It has been a long time since I have written about the innovations of the Open Orthodox movement – for good reason, boruch Hashem. For the most part, the movement has not done anything new and seems to have taken a downturn: the two Open Orthodox, co-ed (!) “semicha” programs in Eretz Yisroel (Beit Midrash Har’el and Yashrut) appear to not have graduated anyone this year, and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), the Open Orthodox seminary in Riverdale, only graduated two people at its annual ordination ceremony. Similarly, unlike in years past, when there was a steady flow of new “teshuvot” and innovations by Open Orthodox leaders introducing major changes to halacha and hashkafa, as of late, not much has been issued, and one gets the sense that things are dwindling down on that front.
However, there is one notable exception to this trend: the ordination of female “Orthodox rabbis”. In contrast with an acute decrease in the ordination of male Open Orthodox clergy, the female side of this enterprise has quietly mushroomed both in Eretz Yisroel and in the US, as two seminaries and a network of pseudo-Orthodox congregations have been involved in trying to radically change the Orthodox landscape and its future leadership profile.
Ever since the major American Orthodox organizations effectively banned the notion of female clergy (see sidebar for details), efforts have been made to surreptitiously undermine the ban and sneak things in under the radar. For example, Congregation Beth Sholom of Providence recently hired “Rabba” Amalia Haas as its “Director of Spiritual Engagement.” Haas, who completed the Executive Ordination program at Yeshivat Maharat in Riverdale (the Open Orthodox seminary that grants “semicha” and full rabbinic titles to women), not only teaches at Beth Sholom, but also delivers occasional sermons from the pulpit on Shabbos mornings and provides pastoral guidance, according to the congregation’s literature.
Rather than refer to Haas as “Assistant Rabbi” or “Associate Rabbi,” Beth Sholom has cleverly employed the title of “Director of Spiritual Engagement” for Haas in order to evade censure by the Orthodox establishment. So too, prior to this, Congregation Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel (“ASBI”) in Chicago retained “Rabbanit” (i.e., female rabbi – her husband is not a rabbi) Leah Sarna as its “Director of Spiritual Engagement.” Sarna, too, was ordained at Yeshivat Maharat and was listed as clergy at ASBI, where she periodically delivered sermons on Shabbos mornings from pulpit. Again, ASBI utilized the artifice of a title that was fabricated for female clergy to slip past the system.
Similarly, Congregation Beth Abraham of St. Louis retains Maharat Rori Picker Neiss as “Religious Consultant,” Congregation Beth Israel of Berkely, CA retains Maharat Victoria Sutton as “Director of Education and Community Engagement,” and Congregation Shaar Hashomayim of Montreal retains Rabba Rachel Kohl Finegold as “Director of Education and Spiritual Enrichment.” So long as these contrived and distortive titles are used for their female clergy, these congregations basically get a free pass.
ASBI has hired a new “Maharat intern” for next year. Other congregations that have hired Maharat interns as of late are Beth Sholom of Potomac, MD, ACT Jewish Community of Canberra, Australia, and Prospect Heights Shul of Brooklyn. 19 other congregations have hired Maharat interns over the past several years, and a total of 13 congregations have hired Maharat graduates as clergy.
There are also some important changes at those congregations that hired Yeshivat Maharat graduates several years ago. Most notable is Congregation Ohev Sholom (which refers to itself as “The National Synagogue”) of Washington, DC, whose rabbi, Shmuel Herzfeld, retired last year to found “Yeshivas Reb Elimelech” – a pluralistic institution described by The Washington Post as an alternative yeshiva that “welcomes people of all religious backgrounds, genders and … orientations… it will offer them types of ordination.” (This planned “yeshiva” was hit with a work-stop order by city regulators for noncompliance with its construction permit and has not opened.) After Herzfeld’s departure from Ohev Sholom, the congregation did not hire a new rabbi, but instead made its clergywoman, Maharat Ruth Friedman, into its sole spiritual leader. Yes, this “Orthodox” house of worship is led exclusively by female clergy. Two other pseudo-Orthodox congregations likewise are led solely by female clergy, who were ordained by Yeshivat Maharat: Walnut Street Synagogue, led by “Rabbi” Lila Kadegan, and South Philadelphia Shtiebel, led by “Rabbanit” Dasi Fruchter. And let us not forget Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR), whose founding rabbi, Avi Weiss, created the Open Orthodox movement. HIR houses Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) and Yeshivat Maharat, and its clergy roster includes “Bracha Jaffe – Associate Rabba” and “Sara Hurwitz – Rabba (Part Time).”
It is interesting to contrast YCT and Yeshivat Maharat. YCT has a total enrollment of 18 students in its four-year program and graduated only 2 students this year; mathematically, only 4.5 students will graduate from YCT each year over the next four years. Yeshivat Maharat currently has 28 students, divided into two tracks, and it graduated 9 students this year. What this means for the future landscape of Jewry can be significant.
