Women cannot be Orthodox rabbis. That much is clear in the resolution passed unanimously at the annual conference of the Rabbinical Council of America, held at the Young Israel of Scarsdale April 25-27. But that is all that’s clear in the resolution, which can be read in its entirety here.
On the one hand, the resolution applauds as a “significant achievement”:
The flowering of Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women in recent decades.
On the other, it says that “due to our commitment to sacred continuity”:
[W]e cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.
The resolution intentionally leaves vague and up to the discretion of local Orthodox rabbis what religious leadership roles women may play and what they may be called — as long as it doesn’t sound anything like “rabbi.” But it fails to answer the question of exactly what capable, talented, well-educated Orthodox women may do.
In a conference call with journalists on Tuesday, RCA President Rabbi Moshe Kletenik said, “we’re not going to go into specifics. Rabbis may create roles that are halachically appropriate. Everything has to be assessed on a case-by-case basis and how it is perceived in the community and beyond.”
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the organization’s first vice president, said, “There is gray area, there because the resolution was crafted to create a clear balance between what we regard as our red line and our desire to allow rabbis to encourage women in the roles they feel [are] appropriate.”
“Time will tell as we go along how this will actually play out,” Rabbi Goldin said.
I suspect that it will play out this way: The resolution’s purposeful “gray area,” coupled with the RCA’s recent denunciation of Rabbi Avi Weiss’s late-January announcement that he would ordain women and call them “rabba,” will prove to have a chilling effect. No other mainstream Orthodox rabbi will now be able to publicly say that his interpretation of Jewish law allows for women’s ordination.
The RCA’s resolution says that it prohibits women’s ordination because of its “commitment to sacred continuity.” It’s an interesting choice of phrase.
No RCA member today would say that women should not be given a Jewish education. But until 1918, when Rebbetzin Sarah Schenirer established the first Orthodox Jewish school for girls, “sacred continuity” meant keeping much of the female population illiterate.
Rebbetzin Schenirer established Bais Yaakov and, later, a teacher’s seminary to train educators for her schools, because she knew it was necessary to educate girls in order to keep them part of Jewish life. The world was changing and the education of Jewish girls had to change to keep up with it.
Now too the world is changing for Orthodox women, spurred by changes for women in American culture overall, and nurtured by rigorous programs of advanced Torah study at places like Drisha and Yeshiva University, which has for years offered a two-year program of full-time Talmud study for women.
The world is changing. Orthodox women with the appropriate gifts and educations today work as doctors and lawyers, working through grueling years as medical and law school students even as they marry and start families and maintain traditional Jewish homes.
The only place their ability is not welcomed continues to be the mainstream Orthodox community. With their new resolution, the rabbis of the RCA are showing that a traditional rebbetzin in Poland a century ago had more courage to embrace a changed reality for women than they do.