Tag Archives: Rabbinical Council of America

Thoughts on the RCA’s GPS Committee Report

Following recent high-profile scandals, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) commissioned a committee to review its centralized conversion system of Geirus Policies and Standards, otherwise known as the GPS. This independent committee, “was comprised of men and women, participants in the conversion process, Dayyanim, mental health professionals, and rabbinic leaders,” whose expertise and experience were especially suited for reviewing the halakhic, social, and psychological components of the conversion process.

At its recent convention, the RCA released the final report of the committee (PDF), which deserves some attention. 1
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Notes:

  1. I also highly recommend reading committee member Evelyn Fruchter’s speech delivered at the same RCA convention, available here. (PDF)
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Ep. 165 The Tradition of “Tradition” – Discussing the Archives with Rabbi Avraham Bronstein

“The world in which we live no longer permits us to reply to every doubt, ‘This is the law,’ or ‘The Torah says so.’ Indeed, very seldom in Jewish history were such answers sufficient. Nor were they considered desirable in a faith where proper answers always depend upon the right questions and where even Moses is depicted as constantly seeking, but never obtaining, complete understanding.” 1

The Rabbinical Council of America recently released the archives of its journal “Tradition” to the public. For those interested in Modern Orthodox Judaism and the development, Tradition is an invaluable resource as a window into its intellectual history. With all the great articles to choose from, Rabbi Yuter welcomes special guest Rabbi Avraham Bronstein to discuss some of their favorites.

Here is the list of articles discussed, all links are in PDF format.

Josh’s Picks Avraham’s Picks
Lamm, Norman. “The Religious Implications of Extraterrestrial Life.2 Tradition 7-8 (1965-1966): 5-56. Lebowitz, Yeshayahu. “In Defense of “Separation” in Israel.” Tradition 2.2 (1960): 203-217.

Gan-Zvi, Israel. “Against “Separation” in Israel.” Tradition 2.2 (1960): 218-236.

Soloveitchik, Joseph B. “Confrontation / Addendum.” Tradition 6.2 (1964). 3 Geller, Victor. “How Jewish Is Jewish Suburbia?.” Tradition 2.2 (1960): 318-330.
Leibowitz, Isiah. “The Spiritual and Religious Meaning of Victory and Might.” Trans. Isaac Gottlieb. Tradition 10.3 (1969): 5-11. Rackman, Emanuel. “The Future of Jewish Law.” Tradition 6.2 (1964): 121-131.
Tendler, Moshe David. “The Anatomy of a Responsum: The Kashruth of Vinegar Produced From Wine Alcohol.” Tradition 22.4 (1987): 47-55. Wyschogrod, Michael. “The Jewish Interest in Vietnam.” Tradition 8.4 (1966): 5-18.
Lichtenstein, Aaron. “The Israeli Chief Rabbinate: A Current Halakhic Perspective.” Tradition 26.4 (1992): 26-38. Lichtenstein, Aharon, et al. “A Rabbinic Exchange on Baruch Goldstein’s Funeral.” Tradition 28.4 (1994): 59-63.

Shapira, Avraham, and Aharon Lichtenstein. “A Rabbinic Exchange on the Gaza Disengagement.” Tradition 40.1 (2007): 17-44.

Lichtenstein, Aharon, and Avraham Yisrael Sylvestky. “A Rabbinic Exchange on the Gaza Disengagement, Part Two.” Tradition 40.2 (2007): 49-70.

Other Referenced articles:
Frimer, Aryeh A. and Dov Frimer. “Women’s Prayer Services – Theory and Practice.” Tradition 30.2 (1998): 5-118.

Soloveitchik, Haym. “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy.” Tradition 28.4 (1994): 64-130.

Notable Theme Issues:

An Excel file (.xls) with a spreadsheet of every article in the Tradition archive is available here.

The Tradition of “Tradition” Audio

Notes:

  1. Sharfman, Solomon, J. “Forward.” Tradition 1.1 (1958): 5-6. p. 5. R. Sharfman was a former president of the Rabbinical Council of America.
  2. Mistakenly filed in the archive as “Terrestrial Life”
  3. The original essay “Confrontation” was published in the cited volume pages 5-29. The Addendum was published in the compilation book A Treasury of Tradition.
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How the RCA Squandered its Own Credibility, and How it Can Earn it Back

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“דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד – זו היא כל התורה כולה, ואידך – פירושה הוא, זיל גמור”

“What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.” (B. Shabbat 31a)

In the aftermath of the R. Freundel voyeurism scandal, the Orthodox Jewish community has been relentless in its criticism of its current religious establishments. Some have focused their attention on the vulnerability of converts, many of which received a reprieve when the Israeli rabbinate ultimately decided to uphold R. Freundel’s conversions. Others advocated for changes in how a mikvah is operated with Rabbanit Henkin arguing for giving women keys to the mikvah and R. Seth Farber insisting on modifying Jewish conversion law to prohibit men from witnessing a female convert’s immersion. 1 Still others targeting the Rabbinic establishment, epitomized in this case by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). 2 Rabbi Marc Angel pointed to the moral deficiencies of Judaism’s gatekeepers and Dr. Erica Brown criticized the lack of rabbinic accountability. 3

Naturally, certain members in the very same Rabbinic establishment aggressively defended the status-quo in the face of media “misrepresentations” and activists “hijacking” the scandal to further their own agendas. I have no doubt others perceive the defamation of their institutions to be the result of an unfair generalization, where the entire system is disparaged due to criminal acts of one lone individual.

