Dec 5, 2008

Women on a Beit Din

Women on a Beit Din
(c) Rabbi Menachem Creditor

In the fifth year of rabbinical school, Rabbi Joel Roth had typically requested that soon-to-be ordained female rabbis not sit on Batei Din.  (During my fifth year Rabbi Roth was teaching at the Conservative Yeshiva, and so Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz was the instructor.)

I felt then, and feel even more strongly now, that that message is incredibly self-negating for both women who are Conservative rabbis, as well as men who are Conservative rabbis, because (as Rabbi Sharzer articulated just before) it dismisses the validity of Conservative Jewish Law entirely.  The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (the "CJLS") defines the parameters of Conservative Halacha, and while parameters aren't obligatory, they do define the boundaries of ideal and authentic practice for Conservative Judaism.

For Jews, especially those who dislike any label ("Conservative", "Orthodox") before the word Halacha, I offer these thoughts: There is certainly a vast, unified system of Jewish tradition which calls itself "Halacha", but the various assumptions within, regarding which denominations viscerally disagree (such as the Divine origins of the Torah, or the human authority to reject inherited positions) make an undifferentiated description of the whole both deceptive and dangerous.  It is specifically this problem, the illusion of uniform thinking, that betrays self-affirmation (and, not less important, pride) within Conservative Judaism.  

A male Conservative rabbi who will not join a Beit Din comprised of both men and women is one thing.  The trouble exists when a Conservative rabbi rejects as halachically Jewish a convert who met with a Beit Din which included female rabbis.  This travesty still does happen.  

I believe that a female rabbi refusing to join a Beit Din is either a position of integrity (ie, "I don't believe a woman should serve on a Beit Din.") or a statement of inauthenticity (ie, "others see my presence as inadequate.")  Both are worthy of serious discussion, but here's where I would have us focus:

When I meet with conversion candidates (and I do, often) I inquire whether they hae met with rabbis of other ideological commitments, and if they've learned about the varieties of Judaisms (as Chancellor Cohen, z"l phrased it).  I make very clear that their decision to convert through Conservative Judaism is the conferring of a Jewish identity.  I do not convert someone to Conservative Judaism.  Their conversion is to Judaism.  BUT - the fact that they are choosing a Conservative rabbi, and therefore a Conservative Beit Din, means that their legal status will likely not be recognized by an Orthodox community.  I require, as all Conservative rabbis must, all the halachic aspects of a conversion.  But I make no pretense as to the Orthodox view of alternative halachic approaches (ie, they are not legally valid).  Were I to omit this crucial detail, I would be doing any student a disservice.  

And this is my point:  If I based my sense of authenticity on the possibility that someone, somewhere, would tell a Jew-by-choice that they weren't really Jewish because they converted with me, I would be denying my own authentic commitment, my belief in Conservative Halacha, for a practical reason.  Practicality doesn't define my faith, and political consideration is a poor rationale for Jewish dreaming.  

I do not choose or teach based on someone else's sense of me.  I choose and teach based on what I believe to be true.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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Chag Sukkot Sameach, dear friends.