Local rabbi discusses Orthodox group’s resolution on women in synagogue leadership

Rabbi Hyim Shafner

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

A national rabbinic group has issued a resolution that pushes for a major expansion of the role of women in communal leadership positions in Orthodox synagogue life.

While the opinion from the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), an organization of 150 rabbis nationwide, stops short of calling for the ordination of female rabbis, it does encourage them to serve the community “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.”

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The IRF statement, released earlier this month, also advocated for a larger role for women in teaching Torah, leading religious classes and becoming synagogue presidents and full board members. It called for a respectful dialogue on the issue of females in communal leadership and noted that women should refrain from involvement with aspects of lifecycle events where halakhic prohibitions exist.

“Almost everything a rabbi does in terms of Jewish Law can be done by a woman,” said local Rabbi Hyim Shafner. “We want to recognize and encourage that. If the only voice that is heard in Jewish leadership is a male voice, then that means something is missing.”

Shafner, who leads services at University City’s Bais Abraham Congregation, has been one of the IRF’s vice presidents since its inception in 2008 as a liberal alternative to the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), Orthodoxy’s major American rabbinic organization. He said the group’s statement was an important step to broaden the scope of synagogue life.

“I think it’s very important because people of different genders see the world differently,” Shafner said. “It’s precisely for that reason that we need that point of view.”

The issue came to head earlier this year when Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a New York-based Orthodox shul, bestowed the label rabba, the feminine version of rabbi, on a female congregational leader. The move touched off a controversy that resulted in an eventual affirmation of the RCA’s position that women could not assume such a name. (Rabbi Weiss is a former rabbi of Traditional Congregation in St. Louis.)

“Due to our aforesaid commitment to sacred continuity, however, we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title,” said an RCA statement issued in April.

The statement did affirm the value of women teaching and learning Torah and encouraged the assumption of “halakhically and communally appropriate professional opportunities” by females, though it defined no specific roles.

Orthodoxy is the last of the three major streams of Jewish thought that does not ordain women as rabbis. The Reform Movement admitted its first female rabbi in 1972. Conservative Judaism followed suit in 1985. A fourth movement, the Reconstructionists, also ordain women rabbis.

Rabbi Barry Gelman, president of the IRF and rabbi of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, did not return requests for comment from the Jewish Light but in an article earlier this month in the Jewish Daily Forward he said the IRF resolution was “very explicit” in expressing the IRF’s beliefs on the role women can play in synagogue life.

“We see ourselves very much as part of the Modern Orthodox community, and we believe that this resolution expresses the opinion and the feeling and the hopes of large segments of the Modern Orthodox community,” he said.

Shafner said that while there are differences between the IRF and RCA positions, he feels there are also areas of commonality.

“Even though they’ve said that giving ordination to a woman is forbidden, they have said we do encourage women to study,” he said. “The world has opened up tremendously for women. They add a great deal to Judaism and Jewish thought.”

He also noted that while the IRF statement did not call for women to receive the rabbinic title, he said that on a personal level he saw nothing wrong with calling a woman a rabbi. Shafner said change often begins in Orthodox Jewish life at the grassroots and proceeds more through evolution than revolution.

“Women today are so well-educated in secular society to say that when it comes to Judaism you can’t do that doesn’t make any sense at all,” he said. “That makes Judaism less holy then the secular.”

Locally, several Orthodox rabbis contacted for opinions were either out of town or did not return phone calls as of press time. Two who were reached, Rabbi Menachem Greenblatt of Agudas Israel and Rabbi Zvi Zuravin of the Vaad Hoeir of St. Louis, said they were unfamiliar with the IRF statement and could not offer comment.

Neither the national nor the local Rabbinical Council responded to inquiries for comment.