T

he time has finally come. The era of Orthodox women rabbis is here.

That’s the message of a recent Washington Post article covering an initiative called Start-Up Shul, a new organization that’s providing seed money for “female-friendly” synagogues, including those hiring female spiritual leaders. The article tells us there’s already one such synagogue in Chelsea, Massachusetts and another in New York. A third one is planned for Philadelphia, where Dasi Fruchter hopes to open a shtibel next year, delivering sermons in the women’s section.

As I’ve said before, I read these sorts of things as a public service, so that readers of this column don’t have to. Here, then, are a few takeaways from this learned treatise:

This is about psychology, not religion or halachah.

The opposition of frum Jews’ to female clergy is solely a product of their emotional fragility, not, G-d forbid, anything like principle, the requirements of Jewish law, or a deep understanding of what underpins Judaism’s gender distinctions. They cling anxiously to the calming stability of ancient traditions and are easily jarred by change, but change makers can ease these poor souls into the light by taking it slow and showing understanding. 

Listen to how Dina Najman, one of the Miss Leaders featured in the article, explains it: “When I initially did some weddings, people said, ‘What is going on here?’ When people saw, ‘Hey, this is halachic,’ they had to see it for themselves…. They saw this is a halachic service. ‘So she speaks. She gives advice. So she gives the leadership. Now I understand. This is something that doesn’t hurt my sensibilities.’ ” Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, a leading Orthodox feminist, agrees: “Time is a big deal. I think change takes time.”

Do you get it? Just take it slow and show ’em you can give a boffo sermon, and we’ll assuage all those “hurt sensibilities” and make the whole silly opposition to female clergy go away. Think of this as a subset of the Heilman Theory of the Anxiety-Ridden Ortho, recently discussed here, under which frum Jews have no deep principles, just deep hang-ups. 

The problem is we don’t have a Vatican.

After noting that a “committee of seven male rabbis appointed [by the Orthodox Union] to consider the subject concluded this year, in a densely footnoted 17-page argument, that women should not hold any clergy roles,” the reporter tells us that “Judaism has no hierarchical leader, such as a pope or an archbishop, so despite the organization’s opinion, female-led synagogues are springing up.”

Well, of course. Seven boring, black-hatted rabbis making 17-page arguments — densely footnoted yet! — about anything are no match for one fellow with a bright red yarmulke.

Will the real broadminded Jews please stand up?

I’m confused. I always thought to be right-wing Orthodox meant you were obsessed with the technical fulfillment of the minutiae of halachah but tone-deaf to its “music,” to the larger, subtler goals of the Jewish legal system, narrow-mindedly missing the forest for the trees. To be a liberal Orthodox Jew was to have a deeper, more nuanced understanding of what halachah — or halakha — sought to achieve.

But now we learn that “prospective congregants have asked [Fruchter] how she will lead services without breaking Orthodox prohibitions. As a woman, she will give her sermon from the female side of the gender-divided sanctuary. She won’t count as one of the ten participants necessary for a quorum for certain prayers…. ‘I assure them it’s going to be traditional, halachic: fully in line with Jewish law in terms of Modern Orthodox understanding.’ ” Or as the aforementioned Ms. Najman put it with scholarly succinctness, “Hey, this is halachic.”

And so, strangely, we have clergywomen who are hyper-focused on checking off halachic boxes and claiming fulfillment of the letter of the law, all the while suffocating its spirit. In their rush to break barriers, they’re blithely trampling all over some of Yiddishkeit’s most cherished — and subtlest — values: exaltation of the internal over the external (also known as tzniyus), and submission of the self to G-d’s will by performing one’s assigned life’s role rather than subverting it.

A group of maskilim once approached a rav to complain about his stubborn refusal to approve of their newfangled funeral services. “So we place wreaths on the casket and play organ music and have women eulogizing, so what? We have all the elements of a traditional levayah, the casket, the prayers — what’s missing?”

“What’s missing?” echoed the rav rhetorically. “Only a cross is missing. Add that and you have a Christian funeral.” 

Talk it up and it will come to pass.

The reporter tells us Ms. Fruchter — she’s the young lady looking to turn Philly into the City of Sisterly Rov — “isn’t looking just to break barriers; she’s looking to become the norm. ‘The second, I think, sometimes is cooler than the first,’ she said. ‘It shows that there’s a trend starting.’ ” 

But to turn the abnormal into the norm, it’s necessary to contrive momentum, to make it seem that far more Orthodox Jews accept female clergy than they actually do — in other words, to lie. Thus, Shmuel Herzfeld, a cofounder of Start-Up Shul, states, “Without question, most Orthodox Jews are absolutely ready.” And one female clergy says the number of male Orthodox rabbis who accept her as a peer has gone from a “handful” to “hundreds.” 

The problem with the new crop of ladies of the cloth is the inherent contradiction that lies at the heart of the entire enterprise of Orthodox feminism: It raises expectations that one can satisfy the hunger for gender equality by aping secular society while still remaining within the bounds of halachah. But one cannot. Men and women are different physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and their distinct roles in this world reflect that. This will never change, and those who tell Jews otherwise are recklessly setting them up for disillusionment. 

Today they claim to have surmounted the “obstacle” of female rabbis, but tomorrow it will be the hurdle of female participation in a minyan, and the day after that, women serving as valid witnesses. Ultimately, intellectually honest Jews will have to make a critical choice: To bow one’s head before the will of Hashem as interpreted by His servants, the chachmei hamesorah, or to give up on Judaism entirely.

Almost one year ago, a one-time Orthodox feminist did just that, as the JTA reported last September:

As executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Elana Sztokman was a big name in liberal Orthodox circles. But this week the 47-year-old, who has published widely on gender in Judaism, turned a new page: She started studying to become a Reform rabbi….

Sztokman said advancements such as the ordination of female clergy members by Yeshivat Maharat… were not enough for her. “Even though I’m so happy that women are becoming rabbis in Orthodoxy, at the same time a maharat cannot count in a minyan — even though she may be more learned than 95 percent of the congregation, she can’t count in a minyan, she can’t say Kaddish,” Sztokman said….

“I have to say that this is the real reason why Orthodoxy is not for me anymore… because you’re constantly being told that you cannot feel for yourself, you cannot think for yourself, you cannot make choices, that what you want isn’t even on the table…. I don’t care what you think the Torah says and what you think the halachah is, there’s a certain humanity that has to come first where I say I have agency in my life.”

Her choice is tragic, but her honestly stated thinking reveals where the road eventually ends for Orthodox feminism, and indeed for the deviant movement known as Open Orthodoxy, too. Try as they might to spin a narrative of themselves as the trend of the future, they will fail, just as have all the previous schismatic movements in Jewish history.

They can try to Start-Up with Hashem, but His promise of ki lo sishkach mipi zaro will prevail.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 723. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com