Rabbis say no to women rabbas

By Paul Berger, April 29, 2010
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American Orthodox rabbis voted against ‘rabbas’ such as Sara Hurwitz

American Orthodox rabbis voted against ‘rabbas’ such as Sara Hurwitz

The world's largest Orthodox rabbinical group has officially said that women cannot be ordained as rabbis.

The Rabbinical Council of America unanimously adopted a resolution during its annual convention clarifying its position on female rabbis, a subject that has roiled Orthodox Judaism in America for months.

Noting the RCA's commitment to "sacred continuity", the resolution said the RCA "cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title."

The issue of Orthodox female rabbis came to a head in January when Rabbi Avi Weiss conferred the title "rabba" on Sara Hurwitz, a former congregational intern at his New York synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

But the battle had been brewing for some time. Last year, Rabbi Weiss founded Yeshivat Maharat, a school to train female spiritual leaders and halachic authorities. Ms Hurwitz, the school's first graduate, was initially given the title "maharat". But Rabbi Weiss recast her as rabba this year, claiming the term was more recognisable to people.

The title was a step too far for large sections of the Orthodox community, including some RCA members who called for Rabbi Weiss to be thrown out of the organisation. Instead, Rabbi Weiss was forced to back down. He issued a public letter last month promising not to confer the rabba title on future graduates of Yeshivat Maharat.

But where the RCA resolution leaves Sara Hurwitz and future maharats is unclear. While the document prohibits female rabbis, it does encourage "a diversity of halachically and communally appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women."

RCA leaders say such roles are up to individual rabbis to decide; they refused to comment on individual cases.

Instead, in a press conference on Tuesday, RCA leaders sought to emphasise a sense of unity. Rabbi Leonard Matanky, who led the resolution committee, said the document took two months to draft and was designed to allow rabbis to provide opportunities for women within the Orthodox community.

Rabbi Moshe Kletenik, the RCA's president, emphasised that the resolution was adopted without any opposition. One rabbi present at the meeting, which was closed to the press, however, said there were several abstentions.

Rabbi Weiss could not be reached for comment. However, Blu Greenberg, co-founder of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, welcomed the RCA's recognition of the significant contribution women's learning had made to the Orthodox movement.

But she said that the RCA's conclusion, that women could not serve in a rabbinic capacity, whatever their title, represented "a large step backwards."

"For two decades Orthodox women, carrying a variety of titles, have filled religious leadership roles equivalent to those of male orthodox rabbis. Several women currently fill congregational positions parallel to those of Assistant Rabbi, a fact that ought to be acknowledged by the RCA in fairness."

    Last updated: 3:18pm, April 29 2010