Why an Orthodox Rabbi Ordains Women
“By granting smicha to women, I wish to model a new contemporary theology in which our refined sentiments are redeemed and our torn souls healed,” writes Rabbi Herzl Hefter in the following excerpt from his article “Why I Ordained Women.” Rabbi Hefter heads Har’el Beit Midrash, a recently established rabbinic studies program for men and women in Jerusalem. The institution granted Orthodox rabbinic ordination to its first group of students—two men and two women—in 2015. Targum Shlishi awarded a grant to this young, innovative institution during the 2015–16 academic year. To learn more about or help support Har’el Beit Midrash, visit its website: http://www.har-el.org/. To read the full text of this article, go here: http://www.har-el.org/2015/07/20/why-i-ordained-women/.
Why I Ordained Women
By Rabbi Herzl Hefter
The question of rabbinic ordination for women—or men, for that matter, is not my primary concern. Of course it should go without saying that the Torah needs to be equally accessible to all, along with the recognition which society confers upon students of the Torah.
The reason that the issue of smicha for women is so important is that it raises the most significant meta-questions for Jews who are committed to the idea of a divinely revealed, eternal Torah which needs to serve both as an authoritative guide as well as an inspiration for living. What is the relationship between the Torah and God? Where do we fit in as autonomous beings with our deeply felt senses of right and wrong? How do we find God and serve Him? What is the purpose of mitzvoth and how are we to become holy? And, what happens when the dictates of the Torah and tradition conflict with our healthy intuitions and common sense born of personal experience and history?
The full fleshing out of these questions is well beyond the scope of this short piece. What follows is what I believe to be the primary spiritual challenge facing thoughtful modern and orthodox Jews today, a brief analysis of the insufficient basic assumptions which are responsible for the inability to meet this challenge and an alternative approach which I propose rooted firmly in tradition. Why I ordained women will emerge from this discussion.
Modern orthodox people are facing unprecedented challenges today in terms of commitment to tradition on the one hand, and authentic openness to modernity on the other. We embrace western democratic values such as equality of all peoples and between the sexes. Yet, in our religious lives, we profess the revealed absolute truths of the Torah which are often in severe conflict with these values. With growing discussions in our ranks about gender, sexual identity, and the question of spiritual passion versus rote observance, we find ourselves at a crucial crossroads. We live the bifurcated existence advocated by the mid-nineteenth century maskil, Judah Leib Gordon, as the Haskalah ideal: “Be a Jew in your home and a man outside it.” From a religious and Jewish point of view, however, Y.L. Gordon’s counsel is a spiritual disaster. The sacrifice of religious passion is the cost of the divorce of our Judaism from our humanity. If we venture to contemplate our situation, we are unhappy with our religious lives. Our children sense this and it has become increasingly difficult to pass on our tradition to the next generation.
Predictably and unfortunately, the discussion among the right wing orthodox leadership which the ordination of women as rabbis as well as other controversial issues has engendered has revolved around the lines of defining the boundaries of orthodox Judaism and the need to submit to authority. ….
First, we need to understand the basic theological assumption of the right wing orthodox establishment which has led to this point, the need it fills and where it is inadequate.
The Prevailing Assumption of Right Wing Modern Orthodoxy
God is totally “Other” and His will is inscrutable, a black hole essentially; all that we can know is what God reveals to us through the Law. According to this approach, human experience and intuition are suspect and not a reliable medium for divine revelation.
In the words of the Rav, Rabbi Soloveitchik:
The religious experience is not the primary gesture. It is only secondary. The point of departure must never be the internal subjective experience, no matter how redemptive it is, no matter how colorful it is, no matter how therapeutic it is, no matter how substantial its impact upon the total personality of man… (Noraot HaRav, R. David Schreiber, 1999, 92)
Religious experience will lead us astray and relying upon it as a guide, Rabbi Soloveitchik continues, is idolatrous. We can only feel secure and certain, the rationale goes, with the explicitly revealed Law.
This approach, as formulated by the Rav, provides driftwood to which to cling in a raging sea of uncertainty and change…What seem to be time cherished “Torah values” (with or without the quotation marks) are under continued assault by the hedonistic and selfish values of popular culture as well the process of redefining gender issues.
Unfortunately (and entirely unintended by the Rav), this approach also feeds on and nurtures the weaknesses of modern orthodox society as well. The stubborn dogmatic assertion that absolute truth can be known and confirmed by exterior authority betrays a thinly veiled adolescent-like need for certainty, a consequence of impoverished religious sensitivity and ultimately a lack of faith in God and the Torah. Taken to the extreme, this approach invalidates healthy religious and moral instincts in favor of what is perceived to be the “pure” halakha….
The Need for a New Contemporary Theology
People who are yerei shamayim and seek to serve God authentically as whole individuals without compromising their healthy moral and religious convictions require a path which invests them with wholesome self-confidence and their refined sentiments with meaning.
We need a contemporary theology which expresses the authentic ethos of Jewish tradition lived fully within a context of Yirat Shamayim, Ahavat Yisrael and Kevod HaAdam.
I propose such a theology predicated upon the following two principles:
- Humility: We do not have access to certainty or objective truth.
- Humans are created in God’s image which means that human consciousness is the instrument of Divine revelation. Since God is revealed through human consciousness, our refined moral convictions and religious sensibilities may be considered a form of Divine revelation…
And Now – Finally – to Smicha for Women
Ordination of women as rabbis is most certainly a departure from tradition. On what basis can this be justified?
I regard the basic sentiment of fairness and its translation into the principle of equal opportunity for all regardless of gender as fundamental. The clarification process would demand that I ask the following questions under these circumstances. Are those involved acting from a place of fear of Heaven, yirat shamayim? Will this bring people closer to the Torah? Am I alone in my subjective determination? Is this type of inclusiveness good for the Jewish People? Will it strengthen our tradition?
Based upon how I answered these questions, I did not feel free to absolve myself of the moral responsibility to act as I did.
Smicha for women is an instance of where the tradition comes into conflict with deeply held convictions. These convictions, having been tested through the mettle of “clarification,” need to be brought in dialogue with the tradition and in this case determine the normative behavior.
How can we live as whole Jews and human beings? How can we be Jewish both in our homes as well as in the public domain? By granting smicha to women, I wish to model a new contemporary theology in which our refined sentiments are redeemed and our torn souls healed.
Image Credit: The 2015 graduates of Har’el Beit Midrash. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Herzl Hefter.