The leadership of the Rabbinical Council of America expressed great pride in passing a resolution this week among hundreds of member rabbis, without opposition, on the delicate and contentious issue of women’s leadership roles in the Orthodox synagogue and community. One could attribute the achievement to the two months spent by the committee in laying the groundwork for consensus; a cynic might argue the resolution was approved overwhelmingly because it was so pareve. There’s truth in both points of view.
The resolution, hailed by RCA President Rabbi Moshe Kletenick and First Vice President Shmuel Goldin as “historic,” spoke encouragingly of the strides made by young women in the Orthodox community in the areas of Torah scholarship. It also affirmed the prohibition of women as rabbis, and left open the debate over titles like “rabba” and “maharat” that precipitated the full-blown debate and controversy leading up to the annual meeting held in Scarsdale this week.
No specific rabbis or congregations were called out for disapproval, or approbation for that matter, and none of the various titles being given women who serve in synagogues today were addressed.
No doubt RCA leaders acted pragmatically and thoughtfully in handling the issue of women’s communal roles as they did, making clear their red line in opposing women in the rabbinate while giving congregational rabbis the latitude to decide about appropriate roles and titles in their own synagogues and communities. As predicted, the outcome will prove frustrating for advocates on both extremes of the issue, those opposing any role for women in the synagogue and those advocating women as full-fledged rabbis.
But in practical terms it means that women will be able to continue to take on increasingly significant roles of leadership, in terms of educational and pastoral duties, within affinity congregations that recognize the contribution women can make and are making within halacha, or Jewish law.
As for the future, Rabbi Goldin noted that “time will tell how this plays out.” He is right, and time is on the side of finding more ways to ensure the full participation in Jewish life of half the Orthodox community.
One sour note: the entire RCA convention was closed to the press. While it’s understandable that the rabbis would opt for privacy in debating the resolution on women’s roles, it’s disappointing that the full three-day program, which included a variety of panels and presentations, was off limits — a step backward for an organization seeking greater credibility with its constituency.
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