A small Modern Orthodox rabbinic organization has thrust itself into the ongoing debate over women’s religious leadership by passing a resolution that goes further than the major Modern Orthodox rabbinic association in defining roles for female spiritual leaders.
The new resolution, passed in late June at a convention of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, lays out specific roles for women leaders as teachers, preachers and clergy, but is silent on the fraught questions of their titles and their ordination. It contrasts sharply with a resolution passed in April by the Rabbinical Council of America, which barred women from the rabbinate without describing which roles are allowed.
“I think it’s an affirmation of what’s already happening,” said Rachel Kohl Finegold, education and ritual director at Chicago’s Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel, and one of a small group of prominent female Orthodox congregational leaders. “It was nice to see.”
The resolution comes after months of controversy within the Modern Orthodox world over women’s spiritual leadership. That controversy was sparked in late January, when Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale announced that the synagogue’s spiritual leader, Sara Hurwitz, would use the title rabba, the feminine form of the Hebrew word “rabbi.” The RCA, the largest Modern Orthodox rabbinical group — which claims on its website a membership of “close to 1,000 ordained rabbis” — objected to the decision, and Weiss agreed not to give the title to anyone else. As a result of the dispute, the RCA determined to take up the question of women’s leadership roles at its April convention.
In a closed-door meeting at that convention, the RCA passed a resolution that praised the study of Torah by women but rejected the ordination of women and their membership in the rabbinate. Despite assurances made months earlier, the RCA defined only the leadership roles women could fill within Orthodoxy in the broadest terms, saying that the group “encourages a diversity of halachically and communally appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women….”
Like the RCA resolution, the new IRF resolution, passed at the June 21–23 convention of the two-year-old, 150-member strong rabbinic organization, praises women’s Torah study. But it goes on to list a set of professional leadership roles in Orthodox communities that should be open to women, including serving as “spiritual preachers” who teach and preach on the Sabbath in the synagogue and at other times, as “clergy who function as pastoral counselors,” as “teachers of Torah… to both men and women,” as experts in Jewish law, as “spiritual guides” in arranging for life-cycle events and as presidents of synagogue boards.
The resolution does not address what titles these women should hold, or whether they should be ordained.
“I think it’s very explicit in terms of what roles the IRF believes women can fill, and we’re hopeful that this resolution becomes another part of this ongoing discussion,” said Rabbi Barry Gelman, IRF president and rabbi of the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston. “We see ourselves very much as part of the Modern Orthodox community, and we believe that this resolution expresses the opinion and the feeling and the hopes of large segments of the Modern Orthodox community.”
The IRF was founded in 2008 as an alternative to the RCA by Weiss and Rabbi Marc Angel of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City. Unlike the RCA, it is open to graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the left-wing Modern Orthodox seminary opened by Weiss in 2000.
Members of the IRF leadership maintained that despite differing emphases of the two resolutions, the new document does not contradict the older one.
“Both the resolutions promote the role of women and applaud that women are involved,” said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, a member of the IRF’s board and the rabbi at Anshe Shalom. “I think the IRF is a lot more clear in that it’s appropriate for women to have specific leadership roles… whereas the RCA more sort of implied that women could have that role and so left it open for interpretation, but it was not explicit as the IRF. The RCA is sensitive to some of its members who probably don’t want to see women in that role.”
Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the RCA, and Rabbi Moshe Kletenik, the organization’s president, did not respond to requests for comment. Rabbi Leonard Matanky, who sat on the committee that drafted the RCA’s resolution, said that he was unfamiliar with the IRF resolution. When provided with it, he chose not to comment.
Finegold, who, along with Hurwitz and Lynn Kaye, assistant congregational leader at Shearith Israel, appeared with others on a panel during the IRF conference, said that the resolution’s silence on the question of titles was not a drawback.
“[I] like the fact that they focused on function rather than title,” Finegold said. “For us it’s really just about doing our jobs. We all have different titles. The title question is an important question, but I don’t think it’s the most important question right now. The more important question is, are there jobs available, are there settings where women can use their talents.”
For Hurwitz, the resolution was an important symbol. “It’s a stamp, an imprimatur from a respected group of rabbis, and that’s gratifying,” she said.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.