The OU Statement on Women’s Communal Roles

For what they are worth and with all due respect to the distinguished authors, I have two observations  regarding the internal logic of the OU’s recent rabbinic statement on women’s communal roles and women clergy which I have not seen addressed in the many responses I have read:

  1. Page 6 of the statement states that “there are frequently societal trends which run counter to the ethos of the Torah”. Quite clearly, the authors are referring, inter alia, to feminism. Yet pages 13-16 of the statement largely encourage the expansion of non-clergy roles for women in Orthodox communal life. But the reason that such expansion is (blessedly) so prominent on the communal agenda and indeed in the concrete reality of the Modern Orthodox world is in large part attributable to feminism. The feminist impulse which at least in part motivates the expansion of women’s roles in the Modern Orthodox world is rooted in a commitment to human dignity, equality and justice, values perceived by most Modern Orthodox Jews as anything but counter to the ethos of the Torah. The OU statement claims that “Communities depend, and have always depended,  upon women’s participation in a wide array of critical roles, both lay and professional, that are wholly consistent with Torah’s guidelines”. The “have always depended” here is surely inaccurate. Some of the roles encouraged by the OU statement – for example “teaching ongoing classes and shiurim” or “serving as a visiting scholar-in-residence” (p. 13) or “”serving as a synagogue staff member in the role of community educator or institutional scholar” (p.14) were hardly widespread even as recently in Jewish history as nineteenth-century Eastern Europe. These wonderfully positive phenomena in Modern Orthodox life have developed and quickly accelerated at least in large part because of feminism and because of the increasingly equal treatment of women in Western society as a whole.  I wonder if even ten years ago the distinguished authors of the OU statement would have referred to these expressions of the expansion of women’s communal role in such positive terms. To oppose such phenomena as women community educators now would place rabbis at total loggerheads with the vast majority of the Modern Orthodox community, something of which the authors of the statement are well aware. But if feminism “run[s] counter to the ethos of the Torah” then these phenomena should be opposed.
  2. Note 12 on p. 5 of the statement quotes the famous statement of the Chafetz Chaim advocating women’s  Torah study. The text on p. 5 notes “the Rav’s expansion of this endorsement”. The Chafetz Chaim, Rav Soloveitchik and others initiated a revolution in women’s Torah study which continues apace to this day because of a deep recognition of altered social reality (this is explicit in the passage quoted in n. 12: the Chafetz Chaim contrasts “times past” with “today”). Instead of appealing to Rav Soloveitchik as an exponent of metaphysical essentialism to distinguish between men and women (p.11 of the statement), why not follow his lead, along with that of the Seridei Eish and other gedolim, in recognising that the most important factor in addressing the issue of women’s communal role in Orthodoxy is not the supposed evils of feminism, nor an untenable apologetics of “equal but different”,  but a real grasp of the social realities of equality that are one of the nobler features of our society.




 The following article appeared in the Jewish Chronicle on 15th October 2015.

My new book, Faith Without Fear, is about Modern Orthodoxy. The definition of this term is of course subject to debate, but I believe there would be broad consensus among thinking adherents of the ideology that it includes the following central features: an appreciation of the enormous religious significance of the State as well as the Land of Israel, a commitment to enhancing the role of women in religious and communal Jewish life, openness to secular studies including the humanities, and a determination to integrate our current scientific understanding of the world with traditional faith rather than reject that understanding (the theory of evolution being a key case in point).

Traditionally in Judaism there is a type of fear which is an integral part of faith. This is what is known as Yirat Shamayim, “fear of Heaven”, a keen sense of awe and reverence before God.

I have written Faith Without Fear because I feel that too often, Modern Orthodoxy is affected by a different and unhelpful kind of fear. To be sure, the intellectual world of Modern Orthodoxy boasts much excellent scholarship and lively debate. But we also need to have the courage to frontally address the huge challenges posed by modernity.

The issue to which the longest chapter of the book is devoted is a key example. Despite a very recent upsurge, far too little attention has been paid overall to the issue of Torah min Hashamayim, Torah from Heaven. Orthodoxy, including Modern Orthodoxy, has tended to shy away from this issue for at least two reasons. First, the theological stakes are very high. The idea of Torah as Divine Revelation is one of the most fundamental principles of traditional Judaism.  Secondly, attacks on the concept of Torah from Heaven are rooted in parts of the academic world and in disciplines and vocabulary foreign to the vast majority of Orthodox people and in particular to Orthodox rabbinic scholars and leaders. In the UK in particular, a third factor is the spectre of the “Jacobs Affair” of the 1960s which still haunts Anglo-Jewry. I argue in my book that avoiding the issue is intellectually dishonest and no longer even feasible in a world in which we can access the conclusions of academic biblical scholarship via a few clicks on Google. I argue in the book that our tradition contains resources which allow us to be both intellectually honest and to develop a view of Torah from Heaven which may be unconventional but is still Orthodox, and which, unlike the views of thinkers such as Rabbis Louis Jacobs and Zev Farber, does not involve accepting what is known as the Documentary Hypothesis.

Faith Without Fear deals with other issues too. There have not been enough Orthodox rabbinic voices putting forward the view that feminism is essentially positive. Although feminism is of course a complex and varied intellectual phenomenon, it includes as central components ideals which are key to a Modern Orthodox understanding of Judaism, such as the fundamental equality of men and women and the importance of human dignity and justice. The book argues that the prevalent kinds of apologetics around this issue are unsatisfactory. Instead, male and female halakhic scholars need to work to develop the Halakhah as it pertains to women in a way which is substantial but which is also gradual, responsible and faithful to the halakhic process, allowing the community to sense continuity rather than rupture with the Torah observance of past generations of our people. There have been extensive, positive developments in women’s roles and opportunities within Orthodoxy in recent decades, and there are many more to come.

The book also addresses topics which tend to be far less widely discussed but which are both intrinsically significant and also help to shed light on the fundamental nature and commitments of Modern Orthodoxy. These include Modern Orthodoxy’s complex relationship with Jewish mysticism, and the nature of its hopes for the messianic era. Chapters are also devoted to the status of Modern Orthodoxy and its key ideological competitor within the Orthodox world, namely Haredi Orthodoxy, as heirs of pre-modern Jewish tradition, and to the question of Modern Orthodoxy’s wider perspective on faiths outside Judaism and on the doctrine of chosenness.

Faith Without Fear advocates faith with courage. Intellectual openness is a sign of strength. Evading important issues or shutting down debate about them is a symptom of weakness. Modern Orthodoxy needs to become a morally and intellectually fearless interpretation of Jewish faith for contemporary Jews committed to classical Jewish tradition.


Faith Without Fear: Unresolved Issues in Modern Orthodoxy is now available in paperback at