When the Rabbinic Council of America issued its statement on women rabbis last Friday afternoon, soon before Shabbat started, a range of Orthodox groups, representing that world’s full spectrum, responded to it before the workweek began.
Judy Heicklen of Teaneck is the immediate past president of JOFA — the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
“The RCA’s message is confusing,” Ms. Heicklen said. “They don’t want women rabbis, but at the same time they support women’s advanced learning programs, and their continued work in the community. But they don’t want anyone to give them jobs as rabbis.
“It seems funny, that focus on the name. It’s not saying that women can’t be scholars, that women can’t be learned. It’s saying they can do that, but don’t ordain them!
“We are puzzled by the red line being the title rather than the activity.
“The boundary that they’re trying to draw is very gray,” she added. “And it’s confusing. A lot of RCA congregations have had interns or scholars in residence or who have had pastoral duties, comforting mourners, counseling brides. Which of these activities crosses the line?
“They seem to be trying to continue to support the programs that they think are okay but while they give women education, they don’t give them power.”
About 15 years ago, in his book “Jew vs. Jew,” Samuel Freedman predicted a split in the Orthodox world, Ms. Heicklen said, and that split might be on its way. “He predicted it around women’s issues, and what’s been added into the mix since then is the visibility of gender issues,” she said. “Particular with younger people, who are more comfortable with sexual and gender fluidity, people who grew up Orthodox and are very comfortable in the tradition. Those are the two issues that make them say ‘I can’t buy into it.’
“So yes, this might be leading to a split.”
As to the RCA’s statement, she wondered about what the organization’s endgame might be. “Do they think that they will force a split, and then the people who split off will fade into nothingness? Or do they think that this will scare people into coming back? I don’t know.”
She is puzzled about the timing as well, but she thinks that “the only thing that has changed now is the number of women ordained. Six from Yeshivat Maharat, and two institutions in Israel — Midreshet Lindenbaum and Midrash Har’el — also ordained women as well,” she said. Moreover, the women ordained by Yeshivat Maharat were free to choose their own titles, and “a number of them chose rabba or rabbi or rav.
“That means that in one year we tripled the number of ordained Orthodox women,” Ms. Heicklen said. “That might have pushed the RCA into saying something.”
The International Rabbinic Fellowship, which represents the branch of modern Orthodoxy often called open Orthodoxy, also put out a statement, in which it celebrated Orthodox women’s achievements as spiritual leaders and scholars but did not address the question of whether they could be ordained as rabbis. Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Teaneck, who heads Congregation Netivot Shalom, is an active IRF member.
“The statement is to reaffirm a number of statements we’ve made in the past, celebrating women’s leadership and learning, and encouraging people to expand those opportunities as well as to celebrate the growing participation of women in the Orthodox community in religious life, and their growing participation in spiritual leadership,” he said. (The online statement includes links to a number of earlier ones.)
“It affirms things we’ve written before,” he added. “It doesn’t go into detail. It doesn’t talk about titles. That’s not its purpose. And given that there are those who are criticizing the growing participation of women as spiritual leaders in synagogues and schools, we thought it was important to reaffirm our support for it.
“We think it’s a blessing for the Jewish people.”
When pressed on the question of calling women rabbis, Rabbi Helfgot pointed to text on the group’s home page, “internationalrabbinicfellowship.org. “The IRF is a group of Orthodox Rabbis, Clergy and Spiritual leaders…” it reads. Its members include both men and women, Rabbi Helfgot noted.
The RCA’s statement “was regrettable,” he added. “I think that many people, both inside and outside the RCA, think that, but the statement is the RCA’s own internal matter.
“We are not attacking anybody. We are not criticizing anybody,” he said. “We are affirming.”
Does he think that this is an issue that will cause a schism in the Orthodox world? “I don’t think so, and I hope not,” he said.
Meanwhile, Agudath Israel of America issued a document that disassociates itself from the IRF very clearly.
“Open Orthodoxy,” and its leaders and affiliated entities (including, but not limited to, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Yeshivat Maharat, and International Rabbinic Fellowship), have shown countless times that they reject the basic tenets of our faith, particularly the authority of the Torah and its Sages. Accordingly, they are no different than other dissident movements throughout our history that have rejected these basic tenets,” reads the statement.
“We therefore inform the public that in our considered opinion, ‘Open Orthodoxy’ is not a form of Torah Judaism (Orthodoxy), and that any rabbinic ordination (which they call ‘semicha’) granted by any of its affiliated entities to their graduates does not confer upon them any rabbinic authority,” it concludes.
“The Agudah are in a different place,” Ms. Heicklen said. “If they say ‘Look, this is crazy for our community,’ then they are right.”