Culture, Justice, Politics, Religion, Sex & Gender

More on Orthodoxy and women. Is it news?

NEWS ITEM: In a special news report published online by the NEW YORK JEWISH WEEK, a woman was designated by Rabbi Avraham Weiss to lead Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday night, July 30, for the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox Union synagogue.
The article goes on to say

In the past year, there has unfolded within American Modern Orthodox Judaism the first major evidences of a pending theological schism, as a small but media-savvy minority of rabbinic activists from the YCT/ IRF camp have begun pushing the MO envelope farther to the Left than mainstream Modern Orthodoxy ever contemplated. At the center of the impending schism is Rabbi Avi Weiss. He is charismatic and dynamic, rabbi of a shul with a large membership where he can introduce any innovation he desires, and he has a rabbinical seminary and rabbinical association in place to give his agenda the aura of a legitimate “movement.” Although Young Israel synagogues do not readily accept YCT graduates as congregational rabbis and the 900-member RCA does not regard YCT ordination as carrying the legitimacy of a RIETS Semikha, Rabbi Weiss has decided that he no longer needs communal approbation to venture on his own because he has the minions.

During the past several months, Rabbi Weiss and his protégées have pushed the Modern Orthodox envelope hard three times: (i) they have granted “semikha” to Sara Hurvitz, whom they boast as the “first woman rabbi ordained” under an Orthodox rubric, and who now serves at Rabbi Weiss’s congregation; (ii) they have circulated a position paper on relaxing attitudes towards homosexuality that goes beyond anything to which the overwhelming majority of RCA rabbis can lend their names; and (iii) they have brought a woman prayer leader forward to lead a Kabbalat Shabbat service attended jointly by men and women. For most Modern Orthodox rabbis, these “innovations” are beyond the pale of tradition and possibly beyond the definition of Orthodoxy. Meanwhile, the Orthodox Union comfortably has accommodated its standards to include Rabbi Weiss’s shul.
The RCA long has prided itself as comprising a “Great Tent” under whose cover all Modern Orthodox rabbis can associate in fellowship. As testament to its effort, it has more than 900 members, comprising perhaps the largest rabbinical body in the world. However, Rabbi Weiss, his followers in the IRF, and his students in YCT now are pushing public policy and practice to a point where it is appearing that the RCA no longer can easily paper over its colleagues’ differences. At its last national convention, in late April, the RCA publicly did find common ground between its normative mainstream and its “Avi Weiss Wing” pertaining to “women’s ordination.” Without addressing “What to do about Rabbi Sarah,” the RCA convention plenum passed a document that, while reaffirming Modern Orthodoxy’s historic regard for the active participation and leadership of women, nevertheless stated unequivocally that Orthodoxy will not ordain women rabbis.

[I like the use of the word “minions” although I’m sure they meant “minyans”]. Curiously, in conversation with at least one Orthodox rabbi, the feeling seems to be not that there will be a rift, but rather that the language of the RCA’s statement was actually a tacit recognition that change is a-comin’, and probably not avoidable.
Although my favorite quote came later:
“Not is “gay-bashing” not tolerated in the Orthodox community, but it does not exist.” O RLY?
There’s just something about the whole response – a litany of “why my priorities are torah priorities, and your priorities are trendy and non-torah,” that just raises my hackles. There’s nothing wrong with finding solutions for single women, the handicapped and so on (notably missing from the list: a solution to agunah: maybe beaus there is one which is perfectly halachic and was in fact originally proposed by rabbis in the Orthodox world, only to be rejected when begun to be used by Conservative rabbis,) but how does that mean that gays and lesbians, and women who want to be treated as equals in fact and not either put on pedestals or back into kinder, kirche, kuche whether that’s their desire and the most fitting lace for them or not ought to be relegated to “not an interest of Torah?”

8 thoughts on “More on Orthodoxy and women. Is it news?

  1. Thanks for the update. Now it’s time for a look at theology–what makes Weiss different from a hard-right Conservative Movement shul? Clearly, Weiss’ theology is based on a more fluid reading of the Tanakh than most Orthodox, and seems closer to Conservative. Interested in learning more.

  2. Touche, BZ.
    First off, Weiss is not going from the Tanach on this- this is pure rabbinic Judaism going on here. Also, this conversation is uniquely Orthodox, which I find interesting.
    The issue is as follows, from the Orthodox perspective, and very superficially: Women do not have an obligation for public (e.g. minyan) prayer. Therefore, they cannot lead public prayer. Those prayers that typify public prayer are called divrei shebikdushah. They include barchu, kaddish (not mourners), and the repetition of the amida. Kabbalat shabbat is not obligatory prayer in a loose sense- it was adopted from a kabbalistic tradition of saying prayers to welcome Shabbos. In fact, in some congregations, boys under the age of 13 lead this service.
    So why can’t women lead this service? The answer seems to be along a couple of different lines:
    1) This is a break from mesorah (tradition) and therefore is in and of itself a bad thing to do.
    2) Probably the most compelling reason (to the extent that any of them are) is kavod hatsibur, which is “honor of the congregation”. This reason is also generally the one that disallows women from getting aliyot/reading torah.
    3) We’ll be like the conservative and reform movements.
    For more on this, see
    Don’t shoot the messenger on this: I’m perfectly fine with a woman leading kabbalat shabbat, just trying to explain what’s at play. The fact is that Orthodox Judaism is at its weakest explaining why women can’t lead KS (as opposed to, say, Shacharit).
    I wonder, BZ, why “hard-right” Conservative shuls dont allow women to lead KS? What reason do they give?

  3. BZ, I wasn’t aware that there were any such Conservative shuls left that hadn’t spun off with the Traditional/Conservative split.
    Josh, thanks for your elucidations. Very interesting and helpful.

  4. DAW- I’m surprised you think what I wrote is worthy of reposting- and I like that I’m “a commenter identified only as Josh” 😉
    My name is Josh Baron. Feel free to look me up, though you won’t find anything at all unless you add the word “math” or “jew”…

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