Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat and one of the most prominent leaders of modern Orthodoxy, has criticized a recent resolution adopted by the Rabbinical Council of America that banned its member rabbis from giving any form of ordination to women or hiring women in a role of religious or spiritual leadership.
The RCA resolution said its members may not “ordain women into the rabbinate, regardless off the title used,” or “hire, or ratify the hiring of, a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution.”
It appeared to be mostly aimed at institutions associated with the liberal-Orthodox movement loosely defined as Open Orthodoxy, including Yeshivat Maharat in Riverdale, New York, founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss, which gives ordination to women to serve as spiritual guides and give rulings in Jewish law, or Halacha.
Riskin, along with other rabbis in Israel, is himself an RCA member and oversees the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halachic Leadership (WIHL) at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, which gives women a qualification that amounts to ordination, although it is not labeled as such.
And Riskin appointed a graduate of WIHL to a position of spiritual leadership, the first such appointment to the Orthodox world in Israel, when he hired Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld last year to work as a halachic and spiritual guide in Efrat.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post earlier this week, Riskin said that the RCA’s resolution was “unfortunate” and argued that it was not based on the substantive issues of women’s ordination.
“I believe the resolution they made wasn’t halachic as much as it was political,” the rabbi said.
“As such it was quite unfortunate.
There is no question whatsoever that throughout the generations women have often provided halachic and spiritual leadership as is shown from Sarah the prophetess to Deborah the judge, from Bruriah, the daughter of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradion of Talmudic times to the rulings of major halachic decisors of today including former chief rabbi [Eliyahu] Bakshi-Doron, that state that women can become the great religious leaders of the generation, the gedolei ha’dor, and that they can provide rulings for halachic direction,” he said.
Riskin also said he was “very taken aback by the inclusiveness of the resolution.”
The terms of the RCA’s resolution banning the ordaining and hiring of women appeared to include women who graduate from the WIHL.
Women at WIHL complete a halachic study comparable to ordination programs undertaken by men, and upon graduation are given the title of morot hora’ah and are certified to serve as spiritual leaders and arbiters of Jewish law.
“The guide must be Halacha and not politics,” continued Riskin. “One can argue about the titles and what title to give, but halachic and religious leadership can certainly be given to women.
“The RCA certainly understand this, and their resolution makes no sense halachically since they accept yoatzot halacha. That’s why it seems to be a political decision and not one based on Halacha.”
Yoetzet halacha are women qualified to give halachic guidance on issues pertaining to Jewish law in the field of family purity, and the position has become an accepted part of modern Orthodoxy in the last 15 years.
The RCA’s resolution says explicitly that it does not apply to “non-rabbinic positions such as yoatzot halacha.”
Giving ordination, or equivalent qualifications, to women, and the adoption by qualified women of a role in making rulings on Jewish law, is a new development in the Orthodox world, and not widely accepted. The mainstream haredi world completely rejects it.
Speaking to the Post, Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA, said that the qualification given by WIHL did not come under the restrictions outlined by the resolution.
“Rabbi Riskin’s program does not ordain women to be clergy in the American sense,” said Dratch. “He has been an innovator in many ways and my hope is that this should not be a point of separation between Rabbi Riskin and the RCA.”
Talking more broadly about the resolution, Dratch said that he hoped it would not lead to further division, and said that some members of the RCA leadership had publicly stated that they were opposed to the resolution, not necessarily because they disagreed with it but because they felt it was not the best way to deal with the issue.
“It’s a serious issue but we hope it will not come to a situation which will create an unbreachable divide. We need ways to engage in a better dialogue which requires patience and respect for the integrity of the Orthodox community.”
In terms of the practical impact of the resolution, Dratch said that if an RCA member rabbi were to act in contradiction of the resolution, a concern could be brought to the association’s executive committee that could then convene a mechanism to evaluate the concern and, if required and so decided, take action.
It would not lead to the automatic expulsion of the member, he said, noting that there had always been RCA members “who deviate from the mainstream” and that “only very, very rarely has a member been expelled.”
Meira Welt-Maarek, a recent graduate of WIHL who serves alongside a school rabbi as a spiritual leader in a high school in the Alon Shvut settlement also under Riskin’s direction, labeled the RCA resolution as “political,” saying it was not presented with any sources to support it.
“A halachic argument has a textual frame of reference and they have none, it’s just an opinion which creates divisions,” Welt-Maarek told the Post. “Women also stood at Mount Sinai, and halachic discussions can only benefit when more people share their perspective. The Torah goes beyond political divisions and barriers. My job is to allow everyone to have access to the Torah and create their connection and path to it.”