(Although YCT’s future impact appears to be somewhat muted, due to record-low enrollment, it has not stopped YCT from forging ahead on occasion with outrageous innovations that are further poretz geder. YCT just announced that it is hiring a “Director of *Toeivah* Initiatives,” and the job posting does not even specify that the candidate should be Orthodox. There is no limit to the insanity and the stark rejection of halacha and mesorah Furthermore, Rabbi Dov Linzer, rosh yeshiva of YCT, along with the heads of Yeshivat Maharat/ “Rabba” Sara Hurwitz and other Open Orthodox institutions, such as JOFA-Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Torat Chayim Rabbis/Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, and Yashrut/Rabbi Daniel Landes, have been fighting tooth and nail to keep abortion legal. This includes speaking at rallies, publishing open letters “on the part of the Orthodox rabbinate”, and flooding the media with op-eds “by Orthodox rabbinical leadership”.)
Let us now turn our attention to Eretz Yisroel, where the female ordination issue has unfortunately gotten even more out of hand. Ohr Torah Stone (OTS), founded by Rabbi Steven/Shlomo Riskin and now led by Rabbi Kenneth Brander, created and houses the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL), which runs a full-blown semicha-type program for women, and whose website states that:
“Over an intensive period of five years the following subjects are covered:
Hilkhot Niddah (rituals involved in family purity);
Shabbat and the Jewish Holidays;
Aveilut (the laws of mourning);
Kiddushin and Gittin (Jewish marriage and divorce);
“Graduates of the five-year WIHL program are certified as spiritual leaders and Morot Hora’ah [authorized to provide direction in matters of halakha-Jewish Law]… In May 2019, the WIHL hired a director of career development and placement, to strengthen the practical impact of the WIHL by opening doors and making connections so that graduates can acclimate into leadership positions within the religious public realm. Ultimately, the aim of the WIHL is to empower Jewish women with the proper skills and credentials not only to achieve self-fulfillment and earn a meaningful livelihood, but to educate, guide, inspire and provide meaningful leadership to the world Jewish community.
“Until now, WIHL fellows studied a wide and diverse body of halakhic literature over the course of five intensive years, at the end of which they took the same tests that men take with the rabbanut. Our fellows become certified halakhic and spiritual leaders and have the opportunity to play halakhically appropriate roles in the Torah and larger Jewish community,” explains OTS President and Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Kenneth Brander. “The training we offer is both extensive and unique, but we recognize that we must also take it to the next level in terms of professional guidance, internships and employment.”
Although WIHL and OTS leadership cleverly maneuvers so as to avoid referring to WIHL graduates as “rabbis,” thereby evading censure by the Orthodox establishment, it is clear that WIHL is a female semicha program and that its intent is to ordain female clergy. If WIHL’s conferral of “Morot Hora’ah” titles upon its graduates, and its provision to these women of a semicha curriculum and rabbanut semicha exams, is not the equivalent of creating female rabbis, I have a bridge to sell you…
Moreover, Yeshivat Maharat outright grants women semicha, with a rabbinic klaf and all; it does not hide the fact that it ordains female “rabbis.” It is thus quite telling that among the Yeshivat Maharat Advisory Board members, we find the names “Rabbi Shlomo Riskin,” “Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner” and “Rabbanit Devorah Evron.” Rabbi Riskin is the founder of OTS and WIHL, Rabbi Klitsner is WIHL’s chairman, and Rabbanit Evron is WIHL’s director (!). So much for WIHL not endorsing semicha for women and merely masquerading as providing some type of vague “halachic leadership” role.
WIHL’s cohort of this past year consisted of 13 students – more than Yeshivat Maharat.
OTS is planning on flooding the Orthodox world (at least according to OTS’ definition of “Orthodox”) with the equivalent of female rabbis. OTS’ mission and trajectory exceed those of Yeshivat Maharat and display blatant disregard for traditional Yahadus. (Thus far, one OTS-WIHL graduate serves as the sole spiritual leader of a congregation. Rabbanit Shira Marili Mirvis was chosen last year to lead Kehillat Shirat Ha-Tamar in the Israeli city of Efrat, with the blessings of OTS senior leadership and the acclamation of the Israeli Masorti [Conservative] movement. In an interview with LA Jewish Journal last April, Mirvis referred to her role as one of “rabbinic leader… My duties in the synagogue are to serve as the sole halakhic authority for our community, teach Torah and rule in halakhic matters, which [were] always the traditional [duties] of a rabbi in halakhic Orthodox communities. I will also counsel families and individuals, deliver sermons and teach Torah classes for our community. There are no other rabbis serving in our synagogue; I will be the sole ‘rabbinic voice’ and ‘spiritual leader’ in all religious matters.” And, quite ironically, Rabbi Brander remarked, “The chance to witness Rabbanit Shira Mirvis take on this role represents an important moment as we recognize that the place of women in Jewish leadership can go fully hand in hand with halacha and our mesorah (tradition).” How anyone can claim this with a straight face is beyond me.)
