September 18, 2019

Women in Orthodoxy: The plot thickens

Some tense debates are going on right now within the Orthodox movement as it deals with the forces of modernity. Perhaps the most contentious issue among them is whether Orthodoxy should allow women clergy.

The “traditional” camp, represented by mainstream Orthodox groups such as the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, says no. The “open” camp, a fledgling movement of more liberal Orthodox rabbis, says yes.

There are arguments on both sides. The letter of halachah (Jewish law) does not specifically prohibit women clergy. But one of the hallmarks of Orthodoxy is a deep respect for tradition and continuity, to the point that tradition itself can take on a legal status.

The traditional view gives great emphasis to the spirit or the ethos of the law, while the open view looks for legal ways to thread the needle and make tradition more inclusive. It’s a classic struggle, and I see value with both views.

If you go by modern trends, the open view looks like a slam dunk: How can you tell a woman that she cannot do what a man does? This egalitarian mindset has become so ingrained in our thinking that anything less can seem offensive.

And yet, as much as my mind leans toward a more inclusive and open approach, I find myself having a place in my heart for the maintenance of tradition. Maybe this comes from conversations I’ve had over the years with Orthodox women who live happily in the traditionalists’ camp.

Let’s take one example of an Orthodox custom that can offend non-Orthodox Jews — the physical barrier (mechitzah) between men and women in synagogues. This feels like another slam dunk: Why separate men from women?

Here’s what one woman told me who moved from the Reform to the Orthodox camp: The separation helps her better connect with God. Sitting next to her husband can distract her from that intimate moment of prayer. You can disagree with that sentiment, but still respect it.

Similarly, why would so many Orthodox women be OK with only men being officially part of the rabbinate?

Again, it’s because they see something holy in the notion of separation. Shabbat, for example, is a sacred separation from the rest of the week; so is the home from the outside world and so is the bedroom from the rest of the home.

In a marriage, this sanctity of separation means embracing different roles for men and women. Because the woman feels dignity and fulfillment within the roles that she has, she feels no inclination to appropriate the man’s roles. In her eyes, “different” doesn’t mean superior or inferior, it means holy and equal.

In other words, what may look like retrograde to you is sanctity to them. At least with the women I spoke to, they associate this sanctity of difference with holiness in the home and harmony in their lives.

Still, it’s worth noting that Orthodoxy has not been immune from the forces of modernity. In recent years, Orthodox women have become more and more engaged in areas that traditionally have been more associated with men.

Even the statement earlier this year by the Orthodox Union opposing female clergy noted “the important and fundamentally successful roles that women can and must play within our communal and synagogue structures, including as educators and scholars.”

It is the role of women in synagogues, rather than in schools, that is especially sensitive. As is often the case with these debates, it comes down to red lines. Traditionalists want to draw a red line at women clergy; the Open camp doesn’t feel this is necessary.

If no compromise is reached, Open Orthodox institutions, although still a small minority, may end up being excluded from Orthodox umbrella groups — something that would open a permanent breach in the movement. I hope leaders on both sides will struggle to find an arrangement for the sake of heaven.

Maybe each side can give a little. The Open camp can create a spiritual leadership role and a title for women that pushes the halachic envelope yet still falls short of the traditional clergy position, while the Traditional camp can tolerate this arrangement for the sake of communal harmony and broadening the Orthodox tent.

It would be like saying: “We agree to disagree on this one issue, but for the sake of a higher ideal, we have both compromised a little and will coexist under the same Orthodox tent.”

I have dear friends on both sides. When I see the deep attachment to Torah in both camps, it strikes me how much they’re really all on the same side.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at