That hundreds of rabbis came to the Rabbinical Council of America’s annual convention is not unusual. That they came knowing that the long-anticipated resolution on ordination of women as rabbis and on the role of women in Orthodox communal life was being debated and voted upon was something of which to take note. This resolution marked the culmination of a tumultuous period of several months which were most challenging to Orthodoxy and on a personal level, very trying as well.
Here we are, fresh from having just celebrated the Shavuos festival marking Divine revelation and the giving of the Torah. It is natural to appreciate the words at the very beginning of Pirkei Avos: “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets transmitted it to the members of the Great Assembly.”
This is the chain of transmission of the Torah, of both the written law and the oral tradition that continues to this very day. This unbroken transmission has sustained our people for millennia including turmoil-filled centuries in the Diaspora.
When Jerusalem was about to fall to the Roman Legions in 70 CE, the Roman general, Vespasian, offered Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai the chance to make a request. When Rabbi Yochanan asked that the academy at Yavneh and its sages be granted salvation, he was criticized by some for asking for something seemingly insignificant. History has demonstrated his wisdom.
Yavneh became the center for Torah study after the destruction of Jerusalem. It was here that Torah flourished and from Yavneh was transmitted to future generations. It is this mesorah, our tradition, passed from generation to generation, that has guaranteed the vibrancy of Jewish life even thousands of years after the destruction of the Temple.
Several months ago, a well-known Orthodox rabbi conferred the title “Rabba” upon a woman, apparently ordaining her. A controversy flared within the Orthodox community. Many predicted a schism within Orthodoxy and a fracturing of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest organization of Orthodox rabbis in the world. Because I serve as president of the RCA, I was immediately thrust into the midst of a very highly charged debate.
Understandably, this discussion attracted the attention of the full spectrum of the Jewish media. What was surprising was the degree to which it captivated the secular media. We were contacted by publications such as the Wall Street Journal and New York Magazine. The storyline was the same for virtually all: A great conflict in Orthodoxy threatened to split the Orthodox Jewish community.
During the ensuing weeks it became essential to preserve the unity of the RCA, an organization of a thousand rabbis representing the full spectrum of Modern Orthodoxy, and to prevent a schism within the community. We needed to take a principled stance on this controversial issue to preserve our tradition, while at the same time making it clear we fully endorse and encourage Torah scholarship at the most advanced levels for women. The RCA applauds the creation of meaningful opportunities for positions of stature that are professionally satisfying for learned, committed Jewish women within the community and the synagogue.
Certain changes can occur within traditional Jewish life, but innovations that affect the entire community must be undertaken only with a consensus of the rabbinate, which operates with firm underpinnings within our tradition.
In 1918, Sarah Schenirer, a seamstress from Cracow, Poland, took note of the fact that Jewish women were being exposed to advanced secular education. It was crucial they have the opportunity to study Torah as well. Her response was to establish the Beis Yaakov schools, a network which grew to over 200 schools in Eastern Europe, educating more than 35,000 young women. Her initiative had the approval of leading rabbis such as Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim, and Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe.
More recently, leading figures such as Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik advocated for enhanced opportunities for Torah learning for women. Over the last two decades, we have seen the growth of institutions for Torah study for women in the United States and Israel, including programs for the study of Talmud and halachah, Jewish law, on a sophisticated level. The concept of advanced Torah education for women is virtually universally accepted within the Orthodox Jewish world.
The RCA leadership resisted calls to issue statements of condemnation. Instead, we engaged in dialogue. In the course of these conversations the rabbi who had initially granted the title “rabba” made a commitment to not ordain women as rabbis and to not confer such a title. But this alone did not resolve the issue. We appointed a broad-based committee to craft a resolution to be presented for adoption at the annual convention of the RCA. The committee spent two months reaching out to various constituencies for input and crafting a very carefully worded resolution. We hoped to achieve a broad consensus.
This is the text of the resolution presented:
Resolution on Women’s Communal Roles in Orthodox Jewish Life
Adopted Without Dissent by the 51st Convention of The Rabbinical Council of America
1) The flowering of Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women in recent decades stands as a significant achievement. The Rabbinical Council of America is gratified that our chaverim have played a prominent role in facilitating these accomplishments.
2) We members of the Rabbinical Council of America see as our sacred and joyful duty the practice and transmission of Judaism in all of its extraordinary, multifaceted depth and richness — halachah, hashkafah, tradition and historical memory.
3) In light of the opportunity created by advanced women’s learning, the Rabbinical Council of America encourages a diversity of halachically and communally appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women, in the service of our collective mission to preserve and transmit our heritage. Due to our aforesaid commitment to sacred continuity, however, we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.
4) Young Orthodox women are now being reared, educated, and inspired by mothers, teachers and mentors who are themselves beneficiaries of advanced women’s Torah education. As members of the new generation rise to positions of influence and stature, we pray that they will contribute to an ever-broadening and ever-deepening wellspring of Talmud Torah, yiRabbiat Shamayim, and dikduk be-mitzvot.
The resolution was presented to the convention and was discussed by rabbinic participants for two days. There was open debate and discussion on Monday night. When the vote was taken that night after a lively debate, the resolution passed without opposition. This surpassed our expectations and hopes. A number of rabbis reflected later on the dramatic vote, saying they felt they were part of a historic moment that night. The spirit of goodwill and desire to preserve unity from the right and the left was palpable.
Our sages teach us “gadol hashalom,” great is peace. Although the last few months were fraught with trying moments, there is great satisfaction and privilege to have played a role in a significant moment in Orthodox Jewish life.