It is also important to note that there is a proliferation of subpar geirus occurring under the auspices of Open Orthodox/pseudo-Orthodox clergy. Young YCT graduates who espouse very problematic hashkafic positions and are certainly not poskim or talmidei chachomim go about performing “Orthodox” conversions for people who clearly are not committed to full halachic observance, with these YCT graduates posting on social media about being “megayer” loads of people, along with pictures of the immodestly-clad intermarried couples and groups of people in Latin American countries whom these rabbis “converted” – converts who did not fully undertake mitzvah observance and who did not appreciate the gravity of halacha. Geirus on the part of a person who is not mekabel ol mitzvos is invalid, and these cases are no exception. Boruch Hashem that the Israeli Rabbanut and mainstream American botei din do not accept these conversions. (Additionally, OTS offers conversion through the Jewish Learning Center of New York (JLCNY); the director of this program is a fringe Open Orthodox clergyman who, among other things, marches in the [toeivah] Pride Parade and celebrates other such events.)
One can speculate with much confidence that the compromised geirus policies of former Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana and Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s very public (and roundly condemned) endorsement of conversion without kabbolas ol mitzvos played no small part in inspiring the above subpar geirus endeavors.
How did this all come about?
As one who has had previous personal contact and familiarity with many of those who are behind these wayward “semicha” and “geirus” programs, I can attest to the fact that detachment from one’s rabbeim is the enabling force behind this all (as well as the fact that the younger people involved with these innovations often never had real rabbeim in the first place). The more senior leaders of Open Orthodoxy/pseudo-Orthodoxy began their misguided initiatives either after moving to countries far from their rabbeim and/or after their rabbeim passed on or were not with the mental capacity to rein in delinquent talmidim. Just like we find that those who depart from communal norms in the yeshiva/chareidi world and pioneer controversial and often problematic ventures are most often those who have moved away from the influence of their rabbeim and their former tight-knit communities, where standards were expected and enforced, so too is it with those who are poretz geder in Yahadus and launch unconventional new modes of “Orthodoxy.” Once these people left the shadow of their rabbeim, many of whom were anoshim gedolim, they felt free to foment upheavals and to overturn Torah norms in the name of progress.
Although the average Yated reader will probably never be personally exposed to or challenged by the damaging reforms of Open Orthodoxy/pseudo-Orthodoxy, let everyone see clearly what happens when one does not have a live rebbi to whom one submits, and what transpires when one moves away from the sphere of rabbinic authority and a communal Torah structure. The hefkeirus that ensued in the situations described above did not come in a vacuum. It was the direct consequence of a state of affairs that enabled the destructive goals to be achieved. This was a preventable churban. Let us take note and take heed.
Proclamations on Female “Rabbis”
2010 Statement of Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah – Agudah
“Rabbi Avi Weiss has conferred “semikha” upon a woman, has made her an Assistant Rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale where she carries out certain traditional rabbinical functions, and has now given her the title of “Rabbah” (formerly “Maharat”). He has stated that the change in title is designed to “make it clear that Sara Hurwitz is a full member of our rabbinic staff, a rabbi with the additional quality of a distinct woman’s voice.”
“These developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah, and must be condemned in the strongest terms. Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.”
2015 Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) Resolution which strengthened the 2010 and 2013 RCA resolutions on the topic
Therefore, the Rabbinical Council of America resolves to educate and inform our community that RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not
- Ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; or
- Hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution; or
- Allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a teacher of Limudei Kodesh in an Orthodox institution.
2017 Orthodox Union Rabbinic Panel Position Paper on Female Clergy
“For the reasons stated above, we believe that a woman should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position. This restriction applies both to the designation of a title for women that connotes the status of a clergy member, as well as to the appointment of women to perform clergy functions on a regular ongoing basis – even when not accompanied by a rabbinic type title. The spectrum of functions appropriately considered as the role of clergy can be identified by duties generally expected from, and often reserved for, a synagogue rabbi. These common functions include, but are not limited to: the ongoing practice of ruling on a full-range of halakhic matters, officiating at religiously significant life-cycle events, (e.g,. brit milah, baby naming, bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, weddings and funerals), the regular practice of delivering sermons from the pulpit during services, presiding over or leading services at a minyan and formally serving as the synagogue’s primary religious mentor, teacher, and spiritual guide.”