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Jewish Feminists Take on the RCA

In a bold and passionate move, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) has sent two letters to the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), a leading Orthodox rabbinic organization, in an attempt to advance women’s leadership roles in synagogues and communities.

One of the letters reads:

Meanwhile, a recent JOFA email also linked to an online petition from an independent group of Orthodox college students. The petition, spearheaded by Jordanna Birnbaum, Michelle Kornblit and Hannah Wenger reads:

The petition, which has been timed to impact the upcoming RCA conference, comes on the heels of RCA pronouncements about women’s leadership, particularly the ordination by Rabbi Avi Weiss of Sara Hurwitz as “Rabba.”

When Weiss decided, in February, to retract the “Rabba” title and revert to the less impacting and more feminized “Maharat,” the RCA replied with discernible relief. “We are gratified that … Rabbi Weiss concluded that neither he nor Yeshivat Maharat would ordain women as rabbis and that Yeshivat Maharat will not confer the title of ‘Rabba’ on graduates of their program,” they wrote in a formal statement. Individual members of the RCA have been even less gracious. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, a Vice President of the RCA, for example, called the notion of female participation in clergy “a throwback to pagan ideologies.”

Until now, JOFA has been publicly silent on this discussion, although Hurwitz was introduced as “Rabba” at the JOFA conference in March, in clear defiance of the RCA. In fact, the audience stood on its feet at this introduction. Nevertheless, since then, JOFA has apparently decided that such indirect resistance is not enough, and that getting the RCA to change its position on women is an important agenda item.

The significance of this issue goes beyond women clergy. The RCA also does not actively support women in executive board positions in synagogues or as community scholars, does not include any women members and does not invite women to their conferences. And yet, even in the absence of women from all its conversations, it continues to make policy decisions for the community.

JOFA, founded in 1997 by the brilliant and courageous Blu Greenberg in order to improve the lives of religious women, has always danced a delicate two-step with the Orthodox establishment. The organization is most definitively Orthodox in its outlook and practices, in its unequivocal adherence to halachic language and practice, as well as in the communal affiliations of its leaders and members. Yet, the organization struggles to be recognized as such.

JOFA is not alone in this struggle. In fact, Orthodox rabbis who express support for women’s causes are most often ostracized and delegitimized. When the late Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, for example, a pillar of Modern Orthodoxy, opened up a Beit Din to resolve the agunah issue, he received hate mail and verbal abuse, as well as ostracizing. Similarly, the late professor Zeev Falk, who already in the 1960s wrote a book outlining halachic solutions to the agunah issues, was readily dismissed as not Orthodox. I will never forget his impassioned pleas for attention to the agunah issue at a conference in the late 1990s shortly before his death. His frustration with Orthodoxy’s intransigence was palpable – and heartbreaking.

More recently, Rabbi Avi Weiss has been condemned as not Orthodox for his support of women, and the right-wing Agudath Israel announced that, “any congregation with a woman in such a position [of rabbi] cannot call itself Orthodox.”

All this, despite the fact that this entire discussion has nothing to do with halacha. Even opponents of women rabbis admit that their opinions are not rooted in halacha but in perceived social norms.

Herein lies the paradox in making change within Orthodoxy, and hence JOFA’s quandary. Women, by virtue of not being rabbis, are never considered true authorities on anything, and our decisions are always subject to the approval of male rabbis. Yet, as soon as a male rabbi declares support for women, he is labeled not Orthodox by his colleagues. As if the definition of an Orthodox rabbi is this: does not support women’s advancement.

In order to give Orthodox women an equal role, Orthodox rabbis need to support it, but Orthodox rabbis cannot support it and be called Orthodox. In order for women to have a voice, they need to be called rabbis, but even suggesting such a thing gets a person evicted from the club. This is a catch-22 if there ever was one.

JOFA’s decision to pressure the RCA is thus a critical step.Whether or not this influences the RCA is yet to be seen. But I’m thrilled that the JOFA women are taking a strong stand and calling for change in the corridors of the male establishment. It’s time.

Correction Appended:
An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to the online petition as a JOFA initiative.

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