After much debate and despite predictions of a schism, the Rabbinical Council of America, the nation’s largest group of Orthodox rabbis, this week approved without dissent a carefully balanced resolution on women’s communal roles in Orthodox Jewish life.
The statement affirms a longstanding prohibition of women rabbis but allows congregational rabbis flexibility in determining appropriate roles for women in their synagogues and communities.
At the conclusion of the group’s three-day conference in Scarsdale on Tuesday that was closed to the press, the leadership of the RCA announced its decision via press release and a telephone press conference. The group’s two top officials expressed deep gratification to the membership for approving without opposition a resolution that welcomed “the flowering of Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women in recent decades as a significant achievement.”
It called for the “ever-broadening and ever-deepening wellspring” of Torah study and faithful observance among young women as they “rise to positions of influence and stature.”
But the resolution did not elaborate on what those positions might be, and asserted that the RCA “cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.”
Left unanswered were questions, for example, about the status of individual women like Sara Hurwitz, a member of the rabbinic staff of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, whose elevation in title from “maharat” to “rabba” earlier this year led to a brouhaha within the Orthodox community over women’s roles in the synagogue.
Maharat is an acronym for Hebrew words connoting worthiness to serve as “a halachic, spiritual and Torah leader.” Although it was not accompanied by any change in her responsibilities, Rabba Hurwitz’s title change was made by HIR’s rabbi, Avi Weiss, because of public confusion about what maharat meant and lack of awareness that Hurwitz was a full member of the rabbinic staff.
Speaking to the press Tuesday afternoon, Rabbi Moshe Kletenick of Seattle, president of the RCA, said the resolution was drafted by a special committee that worked on it for more than two months, polling members around the country. He noted the statement draws the parameters of halacha in not permitting women rabbis, but gives individual rabbis the “latitude” to make decisions about the role of women.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood, N.J., first vice president of the RCA, said the decision-making process was healthy not only for the RCA and Orthodox rabbinate but for the halachic process, allowing for “unity without uniformity” in the rabbinic group, an arm of the Orthodox Union.
But the rabbis would not comment on how the resolution would apply to the case of Rabba Hurwitz, or any other specific individual or congregation.
“We are not commenting on titles,” said Rabbi Goldin, making clear that the RCA was able to achieve such widespread consensus by avoiding particulars.
Carol Newman, the president of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, said she was satisfied with the outcome.
“It’s exciting; I see a small revolution taking place,” she said, noting what she called “the changing landscape of the Orthodox community,” based on the growing number of women now serving as scholars, educators and in pastoral roles in some synagogues.
JOFA lobbied its members to urge congregational rabbis to pass a resolution that recognized the rights and achievement of women in Orthodoxy.
Newman said this was the first time in her six years as president of the group that she felt “we had a real impact” on decision-making rabbis.
She said she had feared a more negative RCA resolution.
“Sarah Schenirer [the founder of the Bais Yaakov schools in Europe almost a century ago] opened the door and the rabbis then were scared, and they were right to be scared,” Newman said, referring to what she sees as the inevitable progress of women in Orthodox life.
Though the women’s issue dominated the RCA conference, the group passed a number of other resolutions, including one “condemning and combating child abuse.” It affirmed the group’s halachic position that “the prohibitions of mesirah (reporting crimes to the civil authorities) and arka’ot (adjudication in civil courts) do not apply in cases of abuse.”
Another resolution on “supporting and defending converts” pledged to “protest the personal, familial, emotional and religious distress and anguish caused by the often insensitive character of the initiatives and statements which call legitimate conversions into question or which alienate and stigmatize proper converts to Judaism.”
Rabbis Kletenick and Goldin would not comment on which individuals or organizations the statement referred to, but the RCA has been involved in difficult discussions with the Chief Rabbinate in Israel and segments of the fervently Orthodox community over who can perform conversions and the severity of the requirements for becoming Jewish.
You can also follow the Jewish Week on Twitter: start here.