Sisterhood Blog

Jewish Feminists Take on the RCA

By Elana Sztokman

  • Print
  • Share Share

In a bold and passionate move, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) has sent two letters to the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), a leading Orthodox rabbinic organization, in an attempt to advance women’s leadership roles in synagogues and communities.

One of the letters reads:

As the major rabbinic arm in the Orthodox world, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) is in a position to demonstrate its support of these women, thereby strengthening the Jewish community. Please encourage the RCA’s members to create professionally meaningful and halakhically appropriate opportunities for women within our Orthodox institutions.

Rather than engage in semantic discussions about whether or not it’s halakhic for a woman to become a rabbi, or make divisive statements about a woman’s role in Judaism, we urge the RCA to focus instead on finding new ways for this motivated group of learned women to thrive. They are ready to make an impact in the Orthodox world—in our synagogues, at our schools, and within our homes. We ask that you encourage them in their journey and help find places for them, so that they may be able to transmit their knowledge and experience to others in our community, thereby enriching the Jewish community.

Meanwhile, a recent JOFA email also linked to an online petition from an independent group of Orthodox college students. The petition, spearheaded by Jordanna Birnbaum, Michelle Kornblit and Hannah Wenger reads:

Thus far in its 75 years of existence, the male structure of the RCA and synagogues around America has dictated our communal development. The undersigned … strongly desire to see efforts and support from the RCA to enable women in positions of religious communal leadership. Doing so not only empowers Orthodox women to contribute to their communities in integral ways, but also offers them a goal in their pursuit of higher levels of Torah study.

The petition, which has been timed to impact the upcoming RCA conference, comes on the heels of RCA pronouncements about women’s leadership, particularly the ordination by Rabbi Avi Weiss of Sara Hurwitz as “Rabba.”

When Weiss decided, in February, to retract the “Rabba” title and revert to the less impacting and more feminized “Maharat,” the RCA replied with discernible relief. “We are gratified that … Rabbi Weiss concluded that neither he nor Yeshivat Maharat would ordain women as rabbis and that Yeshivat Maharat will not confer the title of ‘Rabba’ on graduates of their program,” they wrote in a formal statement. Individual members of the RCA have been even less gracious. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, a Vice President of the RCA, for example, called the notion of female participation in clergy “a throwback to pagan ideologies.”

Until now, JOFA has been publicly silent on this discussion, although Hurwitz was introduced as “Rabba” at the JOFA conference in March, in clear defiance of the RCA. In fact, the audience stood on its feet at this introduction. Nevertheless, since then, JOFA has apparently decided that such indirect resistance is not enough, and that getting the RCA to change its position on women is an important agenda item.

The significance of this issue goes beyond women clergy. The RCA also does not actively support women in executive board positions in synagogues or as community scholars, does not include any women members and does not invite women to their conferences. And yet, even in the absence of women from all its conversations, it continues to make policy decisions for the community.

JOFA, founded in 1997 by the brilliant and courageous Blu Greenberg in order to improve the lives of religious women, has always danced a delicate two-step with the Orthodox establishment. The organization is most definitively Orthodox in its outlook and practices, in its unequivocal adherence to halachic language and practice, as well as in the communal affiliations of its leaders and members. Yet, the organization struggles to be recognized as such.

JOFA is not alone in this struggle. In fact, Orthodox rabbis who express support for women’s causes are most often ostracized and delegitimized. When the late Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, for example, a pillar of Modern Orthodoxy, opened up a Beit Din to resolve the agunah issue, he received hate mail and verbal abuse, as well as ostracizing. Similarly, the late professor Zeev Falk, who already in the 1960s wrote a book outlining halachic solutions to the agunah issues, was readily dismissed as not Orthodox. I will never forget his impassioned pleas for attention to the agunah issue at a conference in the late 1990s shortly before his death. His frustration with Orthodoxy’s intransigence was palpable – and heartbreaking.

More recently, Rabbi Avi Weiss has been condemned as not Orthodox for his support of women, and the right-wing Agudath Israel announced that, “any congregation with a woman in such a position [of rabbi] cannot call itself Orthodox.”

All this, despite the fact that this entire discussion has nothing to do with halacha. Even opponents of women rabbis admit that their opinions are not rooted in halacha but in perceived social norms.

Herein lies the paradox in making change within Orthodoxy, and hence JOFA’s quandary. Women, by virtue of not being rabbis, are never considered true authorities on anything, and our decisions are always subject to the approval of male rabbis. Yet, as soon as a male rabbi declares support for women, he is labeled not Orthodox by his colleagues. As if the definition of an Orthodox rabbi is this: does not support women’s advancement.

In order to give Orthodox women an equal role, Orthodox rabbis need to support it, but Orthodox rabbis cannot support it and be called Orthodox. In order for women to have a voice, they need to be called rabbis, but even suggesting such a thing gets a person evicted from the club. This is a catch-22 if there ever was one.

JOFA’s decision to pressure the RCA is thus a critical step.Whether or not this influences the RCA is yet to be seen. But I’m thrilled that the JOFA women are taking a strong stand and calling for change in the corridors of the male establishment. It’s time.

Correction Appended:
An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to the online petition as a JOFA initiative.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Sara Hurwitz, Rabbinical Council of America, Rabba, RCA, Maharat, Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Avi Weiss, Feminism, JOFA

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "Selma. Nearly 50 years ago it was violent Selma, impossibly racist Selma, site of Bloody Sunday, when peaceful civil rights marchers made their first attempt to cross the Pettus Street Bridge on the way to the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama." With the 50th anniversary approaching next spring, a new coalition is bringing together blacks, Jews and others for progressive change.
  • Kosovo's centuries-old Jewish community is down to a few dozen. In a nation where the population is 90% Muslim, they are proud their past — and wonder why Israel won't recognize their state.
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.