The term “Modern Orthodox” is, in a sense, self-contradictory, which makes one wonder why it has been used for so long to describe a significant portion of the Jewish community. The “Orthodox” part refers to the community’s strong commitment to traditional core beliefs and practices. The “Modern” part implies a willingness to absorb practices and values from contemporary culture. Sometimes the two complement each other, but often they conflict.
So how should we adjudicate the conflict between religious tradition and our moral intuitions? As moderns, we instinctively maintain the equality of all people and uphold their freedom to choose their own paths without legal or social impediments. But this presents a challenge to religious traditions that limit certain positions to particular categories of people.
Judaism is one such religion, egalitarian in some respects, but emphatically not in others. During the times of the temples in Jerusalem, priests had roles, privileges, and responsibilities that differed from those of the Levites and Israelites. Orthodox Jews eagerly await the messianic era, when these ancient divisions will be reinstated. The case of bastard children is even more jarring to our modern sensibilities. In Jewish law bastard is highly defined: the child of an incestuous relationship, or an adulterous one, between a married Jewish woman and a Jewish man not her husband. Such a person is considered a mamzer and may marry only another mamzer—a heartbreakingly severe disadvantage.
There are more examples, of course, but particularly pressing today is the question of the role of women in the Orthodox Jewish community. The amply attested tradition is that women have been exempt from most time-related rituals, such as the requirements for daily prayer. This lack of obligation prevents them from serving as communal representatives for these rituals, a role which is limited to those who are obligated.
While women were excluded from public ritual for thousands of years without much debate, the modern notion of equality challenges that exclusion. By what moral justification does the tradition differentiate by gender? The challenge is particularly strong because Judaism sees moral intuitions as legitimate religious directives.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Conservative Jewish movement debated exactly this question in the context of the rabbinic ordination of women. The issue was so contentious that the final decision to ordain women led to a schism within the movement. Along the way, the Conservative debate produced three opposing views:
Rejectionism-an approach that openly acknowledges the conflict and allows tradition to prevail. Accepting the differentiation of gender roles, rejectionism holds that there is a profound spiritual reason for limiting the roles of women in public rituals, one that should be celebrated rather than dismissed.
Legalism-an approach that treats the matter merely as a regular legal inquiry: What does Jewish law say about the ordination of women? Setting aside all issues of theology and ethics, legalists allow the legal texts to speak for themselves-which, in practice, leads to the same answer as the rejectionist approach: No.
Revisionism-an approach that redefines Jewish law to accommodate modern values. While insisting that it upholds the primacy of Jewish law, it undermines the values that inform tradition by a radical restatement of those laws. Thus, for example, Jewish law does not allow a woman to be called to the Torah in synagogue, but a revisionist strategy would redefine “ascending to the Torah” as merely a ceremonial rather than religious role that has the effect of preserving the form while neutralizing the restriction.
Each approach has its advantages and drawbacks. The rejectionist approach seems truest to tradition, but by simply denying our modern moral intuition, it fails to take seriously the tension we genuinely feel. The legalist approach, meanwhile, purports to have a neutral view, but only succeeds in doing implicitly what rejectionism does explicitly—ignoring the ethical questions facing religious people today.
The revisionist approach seems to resolve the tension but does so at the expense of transforming public worship into an arbitrary collection of rituals. To include women in public rituals, revisionism has to deprive those practices of their religious significance—which, in its own way, leaves the moral dilemma intact. Additionally, there are some rituals that are immune to redefinition within the boundaries of the Orthodox legal process.
If none of these approaches seems satisfying, perhaps we have put the question in the wrong way. Jewish decision-making is not about choosing between absolute right and absolute wrong. It requires weighing the issues to maximize right and minimize wrong. Modern Jews face not simply a conflict between tradition and ethics, but a matrix of demands that includes ethics, customs, history, community, and education.
Each of these must be weighed by its importance to Judaism. Sometimes specific values are so powerful that they override all other considerations. Some innovations are relatively unobtrusive and the “slippery slope” argument does not seem conclusive, while others are driven by an agenda whose momentum guarantees further changes in the near future.
So how do we weigh all of these considerations? Many in the Modern Orthodox community were raised with a Jewish pedagogy at odds with modern institutional standards. Those who favor mimetic transmission of practice over a textual education want to maintain continuity with past custom and observance. It is clear that the traditional methods of teaching militate generally against increasing roles for women in the synagogue and specifically against the ordination of women. Such changes would do significant damage to traditional religious education.
A related issue is that of continuity of communal custom, which Jewish law requires us to maintain. That is important even when what’s being discussed is the absence of a practice—in this case, the lack of expanded roles for women in the community.
Women never served as ritual slaughterers, for example, although an actual prohibition was rejected in the Medieval legal literature. Nonetheless, when the question arose of whether a woman could, in actual practice, be a slaughterer of animals, the answer given by authoritative Ashkenazic scholars was no. Analogously, even if it is conceptually possible for women to serve as rabbis, communal custom—no small matter in the Jewish tradition—rejects the possibility, just as it rejects women prayer leaders and Torah readers.
Finally, the slippery-slope argument must be given its due. Over the past two centuries, radical changes in communal structure and religious practice have proved, in every case, impossible to control. The evidence seems clear that when radical innovations to ritual originate within tight legal limitations, they quickly exceed those bounds.
The Orthodox response to these changes has been to maintain, the consistency of ritual conservatism. Orthodoxy—including its Modern segment—has refused to legitimate non-Orthodox changes to Jewish practice by giving even the appearance of adopting liberal positions.
Certainly, egalitarianism is a value to be considered, but so is communal unity. There can be no question that the ordination of women would divide the Orthodox community. Whatever their reasons, the majority of Orthodox Jews would essentially excommunicate congregations and organizations led by women rabbis or allowing women to preside at Jewish rituals. Local rabbinical councils would split in half; schools would have to choose sides when making hiring decisions; family members would refuse to attend weddings over which a female rabbi presides.
Would such a price be worthwhile? In the final analysis, it is possible (I believe likely) that we will decide that ordaining women and changing their roles in public ritual are not allowed. The kind of values-analysis I’ve been conducting does not resolve our moral problem—but that is not the point. The main outcome is not the resolution of conflict but the process, through which we become more aware of the conflicting elements of the dilemma.
As with many issues—the differences between priests, Levites, and Israelites, for instance, and the case of bastardy—we must sometimes live with ethical dilemmas simply because we recognize that change would cause more damage than preservation. We understand that the moral value of egalitarianism does not automatically trump all other values.
Living with conflicting moral demands is difficult, but it is integral to developing and maintaining our awareness of the complex ethical world in which we function, and it is the only way to grow and thrive as moral beings. We Modern Orthodox Jews refer to ourselves with the oxymoronic term “Modern Orthodox” not because we have found a way to resolve all difficulties but because we are willing to acknowledge the importance of conflicting values. And we attempt to balance their demands without negating them.
Rabbi Gil Student is the Managing Editor of OU Press and blogs at TorahMusings.com. He has recently published Posts Along the Way, a book about synagogue rituals and rabbinic qualifications.