Last month, the Orthodox Union, the Orthodox administrative body that oversees nearly everything Jewish-related in America, called together a seven-man rabbinic panel to answer the question whether synagogues under the aegis of the Orthodox Union may employ female rabbis. The unanimous opinion of this distinguished panel was a ringing, if eloquent, NO.
Citing philosophy, history and a great amount of sources, they resolved that the status of women as religious leaders is contrary to Jewish Law and must be prohibited.
Now, this is not the point, place or appropriateness to argue with them point-by-point, word-by-word. It is, however, well known that every word, line, sentence, idiom, commentary, remark in Jewish Law can be, has been and continues to be subjected to mounds of interpretations, depending on how those who interpret would like to direct the Halachah. In this case, the Panel of Seven came with its predetermined opinion to drive the Halachah away from the role that Jewish female leaders are playing in the 21st century in America.
In making its determination, the Panel set aside an entire cache of different statements that could have at least balanced the final opinion, if not weighted it in favor, toward positively endorsing the female leadership roles already in play in many synagogues in America and opening the window of opportunity to many others determined to embrace their own leadership roles with commitment and fervor.
The Orthodox Union was given the opportunity to support these amazing female leaders for the passion they bring to the task at hand. Here was an opportunity to patronize their already-present contribution to bringing Torah scholarship and unparalleled love to the roles they have trail-blazed in synagogues and communities around this country. Instead of closing the door, the Orthodox Union should have publicly clapped them on the back (of course, in a very modest manner) and thanked them profusely for the magnificent leadership they continually inspire in the lives of so many.
The Orthodox Union blew what could have been such a Kiddush HaShem by endorsing the elevation of these women and their work. Instead, it crafted a rabbinic opinion that sends the OU back to the dark ages. Maybe it’s time for a group of Orthodox synagogues to create their own organization instead of having the Orthodox Union trespass the sacred personal space that defines each synagogue with its Stone Age rulings.
Chaim Landau is rabbi emeritus at Ner Tamid Congregation.