The Day the RCA Became Agudah


Not in the way you think. This is written in praise of the RCA, not to score points for Agudah. (I wouldn’t take sides – I have a high regard for, and work with, both.) If you can’t take a tongue-in-cheek title, please read no further.

The story, in the end, was not in the resolution that repudiated the ordination of women “regardless of title,” but how they arrived at it.

The resolution is reproduced in its entirety, below. Several people debated every phrase for days before it was put before the membership, who also debated it phrase by phrase. Four poskim within the RCA orbit were consulted. The language that was adopted represents a compromise, since the poskim did not always agree with each other, but could live with the final version.

After vigorous debate, the resolution was passed without opposition. A few people abstained, but all thought it was important that the organization should not be riven by dissent, so they agreed to agree.

Before the vote, the delegates heard a shiur by Rav Hershel Schachter, shlit”a, who said that there were two reasons lehalachah that women could not be ordained. He saw such ordination as a violation of the issur of serarah, citing an Avnei Nezer that modern semichah is invested with power. He then drew gasps from the audience when he said that it was also a yehareg v’al ya’avor – because the Conservative movement had made egalitarianism a key plank in its platform. [Note: It did not take long for the ignorant to demonstrate their ignorance. There are reports that people outside of Orthodoxy are reporting that RHS argued that it is better to be killed than to [fill in the blank.] I was not at the shiur, but anyone who spent time in a beis medrash understands that his reference was almost certainly to the Yam Shel Shlomo in Bava Kama which states that falsifying or misrepresenting what Torah stands for is impermissible under all circumstances. “Yehareg v’al ya’avor” translates into “No way!” and nothing more. People citing him to any other effect are only demonstrating their inability to handle rabbinic text.]

The resolution was a good reflection of where Centrist Orthodoxy stands on women’s issues. It endorses greater opportunities for learning for its women, and is comfortable with women assuming many roles in professional and Jewish communal life. It nonetheless is mindful of the guidance and balance provided by the Torah’s halacha and hashkafa.

In one important aspect, despite the very real differences in many other areas, the RCA became Agudah.

Agudah, people so often forget, means “coalition.” Rather than a monolith of the yeshiva world, Agudah is a big tent, under which are gathered many factions and their leaders, often with very different viewpoints. The most difficult job within Agudah is pursuing a path that all members of its coalition can live with. The final result is often not the prefered path for any one of its constituents, but something they can all live with.

The RCA discovered that Centrist Orthodoxy now operates the same way. The differences between the young, yeshiva trained rabbis on the right and the followers of Rabbi Avi Weiss are no longer variations on a theme. They are pronounced, and the differences cannot be glossed over. To the credit of all of them, they understood the value for Klal Yisrael of staying together under one roof. This gives them a more effective public voice, and mutes the deep-seated differences to a level below that of full-blown machlokes, which is never good for us. The RCA is now also a coalition.

There were some other areas of overlap. Agudah submits its questions to the Moetzes, which is often not of one mind. The RCA submitted its question – at least for guidance, if not for psak, which is a huge difference – to four unnamed greater authorities, who also did not agree. Like the Moetzes, they did arrive at a compromise they could all live with. Like the Moetzes, their proceedings did not lend themselves to transparency.

Agudah has not been afraid to stand by its principles, even when they would not be understood by many in the general community. The RCA did the same. It spoke with pride about its encouragement of greater participation for women (Agudah could not have articulated things quite the same way), but would not compromise its principle of fidelity to the Torah values of its leadership.

They did this without apparent acrimony or compromising civility, even while encouraging debate – something that many Agudah faithful would like to see a bit more of. They should be commended for a job well done.

Yehi ratzon that this tongue-in-cheek (mostly) comparison should augur well for greater connection between two machanos of Torah!

What follows is the fuller nusach of today’s earlier press release:

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 – halakhah, 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 halakhically 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, yir’at Shamayim, and dikduk be-mitzvot.

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5 years 4 months ago

Just wondering, does Rav Hershel Schachter’s (and the RCA’s?) reliance on the halachic position of the Avnei Nezer regarding the authority of a rabbi (akin to a king) indicate a shift in the Modern Orthodox world in favor of the concept of Daas Torah?

After all, in essence, all “Daas Torah” really is is the granting of authority to rabbis/Torah scholars beyond the narrow function of teaching Torah and paskening shailos.

5 years 5 months ago

Rav Moshe ztl writes that a ger may act as a Rosh Yeshivah because the position is not one of serarah. In other words, according to Rav Moshe a Rosh Yeshivah does not (necessarily) have coercive power, which is the test for serarah. Rabbis today are not always independent in all matters but rather many are beholden to the shul’s board of directors. In those cases, it would seem questionable whether such Rabbis have coercive powers. In other words, some rabbinic positions might not fall under the rubric of serarah. IMHO the better argument against women Rabbis is simply that it is not within our tradition.

[YA – I think we need to listen to the shiur first. The fact that RHS leaned heavily on the Avnei Nezer might indicate that he saw rabbonim exercising coercive powers ex officio. It is a very long teshuva.

I would have also though that the way to go was to stress that the problem is not halachic, but metahalachic. Everyone I spoke to before the gathering also assumed that the arguments offered would not be halachic, because you can often come up with a competing halachic view. I attributed the surprise that my source said greeted RHS’ yehareg v’al ya’avor argument as directed at taking a very strong halachic approach, rather than metahalachic. (Unlike some commenters in other places who have no experience with rabbinic jargon, it never even dawned upon me that the surprise was generated by using such an expression. I should add that I have since heard from others at the convention who denied that the shiur was met with any surprise at all!) But I will defer to R Schachter.]

L. Oberstein
5 years 5 months ago

In the past, YU placed many musmachim in non orthodox shuls, including the one I grew up in. Had they not done so, I would not be frum today. The shuls looking for rabbis today are quite split. The non orthodox want not only egalitarian but many other compromises to attract non observant and frequently non Jewish members.It’s about money and keeping the institution viable. On the other hand, real orthodox shuls want to talmudic scholar , a posek, and someone who is a very good counselor to deal with people’s problems.He should also be a great speaker. But, that later category won’t get him the job if he can’t give a great shiur. Thus the real divide between traditional or Conservative synagogues and orthodox is wider than ever. When I was a child, our shul could switch back and forth depending on who was the rabbi of the moment. No longer.

dr. bill
5 years 5 months ago

I’m sure you didn’t mean to slight Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, someone who Rav Schachter himself reveres.

[YA – I certainly didn’t. RAL wasn’t at the convention!]

If you measure by impact rather than physical presence, you might disagree.

Rabbio Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg
5 years 5 months ago

Follow the money. It is all about jobs and power.

Women can be Rabbis. Halacha does not forbid it. It is a question of Leshem Pritzot, respect for men.I f so a wom,an should not be an editor and women should not be doctors. There are certain roles forbidden to women such as edas, but a Kohen also cannot do certain things. Edas was because women were considered stupid. Interesting since they made the money. , The RCA would does not consider me a Rabbi. worthy of belonging or sitting on a Bet Din since I serve in Conservative congregation . The orthodox movement placed me in my first conservative shul and then told be to get out and become a real estate agent or drive a cab.. 15 years later. I have been a Rabbi for 35 years. Do not want to drive a cab., Oh well. Maybe I will become a woman.I hope I turn out pretty.Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg