Thursday, July 23, 2009

Orthodox Women Clergy?

This post is an expanded version of the Op-Ed published this week in The Jewish Press: link

Orthodox Women Clergy?
by Rabbi Michael J. Broyde*


You may applaud the prospect of ordaining women rabbis, or you may recoil in horror at the prospect, but the simple fact remains that women serve the Orthodox world in clergy-like positions regularly. Women, in fact teach Torah in many settings, answer questions of Jewish law on many matters, provide guidance on issues of Jewish theology to individuals and otherwise function in a way that we can only describe in fact as “clergy”. All Orthodox Jews ought to agree that we should insure that these women get the best training possible. Furthermore, we certainly all recognize that these women clergy ought to be entitled to parsonage under the Federal tax code. The best way to accomplish this goal is for our community to start many different training programs for Orthodox women who wish to work as clergy.

Click here to read moreTitles do, of course matter and the title of this article was picked with some care: “Clergy” is defined in the Webster’s Dictionary as “the group of men and women who are ordained as religious leaders and servants of God” and, for example in the Catholic tradition, nuns are certainly clergy, although they do not perform sacrament, are not priests and cannot provide communion, the central rite of Catholicism. Clergy is a term broader than rabbi – in a typical Christian Church, all those who are paid to serve the religious needs of the membership, no matter where they are on the hierarchy, are considered clergy.

Halacha, History and Women Studying Torah: A Brief Review

Jewish law generally does not change in its core principles, at least not as it is understood by the Orthodox community. Principles change in only three real ways: Innovative re-understanding [chiddush], Rabbinic decree [takanah] and emergency decrees [hora’at sha’ah]. Each of these has, at various times and places changed the very face and form of Jewish Law and community.

The first two are not the focus of this column, but worthy of brief explanation. Throughout Jewish legal history, scholars of halacha have advanced novel understandings of the classical sources that have changed the practice of Judaism, from Boaz’s assertion in Ruth that a Moabite woman may marry a Jew, to Rabbi Ovadya Yosef’s recent assertion that the DNA mother (and not the birth mother) is the mother according to Jewish law in cases of surrogacy. So too, change through rabbinic decrees prohibiting that which is otherwise permitted has also changed the face of Jewish law: consider for example Rabbi Gershon’s decrees prohibiting polygamy and coerced divorce, and their dramatic impact on Jewish law and society.

Neither of these mechanisms, however, are as far reaching or as powerful as exigent decrees (hora’at sha’ah), the rarely used power to abrogate Jewish law and do that which is prohibited in order to allow Judaism to survive. As the Talmud recounts with regard to the profound decision to abolish the practice of having an exclusively oral tradition and record every aspect of the oral tradition in writing “it is the time to act for the sake of God, to avoid destruction of God’s Torah.”

Women’s study of Torah was the subject of exactly such a process one century ago when a group of famous rabbis -- lead by the Chofetz Chaim and the Admor from Gur — decided to encourage women to study Torah. The Chofetz Chaim (R. Israel Meir HaKohen (Kagan), Likkutei Halachot, Sotah 20b) wrote:

It seems that all of this [prohibition against women learning Torah] applies only to times past when all daughters lived in their fathers' home and tradition was very strong, assuring that children would pursue their parents' path, as it says, ‘Ask your father and he shall tell you.’ On that basis we could claim that a daughter needn't learn Torah but merely rely on proper parental guidance. But nowadays, in our iniquity, as parental tradition has been seriously weakened and women, moreover, regularly study secular subjects, it is certainly a great mitzvah to teach them Chumash, Prophets and Writings, and rabbinic ethics, such as Pirkei Avot, Menorat Hamaor, and the like, so as to validate our sacred belief; otherwise they may stray totally from God's path and transgress the basic tenets of religion, God forbid."
This approach, which is written reflecting the needs of the times and the dangers of under-education in the modern world, stands in direct contrast to the formulation of Jewish law found in Rambam and Shulchan Aruch, which apparently prohibits such study. It is important to note that while the Chafetz Chaim’s formulation has the appearance of being less than ideal (bedi’eved), in reality, his construct – like the change from a purely oral Torah, to an oral Torah that is written down, as Rav Yehuda HaNasi mandated – is really an adaption to changing times. (To illustrate this, we do not view Torah scholars as superior if they decline to write down any of Torah Shebal pe, so as not to rely on the liberal view of Rav Yehuda Hanasi permitting writing down the oral law!)

Even those who paint a slightly less radical story of this change, and maintain that this statement of the halacha was a case of innovation (chiddush) as women were always technically allowed to study oral law (as the Rambam’s formulation of “tzivu chachamim” used to prohibit women’s Torah study does not create a formal issur,) agree that for centuries the practice was not to allow women to study Torah; and the change was still quite radical.

The Problems with the Status Quo

We all agree that a dramatic change has taken place in the last fifty years – by and large we live in a society where many women are studying Torah intensively and women participate extensively in a plethora of professional capacities, including many different roles in Jewish communal life: Women teach our children, found and run our schools, counsel troubled adults, run social service agencies, lecture on Torah topics and texts and serve as outreach professionals. Women study a large variety of Torah subjects and texts – far beyond what was studied a generation ago -- at sister institutions of numerous great Yeshivot and at many independent Torah institutions. Reflecting these changes, Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote simply and directly nearly fifty years ago:
not only is the teaching of Torah she-beal pe to girls permissible, but nowadays an absolute imperative . . . Boys and girls alike should be introduced into the inner halls of Torah Shebal pe.
Just like, in order to save Torah from total destruction, the oral law had to be put into writing, in direct violation of Jewish law 2000 years ago, the oral law now needs to be studied by men and women alike if Torah is to be preserved. One is hard-pressed to find an Orthodox high school that does not, in fact, teach portions of the oral law to girls.

What should those women who have studied Torah for a few years after high school or college do for a living? I confess that I have counseled many of them to “go to law school,” and I have assured them that if they can master a halachic tome by Rabbi M. Feinstein or Rabbi YM Epstein, they can master a legal work by Justice B Cardoza or Justice LD Brandeies. I had given that advice because there were few, if any, good careers in Torah for women, despite the personal realization that this represented a significant loss for the Jewish people. The lucky few who married rabbis and wanted a career in Torah did so under the title “Rebetzin,” but surely marrying a rabbi ought not to be a job requirement for a career being a pastor within our community for women!

Training Women as Orthodox Clergy

To be sure, some of the roles in which women currently serve seem to be adequately credentialed by secular programs and degrees. When women serve specifically within our Orthodox community, however, we expect more of them than of their non-Orthodox counterparts. We expect them to answer questions, provide guidance and Jewish insight, and teach Torah. Formal training of women in such a role, and granting them a degree which signals their mastery of the needed halacha, hashkafa, practical and pastoral skills, as well as their theological commitment to Orthodox Judaism needed for such a job, sounds wise: training people for a job is more prudent that expecting them to do such a job untrained. The opening of institutions to train women to be members of the Orthodox clergy is an excellent alternative to law school and a logical progression within the development of women’s Torah education in the Orthodox community that started as a movement a century ago to teach women to learn all that is needed to function as a halachic person in the modern world. Certainly, a variety of formal programs to train such women is a better idea than excluding them or letting them teach untrained. We have a shortage of well-trained and caring clergy within the Orthodox community and the addition of further clergy will only lighten the burden for the rest.

Some will insist that whatever role women clergy play, they may not answer questions of Jewish law, but this does not seem to be mandated by halacha. As the Chinuch (mitzvah 152) noted many centuries ago, as a matter of Jewish law, there is no issue with a woman answering questions of halacha that she is qualified to answer. Women involved in kiruv regularly answer questions of halacha and hashkafa. Should we not want to see to it that women in this field have adequate training to handle the issues that frequently present themselves?

Even more importantly, we all see and sense that there are aspects of the clergy role that women do better than men, and our community would be deficient if we did not, in fact, have women already serving in quasi-clerical roles. What the community needs is a training process – analogous to the one we have for men – to ensure that women are properly trained in halacha, theology, pastoral matters and practice to best serve our community. If they are serving in these roles and servicing our community well, the Orthodox community will grow.

This does not at all mean that women need to be given the title “rabbi;” it could be, either for reasons of formal authority (serarah) being limited to men, or because the title “rabbi” is limited to people who can serve as witnesses or function as a chazan, or simply as a matter of tradition, a different title should be given. So too, this does not mean that training for women in the Orthodox clergy has to be identical to the training for men in the rabbinate -- women sometimes bring different pastoral approaches that require different training. All of this is secondary to the fact that formal institutional training for women who wish to be part of the Orthodox clergy – teaching, preaching and answering questions of halacha and hashgacha – is an improvement over the current lack of any formal training and thus a good idea. Such programs, granting degrees conferring fitness to be a member of the Orthodox clergy, are a wise idea whose time has come.

One additional financial point is worth noting, particularly in these difficult financial times. Granting women this type of a clerical degree will make it clear that women, as well as men, are eligible for parsonage, and the significant tax savings that it generates. (As the Talmud tells use “just like Torah shows compassion towards the money of the Jewish people, so should we.”)

Some Objections to Training Women as Clergy and a Reply to these Objections

Of course, some will protest that no matter what the title granted is: even if a training program on its own is a good idea, this program should not be supported, they claim, as it will lead down a slippery slope toward egalitarian services. In addition, some will take issue with the world view (hashkafat olam) of one of those organizing this first program and his perspectives on key issues in halacha. Whatever my feelings about those who are organizing this first training program (and I have publically stated that the founder of the first program engaged in “rabbinic malpractice” in a different context), I think this slope is unlikely to slip. Pastoral and halachic matters undertaken by a member of the clergy are quite distinct within Orthodoxy from the liturgical matter of a chazan, the sexton matters of the gabbai or the rabbinical court matters of a dayan. In England, for example, different members of the Orthodox clergy go by distinctly different titles, reflecting different roles: Reverend, Minister, Rabbi, and Dayan and maybe that is a fine idea worthy of transfer to America.

Indeed, if anything, the process of training women as Orthodox members of the clergy will increase the speed of an already present bifurcation in the Orthodox religious leadership, between clergy who function as pastors and rabbis who function as dayanim. If not all members of the Orthodox clergy can serve as dayanim or eidim, then these tasks will become specialized tasks reserved for a smaller sub-group of specifically trained rabbis, who might not even be clergy at all. I suspect that in the future, pastors need not be rabbis and the rabbis need not be pastors within the Orthodox community. In fact Orthodox yeshivot do give semicha both to converts and blind people, even as the first cannot serve as dayanim in general and the second cannot read from the Torah. We all recognize that roles do not slip so quickly.

So too, if the specific people training Orthodox women clergy are thought unfit by some, the solution is to open alternate training programs with different faculty, staff or students. It would be a shame if this good idea was abandoned merely because some in the Orthodox community think ill of the people who started the first training program.


I think that certifying people – men and women -- as well-trained Orthodox clergy to teach, preach and counsel God’s Torah to the laity is also a good idea (and certainly better than the status quo, which allows essentially untrained women to function in pastoral roles). The Orthodox community will be better served by providing better training and firmer career paths to women wishing to serve as pastors within our community. Hopefully there will be competition in this process as well, producing even better programs, and competing programs that reflect ideological and halachic views more normative within Orthodoxy. In the end, our community can only grow and flourish with well-trained clergy, whatever title they might have. “Well-trained clergy” will come, as a general matter, only from programs that are designed to well train them.

I look forward to all my children – both my sons and my daughters -- being scholars and students of God’s living legacy on this planet.

* Michael Broyde is a law professor at Emory University, Chaver of the Beth Din of America and the Founding Rabbi of the Young Israel in Atlanta.

[Note that my posting this does not imply my agreement. That is a general rule for my posting the words of others, including the immediately subsequent post to this, but I emphasize it here because I suspect some readers will misunderstand. - Gil]

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