Women’s Ordination Is Here … Would You Like to Change Something Else?

News appeared this week (link) that Rabbi Avi Weiss’ Semicha of three women this past Sunday included language allowing them to “determine Halakhik rulings for the Jewish people” and “serve as a decisor of Jewish Law” (or in the Hebrew edition, describing them as “מוכשרת לפסוק הלכה” and granting them “היתר הוראה לרבים”). The purpose of this post is not to take a strong stand on the issue, because I don’t think having an opinion even matters at this point. I take as a point of departure that those opposed to the change should instead ask new and perhaps more introspective questions about what forces in the Modern Orthodox world created this change and whether any can be altered at this point. This post is an attempt to identify one of those – perhaps there are others worth exploring as well.

The basic premise of the argument for ordaining women, as I understand it, is that it is unfair for people who have labored toward the same degree, who have learned the same prescribed material for the same amount of time, not to receive the same recognition for their efforts. That argument is so sound that it makes the RCA sound (link) bigoted, chauvinistic, and medieval in trying to argue against it. But that’s because the RCA is picking at low-lying fruit. There is a much more fundamental flaw that has been made in dumbing down what Semicha is and how it is obtained and in holding on to little more about what Semicha was historically than its name and its men-only membership policy. The old term “Semicha” is still being used, but today it describes a kind of process vastly different from what it was originally designed to be.

Probably almost no one reading the beginning of the previous paragraph flinched when they read the words “degree,” “prescribed material,” “amount of time,” or “recognition.” Yet those terms would have left us all scratching our heads 100 years ago. They would have been alien before Semicha changed from being an exclusive acknowledgement of a few people’s exemplary knowledge obtained through many years of intense and genuinely selfless study, and highlighted by lengthy personal service (Shimush) of someone who already had Semicha, into a university-like degree doled out to anyone attending a few years of lectures and doing (virtually) no Shimush at all. Back in the day, people didn’t “want” or “plan” to get Semicha. They had learned intensely for many years with no material objective, cracking their heads on the hardest Talmudic debates and Halachic arguments learned with the most complicated commentaries. If they had shown themselves worthy, through extended Shimush and exemplary decision-making made possible by that Shimush, to serve as a Halachic guide to the masses, such a person might have had the Musmach under whom he had learned and served write him a Semicha. Today’s typical Semicha (I “graduated” from RIETS in 2010, but I do not believe that the problems discussed here are exclusive to RIETS) still contains a “Shimush requirement,” one which I completed, typical of anyone in RIETS, by teaching at a summer camp. It has been so easy to argue that women should be able to earn it because, given what Semicha has become, that argument is unassailably true.

RIETS was very proud (link) to ordain its “largest graduating class” in 2010, of which I was a member, but is it a virtue to produce so many Musmachim, or for such a high percentage of entrants into a Semicha program to complete it? In the factory-like environment of today’s Semicha programs, everyone who gets in is getting through, unless they drop out first, and there is little character evaluation or mandatory Rabbinic contact. This is largely not RIETS’ fault. RIETS is under pressure by a community in constant need of leaders – and one which, for some reason, believes that all of those leaders need Semicha before they can work for NCSY, teach children, or run a small Shul. To feed the hungry masses, RIETS is under pressure to churn out “Rabbis” at alarming speeds. By a combination of necessity and political expedience, the time-consuming Shimush and the dreaded, unpredictable oral Bechina have given way to a series of sterile written exams.

Until a fifteen minute one-on-two talk with Dr. Lamm in his office at the end of the program, I had virtually no human contact with any Rabbinic presence, and there was no point I am aware of in the Semicha at which any actual determination could have been made, based on my character or my religious beliefs or practices, that I was actually worthy of obtaining the once-hallowed “Semicha.” Semicha today is a four-year series of tests on pre-ordained material which an average student can pass. Before we can deal with ordaining women, we need to deal with ordination in general. We need to ask ourselves hard questions about what this “degree” is meant to be, whether the “degree” concept altogether is appropriate, whether it is worth ordaining so many Rabbis just to feed the perception that a Semicha is needed to take kids on a camping trip – or if it has become so ubiquitous and university-like, obtained through such universal and impersonal means, that it really is unfair to withhold the “degree” from women.

