‘Tradition’ and the OU’s Ban on Women Rabbis


Rabbi Gil Student applauds the Orthodox Union’s decision  to ban women clergy from serving member congregations. After all, Student claims, “the leading Torah scholars of the day agree that this development is unprecedented and contrary to Torah tradition.” While Student is learned, pious, sincere and fiercely loyal to American Orthodoxy’s institutions, his defense of  “tradition” is misplaced.

Jewish law is determined by legislated laws, not by committee vote. In order to argue that an act is halachically forbidden, that act must be forbidden by legal rule. However, some within  Orthodoxy invoke “tradition”  as if this term refers to a  specific legal rule, without defining its parameters, to be invoked when all other claims fail. In place of the power of persuasion, the OU now threatens its members with the persuasion of its power.

On one hand, the OU has every right to set standards for membership for its community. It does not have the right to claim that its policies oblige, or define correct doctrine for all Orthodox Jews. What the OU did not do, and is required by Jewish law, was to consult with Rabbis Shlomo Riskin, Yoel bin Nun, Daniel Sperber and Hertzl Hefter, all of whom permit the ordination of Orthodox female clergy. Women’s  ordination advocates argue that there is no insurmountable  halachic impediment to women’s ordination; detractors declare that the change in usage violates “tradition,”  here referring to the fact that woman have not been ordained  as Orthodox rabbis in generations past. The Mishnah b’Eduyyot 2:2 disallows the  argument “we never saw the act being done, so the act, in our present may not be done.”

Others, uncomfortable with  the Oral Torah’s leniency, argue that folk religion’s standards take social inertia, communal expectations and political opposition into account. Collegiality requires that civil discourse take place with reasoned demonstrations, not with  political declarations or  punitive threats. Jewish law does not outlaw arguable, principled dissent.

The “tradition” that is Judaism’s Oral Law ended with the Academy of Ravina and Rav Ashi, the last rabbinic academy with the right to legislate Oral Torah law for all Israel (Baba Metsi’a 86a). Maimonides maintains that a ruling is valid as long as its implementation does not violate any Oral legislated norm up to and including Rav Ashi’s academy. In the culture of the Orthodox street, it is the Judaism of the holy community, not the religion of the holy books that determines propriety.

If “tradition” is what “the leading Torah scholars say,” then Rabbi Sperber’s voice should have been addressed. What is presented as a benchmark of rabbinic competence is no more than a staking of political turf. If Judaism mandated distinct gender roles, husband and wife would not have the halachic right to negotiate marital responsibilities.

An Orthodox Judaism that instructs its women to praise God “Who has made me according to His will,” a blessing unattested in or authorized by the Oral Law, will reconstruct Tradition in unacceptable, untraditional ways. Jewish Law does not recognize an undefined “tradition” that may be intuitively invoked by a rabbinic elite in order to  outlaw innovations which by statute are not forbidden.

Although Jewish law  requires the conscription of men and women in defensive wars (bSota 44b), institutional Orthodoxy disregards this  obligation. Before condemning proposed changes in usage, the OU, to be worthy of its chosen name, would do well to reconsider its own attitude toward unambiguous religious law. Only when institutional Orthodoxy submits to Torah law consistently rather than selectively will its moral authority and religious  legitimacy be respected.

Rabbi Alan Yuter is rabbi emeritus of B’nai Israel and a lecturer with The Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, Ohr Torah Stone and Torat Reva in Jerusalem.


  1. Magnificent piece. It puts not only the oligarchs of the OU in their place, but those of Ner Yishmael as well.


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