A wild crisis has been thrust upon the Rabbanut – the Israeli Chief Rabbinate – and the Rabbanut is fighting back.
ITIM Jewish Advocacy Center, along with the Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women’s Status and the Kolech Center for Women’s Leadership recently filed a petition with the Israeli Supreme Court on behalf of women who seek to take Rabbanut semicha exams. These feminist and pluralistic organizations claim that since the Israeli government recognizes semicha as a degree which entitles musmachim to employment advantages, it is discriminatory to exclude women.
The Court is set to hear the case shortly, but in the interim, Israeli Attorney General Amichai Mandelblit advised the Court that the Israeli government will implement a parallel semicha exam track for women, since the Rabbanut’s system would not be practicable for this.
Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef responded to the legal petition with firm opposition, explaining that the ordination of women contravenes the Torah, and threatened that should the State require the Rabbanut to ordain women, the Rabbanut will be compelled to terminate its semicha system altogether.
Torah interests in Eretz Yisroel are in serious trouble. In order to appreciate the issues and have any sense of true insight, we must take a step back and look at the Halacha, the history, the personalities involved and the agenda behind this women’s “semicha” campaign.
Our mesorah is clear: women do not receive semicha. Although this should suffice, due to challenges to this mesorah over the years, the issue has been addressed numerous times on various levels.
(Before proceeding, it is very important to understand that while Torah practice is built on the concept of mesorah and we abide by it unconditionally, mesorah is actually representative of halachic substructures that have not been formally codified, as well as on underlying hashkafic principles. Countless minhagei beis ha-k’nesses, for example, reflect solid halachic axioms, but were not formally explicated as such. Misunderstood age-old observances which one might think are optional or are “mere custom” are so often reflective of profound halachic foundations and dare not be tampered with.)
Perhaps surprisingly, the first contemporary “teshuvah” on the matter of semicha for women was authored by R. Saul Lieberman, who held the position of Professor of Talmud at Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS – the Conservative “rabbinical” school). Lieberman was personally Orthodox, and he regrettably chose to teach at JTS for reasons of financial security and an alleged desire to expose students there to authentic Torah. When JTS floated the idea of ordaining women in 1979, Lieberman expressed fierce opposition, and, mustering an impressive array of mekoros, explained that even though the real semicha from Moshe Rabbeinu to Yehoshua ended in the time of Chazal, contemporary semicha is indeed modeled after the “original” semicha, whose essence was authorization for the recipient to serve as a dayan, a rabbinic judge. Since the Torah only qualifies males for this role, ordaining women, even today, would render semicha an empty jest.
Rav Hershel Schachter quoted his rebbi, Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, as ruling that imitating the innovations of deviant movements is Yehareig V’al Ya’avor, based on the Gemara in Sanhedrin (74a-b) that beshas ha-shmad, any gesture displaying adoption of the ways of those whose mission is antithetical to Torah is gravely forbidden. This would include the ordination of women and anything else that mimics the reforms introduced by the heterodox Jewish movements, such as mixed seating for worship and feminist changes to Torah observance, for these movements are an inimical threat to Torah. (This is in addition to the inherent issurim of many of these practices.) Rav Schachter further wrote in a 2011 article that the concept of women rabbis is a violation of tznius.
These reasons, as well as other considerations, such as serarah (religious authority) and the gender roles assigned by the Torah, were compiled in 2017 by a group of RIETS roshei yeshiva, along with Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz (former Av Beis Din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council), as part of a rabbinic panel convened by the Orthodox Union to issue a formal ruling on the issue of female clergy. The panel unequivocally concluded that the ordination of women is forbidden.
The Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, Igud HaRabbonim and Conference of European Rabbis all issued bans on female clergy as well, while the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) issued three separate resolutions against female clergy. The Lieberman and OU rabbinic panel writings on the subject are the most extensive, since the challenge arose in actuality at JTS and in the sphere of Modern Orthodox synagogues, but by all counts, the ruling against the ordination of women is one of very broad and solid rabbinic consensus.
