Five area Jewish leaders associated with Orthodox organizations and synagogues are among the 28 signers of a letter objecting to the Orthodox Union’s position barring women clergy at its 400 member congregations.
“Historically the Orthodox Union has been a big tent organization that embraced and served all forms of Orthodox Judaism,” the Sept. 12 letter — addressed to OU Executive Vice President Allen Fagin and President of Lay Leadership Mark Bane — reads. “However, we are opposed to blacklisting, marginalizing and shunning Orthodox communities, shuls and leaders who do not conform strictly to one central authority’s perspective.”
A number of community members had grown concerned about a split within Orthodoxy over the issue and the letter was intended to be kept private, said Behnam Dayanim, chair of Beltway Vaad’s lay advisory council, who signed the letter.
A copy of the letter was obtained by Washington Jewish Week.
Other local signers are Steve Lieberman of Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, Ambassador Alfred H. Moses of Washington and Dov Zakheim and David J. Butler, both members of Kemp Mill Synagogue.
(Butler is also a member of the ownership group of Mid-Atlantic Media, publisher of Washington Jewish Week.)
“We’re concerned about the potential for division within the community,” Dayanim said.
“The point of the letter was not to ask the OU to bless [women clergy]. Our hope is that the OU can recognize and include difference, and ultimately adopt a big-tent approach. ”
Fagin declined to comment for this article.
In February, the OU’s rabbinic panel ruled that Jewish law forbade women from serving in the clergy.
But Yeshivat Maharat, a liberal Orthodox seminary, has ordained 24 women clergy, given the title of maharat.
There are four Orthodox Union member congregations with women clergy, including Beth Sholom and Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue, in Washington.
In a 17-page memo, the seven rabbis of the OU panel explained their legal reasoning.
“Our intention is to define halakhic parameters with the goal of clarifying practical roles that women can and, depending on the particular kehillah, indeed should, play in our community,” the rabbis wrote.
The letter concluded, “It is our unanimous opinion … that these considerations, combined with factors discussed below, impose a legal preclusion to the appointment of women clergy.”
In their response letter to the OU, the 28 lay leaders wondered what message the ruling sent to Orthodox women and synagogues with women clergy.
“It would isolate smaller communities that don’t meet the central authority’s strictures,” they wrote. “It would send a signal that learned and committed Orthodox women are disrupting, rather than contributing to, our larger community.”
For Dayanim, the decision to add his name to the letter was simple; he strongly supports the right of women to be ordained and doesn’t agree that it violates Jewish law.
But he said the letter was not intended to push the OU to suddenly sanction women clergy. Instead, the authors simply wanted the organization to agree to disagree with some of its member congregations.
“Historically, Orthodoxy has included a wide range of traditions,” he said. “It’s our hope that the OU can continue its own organizational tradition of embracing a wide range of opinions.”