Sex & Gender

Forget the RCA — Be a Better Ally to Orthodox Women Rabbis

[pullquote align=right] After graduating from Yeshiva University, I almost became an Orthodox rabbi
[/pullquote]Much has been said in my circles in recent days about the statement of The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) last Friday to formally adopt a policy prohibiting the ordination or the hiring of Orthodox women rabbis. Orthodox and non-Orthodox friends and colleagues alike have condemned the RCA’s statement and voiced support for the right of Orthodox women to step into leadership roles as rabbis (or the equivalent). This episode has brought significant attention to a critical conversation about the role of women in religious leadership in our communities. For non-Orthodox Jews committed to pluralism, this conversation invites us to consider how we engage in respectful dialogue about Orthodox Judaism as outsiders, and to reflect how we can best be allies for Orthodox female communal and spiritual leaders and all Orthodox women.
[pullquote align=left] We, as non-Orthodox Jews, should not be telling the RCA what positions they should take.
[/pullquote]I am a feminist Conservative rabbi who was raised Orthodox. After graduating from Yeshiva University, I almost became an Orthodox rabbi, studying at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT) for two years. In my last year on campus at YU I rediscovered the feminist values that my parents had instilled in me. I started attending Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) conferences, and studied multi-denominational Jewish education in the co-ed HaSha’ar Fellowship run by the Drisha Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies before enrolling in YCT- the recently-founded self-described Open Orthodox Rabbinical School. In those years I was actively involved, with my female and male peers, in advocating for greater leadership roles for women in the Orthodox community- both in public ritual life and in leadership positions in Jewish organizations, including synagogues and schools. I did so as a stakeholder and future leader in the Orthodox community. When I left Orthodoxy, my role in the conversation changed, and I left the struggle to those who remained stakeholders.
[pullquote align=right] Now that I am not Orthodox, I no longer have skin in the game.
[/pullquote]I was reminded of that when I read Jane Eisner’s editorial in the Forward yesterday calling on non-Orthodox Jews to protest the RCA’s ban. I disagree (well, half-disagree) with Eisner; I don’t think we, as non-Orthodox Jews, should be telling the RCA what positions they should or shouldn’t take in setting the values and principles of centrist Orthodoxy.
To be clear, this recent RCA statement crossed the line from previous statements arguing against the ordination of women. Unlike past similar statements, this one seeks to block the employment of female communal spiritual leaders in Orthodox institutions. Their attempt to force upon Jewish organizations policies that will threaten the livelihood of Jewish women is indefensible. Of course we should speak out and condemn that part of the statement.
[pullquote align=left] However, all of us should support Orthodox women who are engaged in this struggle
[/pullquote]As for their position on female Orthodox rabbis, it’s not our place to tell them what it should be. The pseudo-halakhic argumentation attempting to curtail the advance of women in the public sphere of Judaism- in ritual space and otherwise- is nothing new. The position laid out in the RCA statement is familiar from similar statements made in recent years. That has been the approach of the RCA since, at least, the battles around the movement for Orthodox women’s tefillah (prayer) groups that first gained broad public attention in the early 1980’s.
[pullquote align=right] As allies, we need to listen to orthodox women’s voices and follow their lead
[/pullquote]I believe the RCA’s views are wrong-headed, but that is their right. The RCA has the right to be shortsighted, misguided, interested more in polemics and politics than people, rigidly androcentric and roundly anti-feminist (I’m not convinced that they are misogynist, as many claim). That tendency within centrist and modern Orthodoxy was a major reason why I left that world. When I was one of the Orthodox Jews for whom the RCA professed to speak, I protested. Now that I am not Orthodox, I no longer have skin in the game. As non-Orthodox Jews, it is not our right to tell the RCA that they should be open to ordaining women. However, all of us who care about the rights of women and understand the critical importance and unique value of communal and spiritual leadership of women in the Jewish world should support Orthodox women who are engaged in this struggle. As allies, we need to listen to their voices, follow their lead and support the organizations that represent them.
[pullquote align=left] These women don’t want to be Reform or Conservative — they want to be orthodox and rabbis.
[/pullquote]Over the past week, I have watched the reaction over social media of liberal Jewish friends and colleagues to the movement for female Orthodox rabbis and the RCA’s response. With good intention, I have seen several thoughtful and caring individuals comment on this issue in ways that inadvertently project their own values on to both the RCA and Orthodox women. For example, I saw several non-Orthodox communal leaders saying that if the Orthodox don’t want female Orthodox rabbis they’d gladly welcome them. But, if Orthodox women wanted to become Conservative or Reform rabbis, they would be doing so. They don’t; they want to be Orthodox, and rabbis.
[pullquote align=right] What support would orthodox women seeking leadership roles value from us outsiders?
[/pullquote]Another thought leader suggested how nice it would be for Orthodox shuls this Shabbat to be filled with men and women sitting together for a Kabbalat Shabbat service led by a woman. While I am familiar with the partnership minyanim (prayer gatherings/ communities) in which women do lead Kabbalat Shabbat, I don’t know of any Orthodox Jews, women or men, who are pushing for mixed seating in their synagogues. Mixed seating is one way that our non-Orthodox congregations express their egalitarian values. To wish that on the Orthodox congregations is to overlook the ways that Orthodox women and men struggling for greater gender equality want to express that value. Commitment to Jewish pluralism requires coexistence with, respect for, Jews whose values and religious expression differ significantly from our own, whether they are to our left or to our right.
[pullquote align=left] We can also support the progressive Orthodox organizations
[/pullquote]If we non-Orthodox Jews want to show our support for Orthodox feminists and the movement for greater leadership roles of Orthodox women in the Orthodox world, including through rabbinic ordination, let’s start with listening to the Orthodox women. What support would they value from us? Seek out the writings of women such as Dr. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, Executive Director of JOFA; Rabba Sara Hurwitz, dean of Yeshivat Maharat and the first Orthodox woman ordained in America. Speak with students of Yeshivat Maharat, or graduates who are currently working in congregational leadership roles. How are they creating change? What norms of Orthodoxy are important for them to preserve? What does the title of ‘rabbi’ mean to them and what titles would they want for themselves? Let them guide us in being their allies.
We can also support the progressive Orthodox organizations that are building the strong and growing movement for Orthodox women’s spiritual leadership, including in the rabbinate — organizations such as JOFA, Yeshivat Maharat, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the International Rabbinic Fellowship.
Within the Orthodox world and beyond this conversation has often been contentious. I pray that we not lose sight of our goals of honoring the dignity of each member of the greater Jewish community and cultivating the best possible leaders for our community.

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