Orthodoxy and female rabbis

Rabbi 2 Rabbi

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin

Beth Avraham Yoseph Congregation, Toronto

Rabbi Lisa Grushcow

Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, Montreal

Rabbi Grushcow: The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) just came out with a rejection of Orthodox women’s ordination and any rabbinic-type titles or roles for women.

As a rabbi in the Reform movement, which has been ordaining women for over 40 years, I am in many ways an outsider to this debate and the beneficiary of the struggles of those who came before me.

However, I have the privilege of serving the Montreal Jewish community and am proud to have as colleagues here two Orthodox women who are also clergy. I see them serving faithfully within their understanding of Halachah, and, like most people who break barriers, they excel at what they do.

At the same time, no one is forced to hire them or agree with the halachic grounding for their ordination. Why is this seen as such a threat?

Rabbi Korobkin: I have no doubt that the Orthodox women who serve as clergy in Montreal are doing excellent work.

Women serve in various capacities in religious leadership roles throughout the Orthodox world. Our schools have female headmasters, principals and religious studies instructors. Our communities have yoatzot Halachah (experts in family purity law), Torah scholars and hospital chaplains (Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Chidlren’s Jewish chaplain was the recently retired Gitty Edery, an Orthodox lady who served with great distinction for many years).

My wife and I serve our shul as rabbi and rebbetzin, and I can assure you that her role is just as vital of a leadership position as mine.

The latest resolution addresses the specific issue of conferring ordination. Orthodox tradition only permits this formal rabbinic appointment for men, just as Mormons only permit formal priesthood ordination for men. Changing ordination rules is viewed by many in our circles to be as much of a deviation from Orthodoxy as the removal of the mechitzah or the installation of an organ in the synagogue.

So I wouldn’t characterize it as reacting to a “threat,” but rather as a reformulation of Orthodoxy’s commitment to mesorah (tradition).

Rabbi Grushcow: I hear you, and I understand that we work within very different understandings of Jewish law, but the Jews I know who are Orthodox and support the ordination of women also are deeply connected with, and respectful of, mesorah.

I also know that the role of rebbetzin is time-honoured and significant in many Orthodox communities. But why should a woman have to marry a man who is a rabbi to serve as a spiritual leader? Why would one not want every spiritual leader to be trained and recognized as such (not to mention paid a salary)?

There is a tension here, of course. Judaism is about a tradition passed down for millennia, and the needs of the community usually outweigh individual needs. The answer cannot simply be that Orthodox women want to be rabbis so every other issue disappears. But it seems to me – again, with the humility of an outsider – that the Orthodox community is enriched by the spiritual leadership of all who have the ability and desire to serve.

My hope is that those who are in this debate will be able to go forward in a way that makes more room within the Jewish community, not less. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform – all are relatively recent groupings in terms of Jewish history, and none of us knows for certain which way is the best way forward.

It seems to me that there should be room enough for all of us in Jewish life, even with our disagreements.

Rabbi Korobkin: This is why many RCA members and officers – myself included – while agreeing with the substance of the resolution nonetheless voted against it. We believe that now is not the time to reaffirm our differences, but rather to find positive ways to work together amid our disagreements, even when those disagreements are about the very same mesorah we both wish to uphold.

My hope is that when the hoopla of this latest resolution dies down, Orthodox leaders will be able to more productively focus inward on the real social and religious ills of our communities, and then positively engage in outreach to the rest of the Jewish community to make Klal Yisrael more cohesive and strong. I look forward to sharing our common goals and strengths.

Click here for last week’s edition of Rabbi 2 Rabbi