Orthodox debate women rabbis

Orthodox debate women rabbis

Local leader explains controversial RCA resolution

The Rabbinical Council of America held its most recent annual meeting in Tarrytown, N.Y., in July. (RCA)
The Rabbinical Council of America held its most recent annual meeting in Tarrytown, N.Y., in July. (RCA)

Rabbi Shalom Baum didn’t want to have this conversation this week.

Rabbi Baum, who heads Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, is president of the Rabbinic Council of America, the organization of Orthodox rabbis that last week passed a resolution reiterating the group’s opposition to accepting women in the Orthodox rabbinate.

Rabbi Baum doesn’t disagree with the resolution, per se. But he didn’t see why the RCA and its more than 1,000 members should make an issue of it right now. “It’s the time to be more positive as opposed to reinforcing old positions,” he said.

However, Rabbi Gil Student, originally of Teaneck, had other plans.

It was Rabbi Student, who runs the Torah Musings blog and by day works for AIG, who brought the resolution up for a vote. Generally speaking, the organization’s resolutions come to the membership after being approved by a resolution committee appointed by the organization’s president. Three such resolutions passed last week by large margins, respectively opposing racism in America, boycotts against Israel, and the withholding of a get, or Jewish divorce.

The resolution against women rabbis, however, came to a membership vote through a little-used clause in the organization’s bylaws that enables a member to offer a resolution if it has 50 supporters. Rabbi Student felt compelled to bring this one to a vote because earlier resolutions had not stopped Orthodox support for ordaining women.

The vote was closely contested. According to one source familiar with the final result, only 20 percent of the RCA members cast ballots and the resolution passed by fewer than 10 votes. RCA officials, citing the confidentiality of internal proceedings, declined to disclose or discuss the breakdown.

“If we still believe what we unanimously approved in 2010, we need to restate it,” Rabbi Student emailed to the RCA’s private mailing list. “There is a growing buzz to the contrary, in favor of women rabbis in various forms.”

He added: “To my knowledge, two RCA members currently have wives studying in Yeshivat Maharat,” the seminary founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss to train Orthodox women for religious leadership.

To date, more than a dozen Orthodox women have been ordained by Yeshiva Maharat in New York and other institutions in Israel. Some of these women have taken the title “rabbi”; others have taken “maharat,” an acronym for the Hebrew words meaning a leader in Jewish law, spirituality, and Torah.

Rabbi Student’s letter was countered by others, who opposed the resolution as needlessly repetitive and negative.

Perhaps the most eye-opening email against the resolution was signed by three people whose jobs make them among the heavy hitters in Orthodox communal politics: Rabbi Kenneth Brander, a top Yeshiva University vice president; Rabbi Menachem Penner, dean of YU’s rabbinic school; and Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, head of YU’s Center for the Jewish Future.

YU does not ordain women as rabbis. Institutionally, it is pitted against Rabbi Weiss’s more liberal Orthodox seminary, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which accepts only men, but whose leaders have mused about opening its doors to women.

According to two members of the RCA familiar with Rabbi Student’s petition and the internal email discussions, the bulk of the support from the resolution did not come from rabbis holding synagogue leadership positions, but rather from rabbis whose jobs do not put them in touch with the concerns of the wider community.

“Myself and most of the officers didn’t feel it would be a productive resolution,” Rabbi Baum said, pointing to the negative outcry with which it was greeted.

He said that while there may be a few rabbis within the RCA who support women’s ordination and some who are undecided, “the overwhelming sentiment of the organization is against rabbinic ordination.

“Personally, I don’t really see what was added by this resolution,” he said. “The supporters said it adds that women should not be hired into a rabbinic position. I think that was already implied.”

Rabbi Baum said he does not expect the resolution, which it is now his responsibility to enforce, will result in the expulsion of members. That, he said, would require the decision of the organization’s executive committee. Such expulsions, he said, “are typically used for alleged egregious immoral behavior.” And “very often the member ends up resigning” before they are expelled.

Rabbi Weiss already has resigned from the RCA, over its refusal to accept the men he has ordained as members. The International Rabbinic Fellowship he helped found has more than 200 members, male and female.

Rabbi Baum wants to focus on the positive, he said. Yeshiva University has given more than 100 women a graduate degree in talmudic and biblical studies. Many of those women have gone on to become yoetzot halacha — halachic advisors — who work in Orthodox synagogues. These jobs, the resolution maintained, do not count as banned rabbinic ordination.

If the resolution was motivated by a desire to draw fast and clear lines between what was prohibited and what was permitted, Rabbi Baum is by no means eager to throw anyone out of the Orthodox camp.

“Just as I respect people who felt the need to vote for the resolution, as more ordinations of women are taking place, I so too respect those who are hiring women rabbis, though I believe it is contrary to halacha,” Jewish law, he said. “The women are well-motivated and sincere, even if I disagree.

“The rabbis of the RCA are not against women, God forbid. We ultimately have a halachic decision. To make a decision that is inconsistent with how the norms have been we would really need the greatest rabbis of the generation to encourage those movements away from the status quo.

“At the same time, we are encouraging the women of our communities to learn as much Torah as possible, to accept and be accepted in appropriate positions. We have women scholars-in-residence, we have great respect for women educators in our community. I think it’s really a limited area where we’re that conservative,” he said.

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