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RCA Bans Female Rabbis, Again; Agudath Goes Further

RCA Bans Female Rabbis, Again; Agudath Goes Further

Moves come in wake of developments in Israel.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at

The Rabbinical Council of America, the largest group of Orthodox rabbis, reaffirmed its position against the ordination of women in a resolution issued last Friday that reiterated nearly identical statements made in 2010 and 2013.

“New institutions in Israel have been ordaining women, and as part of the larger community we felt the need to speak out,” RCA executive vice president Mark Dratch told The Jewish Week.

He pointed to the recent actions of Rabbi Herzl Hefter, founder and Rosh Beit Midrash Har’el in Jerusalem, and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, founding chief rabbi of Efrat, two prominent Orthodox rabbis who recently ordained women.

The reiteration of the RCA’s position has exposed the widening rift within the Orthodox community on the issue of women rabbis.

Following the RCA’s statement, Agudath Israel of America’s high rabbinical court released a kol koreh, or proclamation, Monday pronouncing “Open Orthodoxy” no longer a part of Orthodoxy and dismissing rabbinic ordination within that unofficial branch as meaningless. The rabbinic court specified the leadership and affiliates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah for men, Yeshivat Maharat for women, and the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a fellowship of more than 200 Modern Orthodox clergy that functions as an alternative to the RCA. (Yesterday, the IRF released a statement reaffirming support for women’s growing participation in spiritual leadership and communal institutions.)

“They are no different than any other dissident movements throughout our history, that have rejected basic tenets,” the proclamation reads. It is signed by several leading charedi rabbis, including Rabbi Aryeh Kotler, the rosh yeshiva of Beth Medrash Gavoha in Lakewood, N.J., one of the largest yeshivas in the world, and Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, son of the late and widely regarded Torah scholar Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Though the proclamation was written originally in Hebrew, it was published alongside an English translation.

Asked why his organization issued the resolution at this time, Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel, said “there was no immediate stimulus, only the cumulative misrepresentation of the new movement [as Orthodox].”

Rabbi Avi Weiss, the key figure in “Open Orthodoxy” as founder of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat, both in Riverdale, and co-founder of the IRJ, wrote this week that “the time has come” to allow women’s ordination in the Modern Orthodox movement. In an Opinion piece (see page 24) he asserted that “the debate concerning women’s ordination is not halachic but rather sociological.”

In sociological terms, Israel has been at the forefront of liberalizing Orthodoxy. A Jerusalem group, Shira Chadashah (A New Song), founded the partnership minyan, later duplicated here, where women are permitted to lead certain parts of the prayer service. And women spiritual leaders have been appointed with less attention.

Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Maharat, has referred to the mutual influence between Israel and America as “cross pollination.”

“The reality of women’s leadership in America mirrors what happens in Israel,” he told The Jewish Week after Rabbi Riskin, former spiritual leader of Lincoln Square Synagogue, named Jennie Rosenfeld the first female spiritual leader in Efrat. “Progress there means progress here.”

The RCA statement praised the increase in women’s Torah study in recent years and cited what the group considers “appropriate” professional opportunities for learned women. These include taking on the roles of yoatzot halacha (advisers on Jewish law) and community scholars, and teaching at Yeshiva University’s Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmudic Study and as non-rabbinic school teachers. “So long as no rabbinic or ordained title such as ‘maharat’ is used in these positions, and so long as there is no implication of ordination or a rabbinic status, this resolution is inapplicable,” the resolution concludes.

Maharat is an acronym meaning female spiritual, legal and Torah leader.

But the resolution stated that members may not ordain women under a title other than rabbi, put a woman in a rabbinic position or give a female teacher of Jewish studies a title implying rabbinic ordination.

In response to the resolution, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) circulated an online petition entitled “We Support Women in Orthodox Leadership Roles.” They received more than 1,000 signatures in the first 24 hours. Using the hashtag “Humans of JOFA,” the organization also began a campaign featuring prominent Orthodox voices in support of leadership roles for women.

“We believe individual communities and all of Klal Yisrael can only benefit from the inclusion of the voices and ideas of highly trained and committed women in positions of communal authority,” the petition reads.

The IRF, in a nuanced statement, called on communities and their rabbinic leaders to discuss the issue “in an open and reflective manner.” It asserted that “observant and committed Orthodox women who are learned, trained and competent should have every opportunity to fully serve the Jewish community” as teachers, pastoral counselors, spiritual preachers and guides as well as presidents of synagogues.

The resolutions released by the RCA in 2010 and 2013 were responding to the founding of Yeshivat Maharat, and the first ordination of its graduates, respectively.

Though the resolution was one of four annual resolutions voted on by RCA members over the past month — the other three regarded BDS, racism and the agunah crisis — it was the only one to be featured as “New and Noteworthy” on the RCA’s homepage and mass e-mailed to RCA affiliates. (The other three are posted on the RCA's website.) It was also the only resolution of the four to be proposed directly by the RCA membership, as opposed to by the resolutions committee, Rabbi Dratch noted.

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