Orthodox Union fumbles on maharats


The Orthodox Union has a women problem — specifically the handful of OU-member synagogues that have hired Orthodox women clergy, usually known as a maharat. Liberal streams of Judaism have had women rabbis for decades, but in the modern Orthodox world, of which the OU is a part, an institutional role for educated, well-trained and innovative women clergy is apparently too controversial to consider.

Nevertheless, there are five ordained women around the country serving OU-member Orthodox synagogues with the title of maharat, rabbah or rabbi. A year ago, the OU turned up the pressure and banned women from filling a role akin to a pulpit rabbi. Representatives of the OU later met with each of the synagogues that have female clergy, hoping to persuade them to comply in some way with the ruling. The synagogues, however, have not changed the titles or job descriptions of their women clergy.

Last week, the Orthodox Union made what it probably considered to be a Solomonic decision, which will likely satisfy no one.

The organization announced that it will not penalize its member synagogues that already employ women as clergy, but reaffirmed its announced policy that prohibits other synagogues from hiring women in rabbinic positions.

Maharat Ruth Friedman, who works at the Orthodox Ohev Sholom synagogue in Washington, said she was disappointed by the decision. While it means her job is safe, she is unhappy that it bars other women from having the same opportunity.

“I don’t feel a sense of relief,” she said. “Grandfathering me into the seat but not opening the door to future opportunities for my colleagues, this does not bring a sense of relief.”

We agree. It looks like the Orthodox Union wanted to avoid a schism in the movement and simply decided to maintain the status quo. Perhaps the OU now recognizes that as a synagogue trade organization, it really had no business getting into the women clergy issue in the first place. It should have left the question to the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, if the issue needed to be addressed at all.

But now that we have the OU‘s much-anticipated pronouncement, what does it really mean? In terms that the OU should understand — since it is best known as the gold standard for kosher food certification — are maharats kosher or not? If something is wrong, it should be wrong for all. If something is permitted, it should be permitted for all. This “decision” by the Orthodox Union decides nothing at all.

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