A Rabbi by Any Other Name

Published: June 30, 2021
Click here to see article originally published on Hamodia.com

My mother always had an inquiring mind. Born into a distinguished Chassidish family in Transylvania, with no Bais Yaakov in her little town, she was largely self-taught and a voracious reader. Her immediate family survived the Holocaust, fleeing from one town to the next and narrowly missing the Nazis. When the communists took over after the war, her pious father quickly realized the impossibility of remaining religious there and moved the family to the fledging State of Israel, leaving all material possessions behind.

Quickly learning Hebrew, my mother became a sought-after ganenet. Five years later, she moved again. This time, she was forced to learn a new language and culture in New York. Determined to make the most of being a teacher, she enrolled in Columbia University, with a somewhat broken English, for a degree in education.

At some point, her beloved father became ill. When she was unable to balance her schedule at Columbia and she was short of just a few credits, someone recommended a more flexible college. Anxious to finish her degree, my mother enrolled in the suggested school. It was called Jewish Theological Seminary, or JTS.

My mother had never heard of JTS. In fact, she had never heard of Conservative Judaism. Growing up in a devout Chassidish home, she knew only of being religious and of those who became irreligious. Here was something new and unsettling — an amorphous set of customs and ideology.

My mother remembered the Jewish Theological Seminary of the 1960s as an institution that strictly observed kashrus, where men and women sat separately in the seminary’s sanctuary. It was a strange place of learned Jewish heretics intentionally parading in Orthodox clothing. And she instinctively felt that something was wrong.

In a Tanach class taught in Hebrew, the well-known teacher Yochanan Muffs declared that, despite the lack of Divine Providence, Jews should strive heavenward. Pointing to this inherent contradiction, my mother questioned its purpose. To which Muffs retorted, “Im lo rotzeh, lo tzarich.”

Stunned, she confronted him after class. “Do you believe in Torah Mi’Sinai?” she asked. “No,” he answered, conclusively ending the farce my mother had suspected from the very beginning.

Shortly after, a dean asked students how a teacher should best succeed in Jewish education. My mother raised her hand and replied, “By believing in what one is teaching. But there are teachers here who don’t believe in Torah Mi’Sinai.” The dean vehemently denied this assertion but never called on her again.

Fast forward 50 years. The Conservative movement has become the fastest-shrinking denomination in America, swallowed up in the morass of assimilated non-Orthodox Jews. The recent 2020 Pew Report pegs Conservative Judaism as the smallest among all denominations among Jewish adults under 30.

This reality makes the recent news of a first female Orthodox spiritual leader in Israel all the more ominous. Two months ago, the Shirat Tamar Synagogue in Efrat appointed Rabbanit Shira Mirvis as its sole spiritual leader and halachic authority. This is a first for Israel, which has seen women serve in roles of communal and spiritual leadership, but always alongside a male Rabbi.

Mirvis has been a student at the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership, a division of the Ohr Torah Stone Institute, which was founded by Chief Rabbi of Efrat Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. In an interview, Mirvis states that she will be “the sole ‘rabbinic voice’ and ‘spiritual leader’ in all religious matters.”

This doesn’t seem such an unnatural progression in a shul where Mirvis had already delivered divrei Torah in front of a “mechitzah in the middle,” the better to see both men and women. And where the Torah is carried through the women’s section, a woman reads the prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel, girls under bat-mitzvah age lead “Anim Zemiros” and women are permitted to read the haftarah. All in accordance with Rabbi Riskin’s rulings.

This is the same Rabbi Riskin who opposes the recent decision by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to approve all conversions and divorces performed in Orthodox rabbinical courts outside of Israel. And the same Rabbi Riskin who said in 2019 that the Western Wall prayer compromise should be “put in place and give them [Reform and Conservative] the possibility of praying next to the Western Wall, in their own area, as they are used to: men and women together.”

Rabbi Riskin also sits on the board of the Open Orthodox Yeshivat Maharat Advisory Board, founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss and partner seminary to Yeshivat Chochevei Torah, which has been ordaining women with rabbinic titles such as rabba and maharat since 2009. Both schools have been eviscerated by Orthodox institutions. The RCA and the OU expressly forbid women from serving as Rabbis in member synagogues. And in a Kol Koreh of several years standing, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America rejected Open Orthodoxy as having “shown countless times that they reject the basic tenets of our faith” and are “no different than other dissident movements throughout our history that have rejected these basic tenets.”

It is no wonder that Mirvis’ appointment drew applause from Conservative, Reform and secular Jews across the globe. For them, the feminization of clergy roles is the ultimate smashing of the Orthodox glass ceiling. Sadly, progressive agendas are creeping into the fringes of the Orthodox world, blurring distinctions between what’s permissible and what’s not.

True, mainstream Orthodoxy has little to fear from the advent of a rabba or maharat in their midst, but the dangerous chipping away of tradition does not come without a price. Paradoxically, it was the JTS’ Rabbi Saul Lieberman who wrote a definitive “psak” prohibiting the ordination of women in the Conservative movement, which was only violated after his death.

Open Orthodoxy might not lead the truly Orthodox down the garden path of heresy, but that path becomes a slippery slope for those who are on its outer edges. And outer edges then get pushed further from the epicenter of millennia of Jewish customs and law.

In addition to myriad breaches of halachah, issues of tznius, and flagrant disregard for mesorah, this grab at a new imprimatur of women’s roles in Israel comes at a precipitous time. It breaches the chasm that separates the Orthodox sphere from unholy influences nipping at its heels. And it adds to a growing litany of threats to religious life in Israel that the new “change” government and Open Orthodoxy advocate for — regarding conversion, immorality, pluralistic prayer spaces, etc.

Mirvis’ appointment comes at a time when we should double down on our mesorah rather than experiment with ways that jeopardize it. Do those who endorse tinkering with Orthodoxy really believe they will succeed where others have failed? If my mother (who is not well and should have a refuah sheleimah) could talk today, she would tell you the answer.