Ms. Maimonides: How Orthodox Women Will Be Accepted As Rabbis


Some Jewish community leaders expressed disappointment over the recent resolution of the Rabbinical Council of America, the leading Modern Orthodox rabbinic association, opposing the ordination of women. By contrast, I was greatly encouraged by the RCA resolution that called for the creation of “halachically and communally appropriate professional opportunities” for women scholars. The RCA resolution also stated that “as members of the new generation [of women] rise to positions of influence and stature, we pray that they will contribute to an ever-broadening and ever-deepening wellspring” of commitment to the Jewish tradition.

Broad latitude was left to the members of the RCA to figure out what roles are permitted to women. The only bright and clear line was the prohibition of labeling any such activities by women as those of a “rabbi.” 

My father, Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, always had focused upon the functionality of Jewish law:  how it worked, and he was less concerned with how matters were labeled. One of his greatest articles dealt with the law of the unfaithful wife (the sotah) who had to undergo a trial by ordeal when she had been accused without substantiation of adultery. It seemed to me, as a teenager, to be a crude and demeaning procedure that was particularly insulting to the woman without imposing any obligations on the male accuser. But my father explained that the complaint uttered by the husband against his wife is the start of the process that today would be labeled “marriage counseling.” Jewish law, my father explained, committed the energies of its elders to intervening in the marriage to prevent abuse by the husband and attempted to reconcile the couple. His detailed analysis of the laws and procedures involved in the ritual turned it, in my eyes, from what seemed to be a barbaric practice into an enlightened and advanced sociological and psychological mechanism.

In the current controversy, I am sure that my father would also have been focused upon how this RCA resolution will function in the future. Basically, every door of opportunity has been left open to women to perform functions in the Jewish community and only one rule has been laid down, that women not be labeled as rabbis.  When my father was in his early 90s, some eight years ago, my wife asked him whether he thought there would be women Orthodox rabbis. He replied that he thought it would happen within the next 20 years (or about 12 years from now).

I will go even further and predict that not only will women gain the title of rabbi under RCA auspices, but that over the long term they will even gain the acceptance of more right-wing Orthodox rabbis.  Here is how it will come about. 

Authority in Orthodoxy derives strictly from knowledge. Rabbi Moses Feinstein of a small Lower East Side synagogue became the dominant rabbinic decisor of his era because of the extraordinary quality of his responsa, the written decisions that were published and widely disseminated. It will be a long process, but in two generations great women scholars will emerge, preach and publish and a few will emerge as among the major voices of their generation.

Just think: had this process begun 2,000 years ago, we would have had not only one Maimonides, but two Maimonides. We would have had not just one Rashi, but two Rashis. This is because half the brainpower of the Jewish people is possessed by women. And the works of Maimonides and Rashi survived and are cherished not because they were written by men, but by persons of genius.   

The great irony in this development was pointed out to me by Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, who will be rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Maharat, which will be training women in advanced Judaic studies. He noted that a century ago, when Rabbi Meir Kagan, better known by the title of the great work he had written, the Chofetz Chaim, ruled that it was permissible to educate women extensively in Jewish matters to prepare them to raise families in an increasingly challenging environment for the Jewish tradition. The “needs of the hour,” Rabbi Kagan determined, required departing from traditional prohibitions on teaching women Torah and accepting the view that it was permitted. His ruling was issued in response to a question about the desire of one woman to establish a seminary intended to train girls to become teachers to educate traditional Jewish women. Following this ruling, the Bais Yaakov movement in Poland was taken under the wing of the Orthodox Agudath Israel.

Above all, the current actions of the RCA demonstrate that women have already gained enormous power within the Orthodox Jewish community. Imagine what a resolution concerning the status of women would have read like two generations ago. In fact, no such resolution would have been necessary because there would have been no need to clarify the role of women in the Orthodox Jewish community as there was no agitation for change and there was no empowered constituency.

The old cigarette commercial would have intoned, concerning these developments, “We’ve come a long way, baby.” In that commercial, the reference to “we” is to women. But as I see it, the “we” stands for all of us — men and women who cherish Jewish learning and scholarship. 

Joseph R. Rackman is a partner in the New York office of the international law firm of Hogan Lovells US LLP.


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