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IRF Reaffirms Its Perspective on Women's Leadership Roles in Orthodoxy

February 3, 2017

In the last century, we have seen a dramatic change in attitudes and practices throughout almost every segment of Orthodox Jewry in relation to the role and participation of women in various aspects of Jewish intellectual, communal, and, in many instances, ritual life.

The burgeoning of high level women's Torah study, especially in the Modern-Orthodox community, has been a blessed development that has increased Torah observance and commitment and has strengthened our community and added to its vibrancy.

The IRF has, in the last five years, publicly affirmed its enthusiastic and full-throated support for these developments on numerous occasions and has encouraged us as a community to support and nurture the growth of this movement including developing paths for learned, Torah observant, women to take up positions of communal and spiritual leadership.

As we wrote five years ago, "Observant and committed Orthodox women who are learned, trained and competent should have every opportunity to fully serve the Jewish community:

  1. As teachers of Torah, in all its breadth and depth – Shebikhtav, Shebe‘al Peh and Practical Halakha – to both men and women.

  2. As persons who can answer questions and provide guidance to both men and women in all areas of Jewish law in which they are well-versed.

  3. As clergy who function as pastoral counselors – visiting the sick, helping couples work through relationship difficulties, taking care of the arrangements for burial, speaking at life-cycle events and giving counsel to individuals and families in distress.

  4. As spiritual preachers and guides who teach classes and deliver divrei Torah and derashot, in the synagogue and out, both during the week and on Shabbatot and holidays.

  5. As spiritual guides and mentors, helping arrange and leading life-cycle events such as weddings, bar- and bat-mitzvah celebrations and funerals, while refraining from engaging in those aspects of these events that Halakha does not allow for women to take part in.

  6. As presidents and full members of the boards of synagogues and other Torah institutions."

We do not advocate for any particular title that should be bestowed on these women or adopted by them upon completion of their course of Torah study, or halakhic and pastoral training. We recognize that a plethora of titles currently exist in the world of women's Torah learning and leadership such as "rabba", "yoetzet halakha", "rabbanit", "maharat" and "rabbi", "hachamah", "morat halakha" and that some of these have led to communal debate given the denominational history of American Jewish life and traditional models of rabbinic leadership.

At the same time we hereby affirm that as long as the functions enumerated above are carried out within the parameters of halakha and the communal practices of minhag of that particular beit haknesset, the particular title that is adopted by an individual or the institution where she works does not in any way affect the Orthodox status of that synagogue or community.

We are proud to have a significant number of women serve as members and leaders of our organization, and the IRF has been enriched by their presence. While we recognize that there are sincere rabbinic voices who take a more conservative point of view than the one we have outlined above on halakhic and social policy grounds, we do not find those arguments compelling and dispositive. We fully affirm that women can serve as clergy within our communities, and are grateful to those who support these positions. The broader Orthodox community will be similarly enriched by welcoming talented women to serve as spiritual leaders and clergy in its synagogues and communal life.

We believe that the best course of action that the broader Orthodox community should take at this point is that which was proffered by the great halakhic scholar, R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, in addressing the halakhic debate in the 1920’s regarding the propriety of women voting in elections in the Yishuv. He wrote: נניח הדבר לזמן שיבוא ויכריע - “Let us allow time/history to pass and make the decision” (Responsa Seredei Eish 3:105)

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