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On Restating That Women Rabbis Are Taboo

On Restating That Women Rabbis Are Taboo

One can only wonder at the single-minded focus and dedication of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest body of Orthodox rabbis in North America, to passionately pursue, comment on and pass resolutions on the key issues facing Modern Orthodoxy, and perhaps American and world Jewry today.

I refer specifically to this past week’s RCA membership vote, resulting in four resolutions that no doubt were voted on to create clarity for their membership and to their member’s constituents. In their minds, these decisions will advance the state of Klal Yisrael both here and in Israel.

Let me begin with the fourth resolution, which merited a separate paragraph and its own cover letter from the president of the RCA. I refer to the resolution entitled  “RCA Policy Concerning Women Rabbis," which praises “the flowering of Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women in recent decades,” and “resolves to educate and inform our community that RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not:

1. Ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; or

2. Hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution; or

3. Allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a teacher of Limudei Kodesh (holy texts) in an Orthodox institution.

The letter that accompanied the four resolutions focused solely on this last one, and Rabbi Shalom Baum, president of the RCA, wrote:

“The vast majority of the officers and the Rashei Yeshiva [rabbinic deans] who I consulted felt that this resolution was unnecessary as the RCA passed a similar resolution unanimously in 2010 and a well-crafted statement of reinforcement in 2013. We felt that this was a time to be more proactive in educating our communities in a positive manner. Therefore, it should not be perceived that the significant number of votes against the resolution reflects support for the ordination of women as rabbis.

“I personally join with all of the officers,” Rabbi Baum continued, “our poskim [halachic decisors] and the overwhelming sentiment of our membership in opposition to the hiring of women rabbis, whatever the title that is used, and with deep concerns surrounding other innovations that challenge our community. However, I respect those who felt that the resolution was necessary to reinforce our position and the significant number of people who voted for the resolution once it was presented. This vote — even as it reflects some different viewpoints — is proof that we are a strong organization, unified in purpose, and willing to tackle difficult issues.”

Let me be clear, the RCA holds no relevancy for me, nor do I respect their opinions. Yet they speak for their constituency. And lest you read Rabbi Baum’s letter and think that many rabbis opposed the resolution, in principle, it is critical to understand that most who were against it felt there was no need to reopen the issue and pick at an old wound…. better left quiet and alone – as all knew where the line was drawn. (And it’s worth noting that at least some respected RCA members have gone on record publicly to question whether women should be “allowed” to study Talmud and other texts deemed to be the realm of male rabbis.)

The RCA also seems to believe that there is a historic norm here that must be preserved. I find all this at best amusingly irrelevant and at worst, sadly so.

What does trouble me, however, is the almost pathological obsession with Yeshivat Maharat, which offers women ordination, to the point that rabbis are told that they “may not” hire or ordain or engage with its graduates. It should be noted that in the other three RCA resolutions, the message is positive in urging members to “combat racist talk,” combat BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel), and endorse halachic pre-nuptial agreements and support the cause of agunot (women bound to unhappy marriages). Only when it comes to the prospect of women rabbis is the language negative.

Where is a resolution censuring rabbis who behave in a manner not fitting for a religious leader and demanding that congregations hold their rabbis to high moral standards when it comes to inappropriate sexual and social behavior of any kind — to the point of dismissing them out of hand? Where is the resolution making it an RCA red line to recite the Prayer for the State of Israel at Shabbat services? Where is an RCA resolution making it clear that inflammatory language directed towards anyone is not acceptable and punishable by expulsion?

Where is the balance?

Again. I believe the fight is not with the RCA leadership, which has every right to its positions and focus. If a woman being called “rabbi” is more of a threat to them and their communities than the safety of a child, then that is a choice they have made.

And to those who support a woman being called “rabbi,” do not get lost in the semantics and the rhetoric. Focus on the value to our communities and the power that such role models provide for all.

The goal for all should be a better world where the values of Torah as a way of life shine through and are not filtered by age-cracked lenses and petty, narrow thinking.

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