The backdrop of this all is the Open Orthodox female clergy initiative. In 2008, R. Avi Weiss ordained Sara Hurwitz as a “Maharat” (a term he invented – “Manhigah Halachatit Ruchanit Toranit” – “Halachic, Spiritual, Torah Leader”), and thereupon opened Yeshivat Maharat, where he would ordain dozens of women over the decade and beyond, appointing Hurwitz as the institution’s dean. Although Yeshivat Maharat initially refrained from conferring rabbinic titles upon its graduates due to pressure from the RCA, it changed its policy a few years thereafter and began to issue each graduate a “semicha klaf”, with her choice of rabbinic title as “Rav” or “Rabba” if so desired. Each “klaf” was signed by Prof. Daniel Sperber of Bar-Ilan University. (Sperber is the author of “Minhagei Yisroel” – many are unaware that this sefer is the product of a radical person who has forsaken the mesorah.)
Another Open Orthodox “semicha” program that ordains men and women – it is a co-ed program – is Beit Midrash Har’el, in Yerushalayim. Maharat and Har’el leadership greatly overlaps, as the two schools share the same mission and outlook.
The threat posed by these institutions to normative Orthodox Judaism is quite real. Not only do these schools confer “semicha” upon women, in violation of all poskim, but many of their leaders and graduates espouse ideologies which are at odds with the Torah in various other ways, such as support for to’eivah marriage, acceptance of Biblical Criticism/denial of Torah Mi-Sinai, changing geirus requirements, and creating feminized rituals. The disparity between this and the mesorah is vast and crystal clear.
However, there lies an in-between institution which has taken center stage in the current challenge to the Rabbanut. This institution is the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (“WIHL”) at Ohr Torah Stone (“OTS”), located in the West Bank city of Efrat and founded by R. Shlomo Riskin. WIHL trains women in the exact same subjects as men learn for Rabbanut semicha exams, and then administers such exams to the women, certifying them as “spiritual leaders and Morot Horaah (Halachic Decisors)”.
A senior OTS administrator, celebrating the Mandelblit decision regarding the women’s semicha exam initiative, fraudulently compared this development to the Torah narrative of Bnos Tzelofchod featured in last week’s parsha, claiming that the righteous daughters of Tzelofchod sought the recognition of women’s rights. Even a cheder child who reads the narrative of Bnos Tzelofchod realizes that the plain meaning of the text – and its only meaning – is that Tzelofhchod’s daughters sought for their father’s land to remain within the family, and they would have been fully content for the land to remain in the hands of their brothers, had there been any brothers. Rashi (Bamidbar 27:4) cites the Sifri, which specifies this point. For someone to turn this holy text into a feminist agenda is grotesque.
This same OTS leader made it clear that he was not advocating for women in the rabbinate. While this is important, others at OTS and WIHL seem to have quite a different opinion.
As noted, WIHL (as well as OTS) was founded by R. Shlomo Riskin. The director of WIHL is Rabbanit Devorah Evron, and R. Shmuel Klitsner is its chairman. It just so happens that Riskin, Evron and Klitsner are members of the Yeshivat Maharat advisory board (!). Thus, whatever WIHL leadership says about the non-rabbinic ambitions of its program must be viewed in light of its leadership’s affiliation with Yeshivat Maharat, which champions full-blown semicha and rabbinic titles for women.
In 2016, Religious Zionist Israeli Rabbis Shlomo Aviner and Boruch Efrati strongly condemned the WIHL program, alleging that it was breaching the p’sak against ordaining women as rabbis. In response to Rav Aviner’s condemnation, WIHL claimed that it is not in the business of ordaining female rabbis, explaining that “the role of a rabbi is to serve as synagogue leader, by conducting services and reading from the Torah; in contrast, WIHL graduates are not referred to as ‘rabbi’ and do not ritually lead synagogue services.” This attempt by WIHL to rebut Rabbi Aviner was based on an artificial and misleading distinction, as the title “rabbi” in Yahadus does not signify leading services and reading from the Torah! On the contrary, the title “rabbi” is much more identified with the notion of being a spiritual leader and halachic authority – precisely that which WIHL certifies as “spiritual leaders and Morot Horaah”.
