RCA Conference To Address 'Rabba' and Women’s Leadership

By Ben Harris (JTA)

Published April 20, 2010.
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With a high-profile discussion scheduled on women’s leadership and two proposed rules aimed at marginalizing rabbis who deviate leftward on hot-button issues, an upcoming Orthodox rabbinical conference is expected to draw its largest crowd in years.

The Rabbinical Council of America’s three-day conference set to begin Sunday in Scarsdale, N.Y., comes just months after the near ordination of a female rabbi by one of the RCA’s highest-profile members drew a sharp rebuke from the haredi Orthodox leadership of Agudath Israel of America.

“I think it will be one of the more exciting RCA conventions,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the council’s first vice president, seeking to put a positive spin on what also could prove to be a highly divisive gathering of mostly Modern Orthodox rabbis.

Two amendments to the RCA convention that have been put forward are clear reactions to the controversy sparked by Rabbi Avi Weiss’ decision in January to confer the title “rabba” – a feminized version of rabbi – on Sara Hurwitz, a member of the clerical staff of his New York synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

Following the Agudah condemnation and discussions with RCA officials, Weiss retracted the title, saying Orthodox unity was of more pressing importance.

One amendment effectively would expel from the council any member who “attempts to ordain as a member of the rabbinate, or to denominate as ‘rabbinical’ or as ‘clergy,’ a person not eligible to serve as such as those terms are understood under the policies and positions of the RCA.”

A second amendment would bar from officer positions anyone who is a member of another national rabbinic group “whose principles or tenets of faith are antithetical or contrary to the policies and positions of the RCA.”

Weiss is one of the founders of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a liberal Orthodox group founded, in part, to serve as an umbrella for graduates of Weiss’ rabbinical school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Graduates of the school have been unable to secure automatic membership in the RCA, which has never taken a public position on the fellowship.

RCA insiders say adoption of the measures, neither of which would be retroactive, is unlikely. But their existence still points to a tug within the organization between those seeking to maintain the council as a broadly inclusive group and those who want to draw firmer lines.

“The RCA leadership has always been centrist,” said one RCA official involved in planning for the conference. “The rank-and-file rabbis, those on the front lines, can’t afford to be radicals on either end. But it’s getting harder and harder to promote an RCA which is led by the center, but which includes the whole range.”

Following the Weiss controversy, the RCA announced that women’s leadership would be placed on the conference agenda. A committee is now in the late stages of crafting a policy on the issue.

The policy, which will have to be ratified by the membership, would express general support for women’s scholarship and their assumption of appropriate leadership roles while drawing the line at ordaining them as rabbis. But lately there has been resistance from those seeking stronger language marking certain functions as forbidden.

“The committee expects for there to be pushback and perhaps alternate language from both the right and the left,” said the RCA official.

Whether any formulation could quell the controversy is unclear. Weiss has never backed down from his view that Hurwitz is a member of the synagogue’s rabbinic staff, though he says the school he is launching to train women will bestow a title other than rabba.

Moreover, several women now serve important Modern Orthodox congregations in various capacities – some of which clearly overlap with traditional rabbinic functions.

The results of a survey to be presented at the convention show a clear consensus among RCA members against granting “semicha,” or ordination, to women, according to an official involved in the council’s strategic planning process. On other issues, the official said, there is no “strong consensus.”

The policy that the council is to enact on women’s leadership will likely remain vague on specifics as a result. Its drafters say that a policy of calculated ambiguity is necessary in part to maintain unity across a broad range of opinion.

“I believe that we can have clarity on the red lines and have a degree of inclusiveness in the areas that are not as clear,” Goldin said. “We as an organization have to provide latitude for members within the organization to be able to follow their conscience in areas that are not black and white.”

But it is precisely that approach that has encountered some turbulence and which is leading some to push the organization toward a firmer line.

“I think there’s a need for clarity,” said Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, an RCA regional vice president who said he supports the amendments in principle. “What we don’t want to offer the public is a blurring of the lines, that the RCA is all things to all people.”






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