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 6 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 6 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… Read more »

L. Oberstein
5 years 6 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,… Read more »

dr. bill
5 years 6 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 6 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 .… Read more »

Jonathan Mizrachi
5 years 6 months ago

Rav Schachter was recently introduced to the Agudah world in a comprehensive article in Mishpacha penned by one Rabbi Frankfurter. That was the first step in bridging the gap between these two worlds. When Klal Yisrael is united the sky is the limit as to what can be accomplished.

5 years 6 months ago

[YA – Perhaps R Schachter gave the shiur because, hands down, he is the most respected talmid chacham in the Centrist world, and no one from the left in his right mind could claim to compare?]

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!]

5 years 6 months ago

see the morethodoxy blog, wherein their LA rabbi expresses disappointment that the RCA has slammed the door on ever allowing women rabbis. it is clear that this is the direction the YCT wing of judaism is heading; the only question is how soon in this decade can it be accomplished….

5 years 6 months ago

Maybe its because I live in Passaic, but why is the RCA and not the Agudath considered “Centerist Orthodoxy”? How do you define “Centerist”?

Reb Yid
5 years 6 months ago

This should be interesting to monitor in future years. The RCA’s own President has a daughter who is currently a congregational intern, and certainly has her sights set on becoming a Maharat or something similar.

Let us hope and pray that eventually women like these also become part of the process at work here.

Harry Maryles
5 years 6 months ago

Trying to figure out why you doubt they listened to their halachic authorities. I have no idea whether you are right or wrong.

I didn’t say anything about doubting they listned to Halachic authorities. I said they did not feel bound by their views the way the lay leadership of Agudah does by theirs. IOW, the RCA sought guidance, not necessarily Psak. You said it yourself:

The RCA submitted its question – at least for guidance, if not for psak, which is a huge difference – to four unnamed greater authorities

At any rate I’m happy to see that Agudah reacted in this… Read more »

L. Oberstein
5 years 6 months ago

Great Title, as a card carrying member of the Agudath Israel of America, I always tell them that every organization needs a left wing. Thanks for confirming that the Agudah is indeed a coalition. Rabbi Sherer was much more successful in this country in keeping the Agudah one organization. I attended the very last Knessiah Gedola of the Agudah in 1980. Sadly, I do not know if there will ever be another one. The RCA is full of learned rabbonim and the nature of most orthodox shuls is a lot different from the way they were a generation ago.… Read more »

Tal Benschar
5 years 6 months ago

Dovid: Your post brought a chuckle to my throat. When I was studying for semikha in YU, we had to do shimush with a musmakh, either in rabbonus or chinukh. The rabbi I worked for told me a story that when he first came to the pulpit in a small, MO shul, the shul had a board meeting (where they served some coffee and cake), and afterwards one of the baalei batim came over to the new Rov with a broom and said, in effect, here is what you need to sweep up!

Yes, some shuls treat their… Read more »

Michael Balinsky
5 years 6 months ago

It is true Rav Schacter spoke before the vote, but it was the day before the vote. Nor was his voice the only one heard. Rabbi Michael Broyde handed out a paper (not yet ready for publication and therefore I cannot quote from it and a paper by Rav Lichtenstein was distributed an hour or two before the vote. Unfortunately, after Rav Schacter’s presentation, there was no time built in for questions and challenges and that is very unfortunate, especially because the Conservative movement ordination debate was much about ritual/performance issues by rabbis which is not relevant to the RCA… Read more »

Ida Ruth
5 years 6 months ago

Thank you for clarifying some of what went on behind the closed doors. From the perspective of the RCA I understand that this was a winning situation – they could find common consensus and keep their unified voice. But for how long will they be able to keep the forces of the right at bay? I think this was also a victory for the thousands of Orthodox women and their rabbis who are supportive of women taking on greater leadership roles and of the important contributions these women are making to Torah study, communities, schools and the countless individuals who… Read more »

5 years 6 months ago

Rav Schecter shlitah’s applying this Avnei Nezer to modern day Rabbonus non withstanding, it’s very difficult for me to do so as well.

Today’s shul Rabbi, especially in the Modern Orthodox world, is a paid employee whose “power” is directly tied to his abilities to keep his congregation happy and, especially, to not step on any powerful toes. Otherwise, he’s gone, outta here. He is a “leader” only in the sense that he is also a “follower,” a follower, that is, of the power brokers in that shul.

The situation might, perhaps, be different with those Rabbis who essentially have life-time… Read more »

Garnel Ironheart
5 years 6 months ago

Kol hakavod to Rav Schechter, shlit”a and the RCA on confronting the issue and dealing with it al pi halacha.

As for the RCA becoming the Agudah, given this other statement, I’m now waiting for the Agudah to become RCA!

Apr 27, 2010 — Whereas we have become increasingly aware of incidents of the sexual and physical abuse of children in our community; and

Whereas, there have been a number of high profile cases in which Orthodox rabbis have been indicted or convicted for child abuse or child endangerment; and

Whereas the lives and futures of many of these victims and their families are… Read more »

5 years 6 months ago

Anyone know who the 4 rabbis consulted were? I’d assume R. Schachter, R. GD Schwartz, R. Willig, and R. Lichtenstein. Those would be the 4 I’d turn to for psak within centrist orthodoxy. But it’s a wild guess.

Harry Maryles
5 years 6 months ago

I’m not sure the RCA would agree that they have turned into Agudah. Yes, the there are similarities. But those similarities are based on similar prinicples of Halacha and Hashkafa.

And I agree that the process seems to be the same. I had no idea for instance that they had consulted with their own “Gedolim”. But that is where the similarities end. They asked for guidance. Although I’m sure they weighed heavily the words of their “Gedolim’ – I doubt that they felt bound by their decision the way Agudah feels boud to the decisions of their “Gedolim”. That is… Read more »

Gil Student
5 years 6 months ago

For what it’s worth, a brief discussion of the Avnei Nezer can be found here:

[YA- Since we don’t allow links, I will reproduce Gil’s excellent work verbatim:

The Chasam Sofer (Responsa, Orach Chaim no. 12) expounds at length in favor of the position that rabbinic positions cannot be inherited. He claims that the Magen Avraham’s position is normative and the Rema was only speaking of a rabbi who rules over the population. However, in a later responsum (no. 13), he reverses his view. It is true that Torah positions cannot be inherited, however rabbis today do not function purely as… Read more »

Bob Miller
5 years 6 months ago

Rabbi Adlerstein, are you saying we can expect the RCA and the (actual) Agudah to find more common ground in the future?

[YA – No, I wasn’t saying that, but there are people in the camps associated with those organizations who would very much like to see that happen!]