The Orthodox Union (OU)—Orthodox Jewry’s major American organization—recently issued an ultimatum to four congregations that had violated its policies by hiring female rabbis, giving them three years to find a way to comply or to face expulsion. Since then, vigorous debate about the question of whether women can be rabbis has re-erupted in Orthodox circles and in the pages of Jewish publications. But, argues Gil Student, the decisions of the OU, or the rulings of its rabbinic advisers, are not, in the end, what will determine the direction taken by Orthodox Jewry:
In past centuries, Jewish communal organizations ruled in a literal sense. They had governmental authority to set rules, levy taxes, and punish disobedient members. . . . If a pre-modern Jewish communal body disallowed a synagogue practice, all of the synagogues under its authority had to cease the practice immediately or face punishment. People would not dare set foot in a defiant synagogue. In those days, excommunication meant expulsion from the community. . . .
But the Jewish community is no longer organized in a fashion that allows for excommunication. If the OU expels a synagogue, will that synagogue operate any differently? Will people stop attending that synagogue? Not necessarily. People affiliate voluntarily. They can join whichever community they want, start their own communities, or choose to live a life without a formal religious community. People make their own decisions on how, or if, they observe their religion and which synagogue, if any, they attend. . . .
In sum, while the OU may revoke the organizational membership of a synagogue with women clergy, it cannot expel the synagogue from Orthodoxy. . . . [In this case, the threatened] expulsion, for all intents and purposes, already occurred before the OU’s announcement.