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:
- 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.
- 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.