April 13, 2024
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RCA Reiterates Objection to Maharats: Calls for New Leadership Roles For Women

In a resolution passed last Friday, the membership of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) reiterated its opposition to “women rabbis” being employed as clergy in Orthodox synagogues and institutions. Rabbi Shalom Baum, RCA’s president since August, who also serves as mara d’asra of Teaneck’s Congregation Keter Torah, told the Jewish Link that while the resolution sought to maintain its earlier-stated view against those serving in maharat-type roles, it went two steps further than past RCA statements, by first advising against the hiring of such individuals by Orthodox institutions, and second, by broadly committing to exploring substantive and meaningful leadership opportunities for women within the Orthodox community.

Many in the Jewish media immediately took the opportunity to call out the RCA, arguing that the resolution was just “more of the same” in terms of an attack on the activities of Open Orthodoxy and Rabbi Avi Weiss’ Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat. Still others indicated that the RCA is simply intent on keeping women away from meaningful leadership roles in Orthodox Jewish life. Those from within the ranks, however, said just the opposite.

The sponsor of the resolution was Rabbi Gil Student—the editor-in-chief of TorahMusings.com, a popular 24/6 website that regularly publishes articles of interest to the rabbinic world and also a JLNJ contributor—and a relative newcomer to the RCA’s executive committee. This resolution was unique in that it was not put forward by the resolution drafting committee, as is the norm. Last year, the RCA changed its bylaws so that any member who could get a minimum of 50 signatures on a resolution could put it up for a vote of the full membership. Such was the case with this resolution, which was introduced last June, passing late last week. Votes against the resolution were said to largely not have been cast by those favoring women serving in clergy-like roles, but for other reasons.

One such RCA member who opposed the resolution without supporting maharat-style roles is Rabbi Binyamin Blau, of Cleveland, a recently elected member of the RCA board, though he shared comments with the Jewish Link representing himself only. He was opposed to the body bringing up the resolution at all, noting that versions of the same statement were offered in 2010 and 2013, and he feared its passage would open the RCA to criticism that they have come out “once again” against women rabbis. “It was a lose-lose proposition: To vote against it was to appear to support maharats, but voting in favor of the resolution would yield the simple message that the ‘RCA bans women rabbis,’ while the issue is far more complex. I was fearful that what has happened, would happen,” he said.

Rabbi Blau, who heads Cleveland’s Green Road Synagogue and is rosh yeshiva of Fuchs Mizrachi School, echoed comments made by Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA, who told the Jewish Link that the RCA’s research of meaningful executive leadership roles might include a process of approval of the role of toanot rabaniyot, women who serve as lawyers within Israel’s rabbinic court system, and yoatzot, female halachic advisors for taharat hamishpacha (family purity). Blau, a student of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik, and his brother Rav Aharon Soloveitchik, explained that these are roles of tremendous value to the community that have proven successful, and that work within prescribed guidelines, without altering the historic structure of the mesorah. “We need to positively define ourselves by who we are rather than constantly note what we are not,” Blau said.

Rabbi Dratch added that roles including but not limited to toanot rabaniyot and yoatzot represent “what we see is a continuing experiment; an experiment with new and creative roles to harness the gifts that women can bring to our community, while at the same time being true to the traditional nature and slow conservative evolution of our community,” he told the Jewish Link.

Rabbi Blau also noted that Nishmat (the Israeli seminary that certifies most yoatzot), is a “wonderful institution doing tremendous work. It brings people closer to religiosity,” he said. Rabbanit Chana Henkin, Nishmat’s founder and dean, has been particularly attuned to making sure the work of yoatzot were acceptable to the Modern Orthodox rabbinic community. “She was very concerned about the tension, and made sure that things moved incrementally in a way that it was acceptable to all,” said Blau. Rabbi Blau indicated that while he understands the Teaneck rabbinic community is not unified in their support of yoatzot and their work, he said he believes the large majority of RCA rabbis do support them.

In light of such positive views, “We certainly appreciate the strengths and possibilities that increasing roles for women in the larger society creates for the Orthodox community as well,” Dratch added.

Rabbi Baum, who indicated to the membership his opinion on the resolution only after its passage, told the Jewish Link that, in a subsequent meeting with the RCA executive committee, he had asked HaRav Gedalia Dov Schwartz, shlit”a, to reach out to leading poskim regarding the question of appropriate professional opportunities for women, and that HaRav Schwartz has begun the effort to prepare a special edition of HaDarom to address this, that will appear later this year.

Rabbi Student indicated that this is not a token attempt. “What I hope will happen is the community will refocus its efforts on women’s leadership and think more creatively about how women can contribute even more,” said Student, in an interview. “Because there are so many needs and so many ways that women can influence the community, we need to exercise our imaginations, and think beyond the roles that have historically been held by men,” he said.

Rabbi Student added that since we live in the “Internet era” where information comes from so many places, forcing men and women to share religious roles in the synagogue is a recipe for disaster. “It’s a classic mistake of the non-Orthodox movement to focus on the synagogue when Judaism is a 24/7 religion that takes place everywhere, that takes place in the home, in the workplace, on the streets,” said Student.

“Why are we focusing our efforts on shuls, when if someone really wants to influence a community, there are so many other non-shul ways to go about it?” he asked.

“As the role of women in society advances, we must consider and encourage appropriate professional opportunities open to learned women in our community, while we simultaneously find positive ways to express the beauty of Torah and the importance of its values that have been extant for millennia,” said Baum. “Just as we did with the issue of partnership minyanim, we must explain our positions and then, together with our poskim, draw lines when necessary. At the same time, we must ensure that women’s voices are heard and respected,” Baum added.

“We should not be wasting half the talent in the community by shutting women out of religious life,” said Student. “Let’s try not to change our shuls, because historically that has led to bad results. Let’s instead try to change the community and find new roles for women as opposed to sharing prior religious roles. Let’s build new roles, new positions—a way of influencing without, in any way, stepping on sensitively traditional areas,” suggested Student.

The resolution itself, which heralded the “flowering of Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women,” as an impetus for moving the conversation away from labels in the rabbinate and into the realm of collective influence, indicated that the RCA encourages “a diversity of halachically and communally appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women, in the service of our collective mission to preserve and transmit our heritage.”

The resolution specifically noted that it was not addressing the topics of existing non-rabbinic positions such as yoatzot halacha, or other types of community educators. According to numerous RCA members, the organization, as yet, does not hold any public position on yoatzot halacha.

By Elizabeth Kratz

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