimed primarily at Rabbi Avi Weiss, that firebrand of Modern Orthodoxy who made quite a name for himself decades ago fighting for the release of Soviet Jewry by getting himself arrested countless times that nevertheless succeeded against all odds in his goal, and that shared by many countless others. More recently, Weiss has founded a remarkable seminary for men called Chovevei Torah and another for women called Yeshivat Maharat, and within these walls of authentic Jewish learning and scholarship prepare the Modern Orthodox community for leaders who push the traditional limitations of halachic acceptability to new parameters.
For some six years now, the women’s branch of his Yeshivah has been producing female scholars and leaders within the community, and they are slowly becoming an accepted fact on the Jewish ground which they sanctify with their dedication, commitment and professionalism.
Nonetheless, the criticism of others against the existence of these women is strikingly disconcerting and worrisome. The Agudath Yisrael of America has proclaimed: “We inform the public that in our considered opinion Open Orthodoxy (referring to Rabbi Weiss’ philosophy of inclusivity ) is not a form of Torah Judaism and that any rabbinic ordination granted by any of its affiliated entities to their graduates does not confer upon them any rabbinic authority.”
Rabbi Weiss is not alone in his leadership for female rabbinic leaders. Rabbi Riskin in Israel is doing exactly the same in his established female seminary called Midreshet Lindenbaum, as well as the Har-el Beit Midrash. These represent a brave combination of forward-looking leaders who hold the female potential for Jewish leadership roles in the same regard as has traditionally only been associated with men.
And there are ways in which this can continue and prosper successfully. I suggest the following:
>> Completely disassociate with the right-wing Agudath Yisrael and Yeshivah University groups whose philosophy of where Judaism should be traveling (if anywhere at all) is out of sync with the Modern Orthodoxy of Rabbis Weiss, Riskin and others. Establish their institutions as the sole representatives of Modern Orthodoxy and allow a clear line to exist between themselves and the more right-wing, red-lines-in-the-ground Orthodox groups.
>> Maintain the title of Maharat already created for these female leaders so that they come to their positions of leadership with dignity, respect and hard-driven depths of assumed learning adding a newer and refreshing dimension of authentic Judaism to those whom they serve.
This is not only a Jewish fight. It has been happening in the world of Catholic and Protestant clergy as well. And in the 21st century, the role of female equality in leadership roles has been the subject of much, and continuing, debate and discussion in all of the areas of media.
It is time to accept the reality that there are female individuals who wish to bring a renewed sense of vision, vigor, love, and responsibility to their Modern Orthodox communities and that we could all be the enriched beneficiaries of their combined and extraordinary talents.