The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (the Orthodox Union, or OU), which runs the world’s largest kosher certification agency, is also the umbrella body for hundreds of Orthodox synagogues generally regarded as ideologically centrist. The recent innovations in practice by some of these shuls have prompted the OU to evaluate its membership standards, balancing the goal of inclusion within the bounds of halachah. On the subject of women as leaders, the OU statement published last year recognizes them as educators, advocates, and counselors, among other things – but not as rabbis. That left four member synagogues that have women as clergy in an uncertain relationship with the OU. Would they be expelled for having a maharat, rabba, or rabbanit?
These four member shuls are the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale; Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, Maryland; B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Los Angeles; and Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in Washington, DC. They have been affiliated with the OU for decades, have sizable memberships, and include many influential individuals active in local and national Jewish causes. Likewise, their rabbis and maharats have résumés with admirable education, work experience, and communal initiatives. The synagogues that hired them recognize their talents and potential in attracting new members, retaining existing congregants, and advancing the conversation on the relationship between halachah and the secular world.
Last week, the OU released its long-awaited response to these four synagogues, after meeting with their leaders to discuss the details of the roles assigned to their female clergy. “After considerable deliberation, during which we heard the strongly held, yet competing, views of numerous members of our community, both rabbinic and lay, and after full consultation with our Rabbinic Panel – we will not take action with respect to these congregations based on their existing arrangements in the employment of female clergy. This determination is not – and should not be viewed – as an endorsement of such arrangements.”
“Do these shuls need the OU
or does the OU need these shuls?”
Instead of expulsion or acceptance, the OU will continue the conversation for another three years. “Our dialogue with these congregations will continue, and we will share with them the alternative approaches we have identified (and will, in the future, continue to identify) to maximize the participation of women within the ranks of synagogue professionals in a manner consistent with the responses of our Rabbinic Panel,” the statement read.
It recognized the autonomy of each synagogue in deciding questions of halachah and OU membership, noting that unity should be kept in mind by all sides involved in the conversation regarding female clergy. “Just as the OU is cognizant of the need to consider communal unity in its decisions, those who seek to depart from well established and consistently maintained communal norms should similarly embrace such considerations. American Orthodox Jewry is a small community, and its unity is its strength. Community institutions can choose to test that unity, or we can all recognize that darchei shalom requires a deep commitment by us all, in both thought and deed.”
Last week in the Queens Jewish Link, Rabbi Dov Fischer offered his critique of the OU in his article titled “The ‘Shul’ I Won’t Attend.” Rabbi Fischer is the mara d’asra of the Young Israel of Orange County in California, a practicing attorney, professor of law, and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Coalition for Jewish Values. In this latter organization, our Rabbinic Consultant Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld serves as the Vice President. In his article, Rabbi Fischer addressed the larger topic of Open Orthodox rabbis at OU member shuls, providing examples where they deviated from standard Orthodox practices.
I asked our Rabbinic Consultant for his take on OU member shuls where the rabbis have taken socially liberal positions on matters such as same-gender marriage and women’s ordination. “Do these shuls need the OU or does the OU need these shuls?” Offering the perspective of a Jewish historian, I responded that they do not. They have enough members and money to create new organizations; they do not need the programs, speakers, and representation of the OU to flourish.
Looking into the history books, the OU has been there before. In 1902, Solomon Schechter, the newly-appointed dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, began liberalizing the learning standards at this ostensibly Orthodox institution. The schism between the OU and JTS widened over the years. OU stood by its standards, while JTS became the flagship school for a new Jewish denomination. Unsurprisingly, some of today’s OU rabbis, including Rabbi Schonfeld, see Yeshivat Maharat and Yeshiva Chovevei Torah in the same light: seemingly Orthodox in practice, but ideologically liberal, and on the path towards becoming a separate denomination, if they haven’t already become that. It depends, in some measure, on whether you consider Open Orthodoxy as Orthodox.
Until recently, the Orthodox communities in Queens and on Long Island did not have any serious challenges to the established practices of their synagogues. When local rabbis speak up in one voice on conversions, marriages, divorces, and lifestyles, it is sometimes easy to forget that we live in a society where anyone can self-identify as Orthodox. The non-Orthodox press publishes stories of people who are “openly gay and Orthodox,” or “woman Orthodox rabbis,” and rabbis who conduct improper conversions, issue contradictory halachic rulings, and make inappropriate public appearances in the name of Orthodoxy.
In one community where the Queens Jewish Link is distributed, a woman who did not feel welcome in existing synagogues on account of her orientation gathered supporters and organized a new congregation of which she is president. This new k’hilah has a m’chitzah. It does not need membership in the OU, the National Council of Young Israel, or Agudath Israel to thrive, as long as it has members, money, space, and a sefer Torah.
In a society where we see such radical “Orthodoxy” or “Torah observance,” what is the standard? It is what is has always been: an application of halachah that is consistent with case law built up over the centuries, responding to the changing currents but never becoming consumed.
By Sergey Kadinsky