The Chief Rabbi on Women Rabbis

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In a recent interview, Chief Rabbi (soon-to-be-) Lord Jonathan Sacks stated that he does not wish to comment on the discussion in the US and Israel over Orthodox women rabbis (link). However, I think we can gain from his wisdom by examining an article he presented to the first Orthodox Forum, in 1989, in which he discusses the at-the-time recent responsa from the Conservative movement endorsing the ordination of women. The article was revised and published in the 1992 book, Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy (Dr. Moshe Sokol ed.). The following is from pages 165-167:

[S]urely we are sociologically and philosophically sophisticate enough to realize — given the wealth of studies on this very point — that it is this modern consciousness that is radically subversive of tradition of all kinds. At the very heart of Judaism, biblical and rabbinic, is an insistence on standing apart from, sometimes maintaining an oppositional stance to, the secular ethos of the age. The very concept — itself biblical — of a “fence around the law” recognizes that there may be behaviors which, while not directly in conflict with Jewish law or values, are nonetheless subversive of them. It was remarkable, therefore, to find a series of “responsa” rejecting a set of halakhic assumptions in favor of an uncritical acceptance of a late-twentieth-century American view of what is “sexist” or undemocratic. This fails to pass a minimal threshold of sociological insight, let alone halakhic integrity.

I would hazard this view: that concepts like ervah and kavod are culturally determined, and that a general disposition to find them meaningless testifies to a failure of cultural transmission. I have argued that [Conservative Rabbi Joel] Roth’s responsum fails the test of integrity, or what I have called Daat Torah, by concentrating on narrow and formal argumentation and ignoring the wider ambit of halakhic values. It fails, in fact, exactly on those grounds in which Conservative thinkers claim prowess: historical and sociological sophistication. But this is part of a wider failures.

Halakhah is often taken to be a set of rules, and as such is governed by the general jurisprudential considerations that apply to rules. This view governs, for example, the entire presentation of Roth’s book, The Halakhic Process: A Systemic Analysis. But this is not so, as Maimonides makes clear in the Guide. The laws of Torah, he argues, are intended to do more than govern behavior. They are meant to shape character and cognition. That is why one cannot be halakhically indifferent to secular culture insofar as it shapes character and cognition in way antithetical to or subversive of Torah. We can go further. The extraordinary emphasis in both biblical and rabbinic Judaism on Torah not only or even primarily as law, but as an object of perpetual study, testifies to the degree to which Judaism finds its meanings not self-evident on the surface of either society or nature, but acquired through extended, indeed continual, education. A failure of talmud Torah will eventually lead to a failure of halakhah, for there will then be exactly the cognitive dissonance between law and sensibility that we find in the Conservative responsa. The answer to this is not halakhic change.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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