This is not to say that women aren’t smart enough to obtain Semicha the “old-fashioned way.” I am proud to teach Gemara and Halacha to girls and women every day, and they are at least as bright and capable as boys and men. What I am saying, however, is that they would not want to obtain Semicha the old-fashioned way, and that that is why they never tried to, or at least not in numbers that bothered anyone or made headlines. But the more degree-like, non-exclusive, and fashionable Semicha has become – the more it has become a vehicle rather than a destination – the more the RCA has justifiable difficulty in explaining its reasoning for withholding Semicha from women. The more Semicha is open to almost any man who wants it, rather than a small and specially devoted caste, the more the RCA looks bigoted in withholding it from women. The more the term Semicha is bandied about with little meaning more than that its holder can, at best, make a basic leining on a Gemara, the more the RCA has to feel under pressure to end its policy of withholding it from women.

So let’s say, for argument’s sake, RIETS (and other programs which give Semicha in pre-fab four-year programs) revised its current Semicha program to become a twelve-year, truly exclusive and intense program, something like what the Mir has, or the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva, or like what YU’s own Kollel Elyon program is now, and started trumpeting how few people it gives Semicha to – let’s say three or four a year – instead of how many (about fifty). Then let’s say RIETS renamed its current four-year program a Graduate Degree in Advanced Jewish Studies (which is fair), which would be open to men and women (the women already have that program on the Stern Campus). I’m really saying let’s give men and women the same degree – but let’s call it what it is: a Graduate Degree in Advanced Jewish Studies, not Semicha. Then all the NCSY chapters and schools and summer camps and smaller Shuls could have all the Advanced Degree recipients they want (men or women), and the few people to whom RIETS would grant Semicha would be more learned, would have had the chance to do actual Shimush, and could take on larger communities or larger Shuls. Wouldn’t that make everyone happy? If RIETS toughened up their Semicha program to the standards it once had and which some Yeshivot still have today, very few if any men or women would find it worth the bother. Ten years? All day? No extra income? Yup – that’s our Semicha. Want it? Didn’t think so.

If that change had come ten or twenty years ago, if the standard today that Rabbi Weiss had to build off of were an exclusive, rigorous, Shimush-heavy ten- or twelve-year Semicha program rather than a four-year one that even an average student can obtain, I don’t see how he could have found that program very easy to market to women. But today’s Semicha has become so watered down that it was inevitable that at some point women would want that same relatively painless degree – again, not because women are incapable of sitting all day for twelve years, but because they are far less naturally inclined to do so than they are to sit for four years and earn a degree. While all they meant to advertise was how large their graduating classes are, RIETS accidentally let the women in on the secret that it a fairly unimposing program that any average man could complete while earning two graduate degrees, raising a few young kids, and working nights, weekends, and summers, until eventually women realized there was nothing meaningful preventing them from doing the same thing. By lowering the Semicha standards and broadening the base of recipients to the point at which every school could hire a Musmach for their Kindergarten, RIETS invited this problem on themselves.

So let’s start with RIETS changing its Semicha program. Let’s tell small Shuls that they don’t need someone with Semicha to teach low-level classes, organize social events, or design flyers or newsletters, which is most of what today’s “Rabbinate” is anyway. With Semicha being given to so few people, Shuls would have to settle for a male or female graduate of the Advanced Jewish Studies Program to complete those non-Rabbinic tasks. The so-called integrity of Semicha would be preserved as its few holders, now properly trained, could be the new go-to leaders of the Jewish community and field questions from the AJS Degree holders out in the field, who would no longer have to pretend that they are “Halachic decisors” just because they attended four years of classes at RIETS (while earning a graduate degree or two, and taking “Professional Rabbinics” classes, and working).

Let’s stop reaching for low-lying fruit. If it’s important to you that women not get Semicha, change Semicha. Few if any men or women are going to want to sit for twelve years to become the actual “Halachic decisor” that RIETS and Rabbi Weiss apparently think their Musmachim are now, but that is probably a good thing, because applying the term indiscriminately to everyone who makes it through a four-year program has turned programs like RIETS into victims of their own design. No real “Halachic decisor,” male or female, has ever become one from a four-year, canned program of middling tests that takes pride in how many Musmachim it churns out. “Halachic decsiors,” the ones whom most people trust and respect in that role, study for many years and under intensely difficult conditions.

When fans began to fall to their deaths catching foul balls a few years ago, baseball raised its fences. Maybe instead of issuing vague, chauvinistic threats, it is time instead for the RCA and RIETS to raise its own fences by reevaluating the Semicha that it is granting and making major changes that would make Modern Orthodox Semicha less easily copied by Rabbi Weiss.

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2 Responses to Women’s Ordination Is Here … Would You Like to Change Something Else?

  1. Wordsmith says:

    “who have learned the same proscribed material for the same amount of time” — Are you sure you don’t mean “prescribed”?

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