For the third time in the last five years, the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest U.S. group of Orthodox rabbis, has come out with a ban on women’s ordination.
We think they doth protest too much.
In 2010 the RCA was responding to the founding of Yeshivat Maharat in Riverdale, the first Orthodox women’s yeshiva granting a rabbinic degree. In 2013 the RCA spoke out on the first ordination of the school’s graduates. This latest salvo comes as several well-known rabbis in Israel have granted semicha to women.
The RCA, no doubt feeling the need to reiterate its opposition to such moves, did so in a resolution the other day that also praised “the flowering of Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women in recent decades.”
Underscoring the fact that the widening of women’s roles in Orthodoxy has become a hot-button issue, leading rabbis on the right issued a statement declaring “Open Orthodoxy” beyond the pale and dismissing its rabbinic ordinations as meaningless. The directive from the sages of Agudath Israel was aimed at Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the women’s yeshiva, Yeshivat Maharat, and his followers. In response, Rabbi Weiss, in an Opinion piece (see page 24), wrote that “the time has come” for women’s ordination in the Orthodox community. He noted that the debate on the subject “is not halachic but rather sociological.”
Certainly social attitudes change over time. Bat mitzvah ceremonies, for example, once non-existent in Orthodoxy, are now standard fare. Similarly, it’s worth noting that although Rabbi Mordechai Willig is a highly respected rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, his recent statement questioning women’s Torah learning did not seem to gain significant traction. On the contrary, there was a backlash of support for the depth and breadth of Torah study for women, and for new ways for them to impart their knowledge. The RCA’s citing “the flowering of Torah study” is a case in point.
Time will tell if the increasing role of women in Orthodox ritual life will include the title “rabbi.” We have already seen the positive impact of having more female Torah teachers and spiritual mentors. In the meantime, we encourage the rabbis of the RCA to focus less on keeping women off the pulpit and more on protecting them from abuse and freeing agunot from languishing, sometimes for decades, in failed marriages.
Mostly, the RCA’s mission should be about inclusion, not exclusion, for all.