A brief glance at the WIHL program demonstrates beyond question that its curriculum is one of rabbinic training (“Hilkhot Niddah, Shabbat and the Jewish Holidays, Kashrut, Aveilut, Gerut, Kiddushin and Gittin”). The training undergone by WIHL students is indistinguishable from that of a male semicha program.
Rav Aviner further quoted a direct statement from WIHL leadership that it was training women to become “dayanot” – rabbinical judges, which is in violation of the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpot 7:4). In fact, prior to Rav Aviner’s condemnation and the subsequent revamping of the WIHL webpage, the WIHL webpage revealed the following:
“Dayanut: Ten-year advanced training program launched in 2013 for women who have completed the heter hora’ah program, equipping them with the knowledge base to serve as judges for conversion and divorce. For the first time since Devorah served as a judge, Jewish history will once again see women trained for the task, and their very presence will restore – and ensure the preservation of – women’s rights in areas of personal status.”
And, at the 2016 WIHL graduation ceremony, the Rosh Bet Midrash at WIHL publicly stated about the occasion, in the presence of R. Riskin (who did not protest these words):
“The inclusion of women in the rabbinic world is able to provide an opening for inquiry and understanding. The inclusion of women in positions of rabbinic leadership progressively creates a space for identification and personal connection… “
Moreover, in a 2017 interview with Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Rabbi Riskin stated that WIHL graduates “teach and direct Jewish law, just like a rabbi.”
To claim that WIHL is not a rabbinic program is a hard sell, to put it mildly, as per the words and actions of WIHL’s own leadership.
Back to the current situation: It is exceedingly difficult to contend that the Mandelblit directive and the likely Israeli Supreme Court decision mandating the administration of semicha exams for women will not result in a scenario of Orthodox, Rabbanut-accepted female “rabbis” throughout the Israeli landscape.
Even if these women, who would be accredited by the Israeli government for having passed semicha bechinos, will not be granted official rabbinic titles, it shall soon become clear that this is an artificial formality, which will be quickly negated – for these women will be taking the same semicha exams as males and will be treated by many people as rabbis for all practical purposes. Once this happens, the same feminist/pluralistic organizations which petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court will then push further, arguing that it is unfair for women who have rabbinic training and who have passed rabbinic exams to not be full-fledged members of the Rabbanut, and perhaps be entitled to serve as Chief Rabbis, and so forth.
Yael Rockman of Kolech Center for Women’s Leadership, one of the organizations petitioning the Israeli Supreme Court, could not have been clearer about these intentions: “In the long run, of course we want to have women in positions of Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbinic Judge, and even Chief Rabbi of Israel. But we’re not there yet. One step at a time.”
Yeshivat Maharat’s Israeli representatives, along with Beit Midrash Har’el and a host of small fringe-“Orthodox” institutions with a similar outlook, will take advantage of the opportunity to push for this, and there are undoubtedly voices at WIHL that are sympathetic to this agenda as well. Should they succeed, the official Israeli rabbinic establishment will be destroyed, and the impact may be seismic.
This past Motzoei Shabbos, The Jerusalem Post featured an editorial entitled “It’s time for Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef to step up or step down”, in which it wrote that “(t)he government needs to present Yosef with a choice – either help or get out of the way.” The article castigated Rav Yosef for his blunt statements against the Reform movement, and it accused him of “ignorance of what is happening in the Orthodox world when it comes to women’s Torah learning.”
The notion that a major rov and posek should be silenced and fired for articulating Torah values should make us shudder.
Rav Yosef and the Rabbanut need to stand strong, and they need our support. Not with money, but with our tefillos and our hishtadlus. Let it be clear that the Israeli rabbinic establishment faces an existential threat, no less than the Orthodox communities of Germany faced in the time of Rabbiner Samson Raphael Hirsch, whose firm, no-compromise-whatsoever policy, led to “Austritt” (Orthodox secession from the official rabbinic/communal establishment) as the saving formula for his kehillah kedoshoh and for posterity.
May Hakadosh Boruch Hu enable Torah-true Jewry to withstand this onslaught and emerge with even greater vigor.