As the controversy over women’s roles within Modern Orthodoxy has roiled over the past few months, the leadership of the largest body of Orthodox rabbis in the U.S. has consistently pointed to its upcoming national conference as the time for sorting out, dealing with and resolving the thorny issue.
Now, on the eve of the Rabbinical Council of America’s convention — and with women edging closer to rabbinic duties in some high-profile synagogues — some members suggest expectations may be too high.
They caution that there is no magic wording for an expected resolution on women’s leadership roles that can balance tradition and innovation to the satisfaction of such a large and disparate membership.
But others are more hopeful.
“I believe there is a reservoir of goodwill among our members, and people will be pleasantly impressed with the outcome,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood, N.J., who is expected to be re-elected first vice president and thus in line to become president a year from now of the RCA, the rabbinic arm of the Modern/centrist Orthodox Union (OU). The three-day convention begins Sunday at the Young Israel of Scarsdale.
But he acknowledged that with more than 900 members, spanning the ideological arc of Orthodoxy, it is likely that those on both extremes may be unhappy with a consensus-oriented resolution intended to spell out the RCA’s position on appropriate roles for women in terms of leadership positions in the synagogue and community.
Rabbi Moshe Kletenick of Seattle, president of the RCA, emphasized the need for a “realistic” resolution that can be “good, fair and address the basic issues in a manner reflecting the majority.”
Some are calling for the RCA to allow qualified women to serve as rabbis and/or in positions of leadership in the community.
An online petition initiated by two Jewishly-active New York University students, Jordanna Birnbaum and Michelle Kornblit, calls on the RCA to “enable women in positions of communal religious leadership.” As of Tuesday afternoon more than 1,100 people had signed it.
The statement said “the RCA’s position on women’s leadership creates ceilings and limits for women’s religious and spiritual growth, and truly inhibits the enormous contributions that women can make to our communities.”
JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, distributed the petition and encouraged members to sign it, as well as to speak to congregational rabbis about supporting leadership roles for women, according to executive director Robin Bodner. A letter from JOFA to the RCA urged the rabbis to “create professionally meaningful and halachically appropriate opportunities for women within our Orthodox institutions” rather than get bogged down in “semantics” or “divisive statements.”
Others are urging that women’s roles in the synagogue be scaled back and that those rabbis and synagogues not in compliance should be removed from the RCA and OU, respectively.
“In spite of expected rhetoric on both extremes,” said Rabbi Goldin, “what we are seeing” in the way of discussion and debate, “is part of a healthy process. And if we can come forward with a consensus position, we’ll end up fine.”
He said the proposed resolution on women’s leadership issues “will clear the air,” and is not directed at any particular synagogue or rabbi. The resolution, he said, will be a statement on the “appropriate approach” to issues of women’s leadership.
The results of a survey to be presented at the convention show a clear consensus among RCA members against granting ordination to women, according to an official involved in the strategic planning process. On other issues, the official said, there is no “strong consensus.”
It Started With ‘Maharat’
The genesis of this attention on women’s roles goes back to last year, when Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) conferred the title of maharat (an acronym for Hebrew words connoting worthiness to serve as “a halachic, spiritual and Torah leader”) on Sara Hurwitz, a member HIR’s rabbinic leadership staff who he said had completed the full course requirements for ordination.
The matter came to a boil a few months ago when, in a unilateral move, Rabbi Weiss elevated Hurwitz’s title to rabba.
The Agudath Israel of America, a major haredi organization, said that such a move is beyond the bounds of Orthodoxy, and the leadership of the RCA, speaking more in the abstract than about Hurwitz per se, asserted that it would be unacceptable for a woman to function in the role of a rabbi.
But is functioning as a rabba or maharat in the category of rabbi? That question remains unanswered, for now, and may or may not be clarified when the RCA convenes on Sunday.
The RCA and Rabbi Weiss did reach an agreement, made public in early March, where he affirmed that neither he nor Yeshivat Maharat, the fledgling yeshiva that he founded and that Rabba Hurwitz heads, would ordain women as rabbis or confer the title of rabba on graduates.
No mention was made of changing Rabba Hurwitz’s title, though she later said she and her congregation are re-evaluating that issue so as to determine if her title is having a positive or negative impact on congregants.
For its part the RCA reaffirmed its “commitment to women’s Torah education and scholarship at the highest levels, and to the assumption of leadership roles within the Jewish community.”
There is a sense in the Modern Orthodox community that for the last few years gradual progress for women was being made, “under the radar,” as one woman educator put it, through the incremental acceptance of young, highly educated women in such areas as congregational scholars and yoetzet halacha (serving congregations or communities with an expertise on laws of family purity and mikveh).
They worry that the rabba dust-up will usher in a period of heightened caution.
Rabbi Goldin said a special RCA committee was created to come up with the resolution on women’s leadership roles, comprised of himself, Rabbi Kletenick and four other unnamed rabbis.
One officer of the RCA said the committee has received from rabbis around the country a number of proposed amendments, which are under review. At least two proposals are aimed clearly at taking action against Rabbi Weiss.
One effectively would expel a rabbi who “attempts to ordain” or grant clergy title to “a person not eligible to serve as such,” and another amendment calls for barring from an officer position anyone who is a member of another national rabbinic group “whose principles or tenets of faith are antithetical or contrary to the policies and positions of the RCA.”
Rabbi Weiss is a founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a liberal Orthodox group founded, in part, to serve as an umbrella for graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the New York-based rabbinical school he founded a decade ago.
Graduates of the school have been unable to secure automatic membership in the RCA, which has yet to take a public position on the fellowship.
While the RCA leadership suggests that the resolution on women’s roles will be vague enough to maintain unity across a broad range of opinion, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Teaneck, N.J., an RCA regional vice president who said he supports the amendments in principle, asserted that “there’s a need for clarity. What we don’t want to offer the public is a blurring of the lines, that the RCA is all things to all people.”
The topic of women’s leadership will be the focus of a presentation, via videoconferencing, with the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein, who is an acknowledged halachic leader of the Modern Orthodox movement. Other panelists will include Rabbi Michael Broyde of Atlanta, Rabbi Gidon Rothstein of New York and Rebbetzin Peshi Neuburger of Bergenfield, N.J.
The convention will also offer sessions dealing with non-rabbinic roles of women in leadership.
‘Move Forward, Take A Hit’
Rabbi Weiss of Hebrew Institute is an RCA member, but said he does not plan to attend the convention and has not been sought out to do so this year.
While he said “this has been an enormously painful time” for him and his family “and especially for Rabba Sara,” he stressed that he believes the RCA decision to make women’s leadership issues the main focus of its convention is “a tremendous positive.”
He acknowledged that his unilateral decision to give Hurwitz the title of rabba was a tactical mistake — “I’m not a good process person,” he said — and is causing concern among some synagogue members worried that Hebrew Institute will be seen as outside the Orthodox movement.
Rabbi Weiss said he hopes that the RCA members will “distinguish between title and functionality,” explaining that on the functional level he would like to see women “fully involved as pastoral, spiritual leaders within synagogues and beyond, and teaching Torah on the same qualitative level as men.”
He noted that while the liberal denominations make no distinction between male and female rabbis, “in Orthodoxy, the roles of men and women in spiritual leadership overlap in 90 percent of areas, but there are significant distinctions” based on halachic boundaries that he fully adheres to, he said.
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Rabbi Weiss said he is proud of his position. “That’s the way it is with ‘firsts.’ You move forward, take a hit, precipitate discussion and keep at it.”
JTA contributed to this report.