My concern today is not the propriety of these critical generalizations, but rather the predictability of them occuring after a major scandal. Not only have Jews long engaged in generalized delegitimizations, but this traditional rhetorical stratagem has been repeatedly employed by the current Rabbinic establishment, including, ironically enough, the RCA’s own approach to conversion.

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Notes:

  1. In Farber’s words, “The facts are that while we must meet halachic requirements, we also cannot allow a situation to continue where men are in the mikveh when women are immersing.” The problem however is that Jewish not only does not prohibit men from witnessing this immersion, it most likely requires it. B. Yevamot 47b describes the procedure for converting women as having women assist the convert in the water while the male witnesses stand at a safe distance outside of the mikvah waters. Rambam in Hilkhot Issurei Biah 14:6 adds that the men should turn their faces away so as not to see the naked woman exiting the water, which not only is an affirmation of modesty, but reinforces the obligation for the act of immersion to be witnessed by the men. Even if argues that men need not personally observe the dunking, claiming that men must not be present requires a demonstrating that Biblical or Rabbinic Law is being violated, which necessitates citing chapter and verse of the specific violation. It is only through Rabbinic legislation that specific interpretations be mandated on the entire Jewish population or new prohibitions be innovated. See my series on The Halakhic Process for a more detailed exposition on the system of Jewish Law.
  2. Disclosure: I am currently a member of the RCA, though I hold no position on its board or any of its committees. All opinions expressed here are my own and are not intended to reflect the views of the RCA or any of its members.
  3. This is only a small sample of quotes, articles, and op-eds published in public venues. My Facebook wall was inundated with countless more comments regarding these positions and many more.
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Ep. 164 Current Jewish Questions 52 – Flawed and Fallen Rabbis

כִּי אָדָם אֵין צַדִּיק בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה טּוֹב וְלֹא יֶחֱטָא
For there is no one on earth who is righteous, who does only good does not sin – Ecclesiastes 7:20

In the wake of Yet Another Rabbinic Scandal, Rabbi Yuter examines the effect of a Rabbi’s actions on his ability to be a source for teaching Torah.

Current Jewish Questions – Flawed and Fallen Rabbis Sources (PDF)

Current Jewish Questions 52 – Flawed and Fallen Rabbis

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RCA Press Release: Policies Regarding Same Sex Attraction, Marriage, and Reparative Therapy

I just received the following email from the Rabbinical Council of America, copied and pasted below.
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Episode 40: Politics of Exclusion – Conclusion and Summary

Rabbi Josh Yuter concludes the Politics of Exclusion shiur series with a general discussion incorporating and previous classes. Many thanks for following!

Politics of Exclusion – Conclusion and Summary

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Why Orthodox Jews Should Not Oppose Legalizing Same Sex Marriage

On May 23 2011 several prominent Orthodox Jewish organizations issued a joint statement declaring their opposition to legalizing same sex-marriage. The brief statement is as follows:

On the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage, the Orthodox Jewish world speaks with one voice, loud and clear:

We oppose the redefinition of the bedrock relationship of the human family.

The Torah, which forbids homosexual activity, sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony. While we do not seek to impose our religious principles on others, we believe the institution of marriage is central to the formation of a healthy society and the raising of children. It is our sincere conviction that discarding the historical definition of marriage would be detrimental to society.

Moreover, we are deeply concerned that, should any such redefinition occur, members of traditional communities like ours will incur moral opprobrium and may risk legal sanction if they refuse to transgress their beliefs. That prospect is chilling, and should be unacceptable to all people of good will on both sides of this debate.

The integrity of marriage in its traditional form must be preserved.

This statement was issued not only by Orthodox institutions considered “right-of center” such as Agudath Israel of America or National Council of Young Israel, but also by more moderate Orthodox organizations such as the Orthodox Union (OU) and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).1 Unlike most religious proclamations which are directed towards specific religious communities, this joint statement advocates a political position – though based on religious principles – to the secular world beyond the normal scope of religious influence. To be sure, this joint statement is hardly the first time rabbinic organizations have issued political statements. Across all major denominations, the Orthodox RCA, Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, and Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis have all passed resolutions advocating public polices exemplifying their respective religious beliefs, with few (if any) complaining about the separation of church and state.

But due to the inherent subjective moral arguments against same-sex marriage, I argue that Jews – especially the Orthodox – would be better served in not opposing its legalization.
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Episode 29 – Masorah 2.0: Risks, Rewards, and Recommendations for Using the Web to Teach Torah

On May 17th 2011 I delivered the following presentation to the Rabbinical Council of America’s annual convention titled “Masorah 2.0: Risks, Rewards, and Recommendations for Using the Web to Teach Torah and Build Community.” Below is the audio and Powerpoint slides in PDF.

Masorah 2.0 RCA Presentation Slides (PDF)

Masorah 2.0 RCA Convention 2011

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Why I Voted “No”: An Essay on Rabbinic Leadership

The opinions expressed here are my own and are not intended to reflect those of any individual or organization.

Introduction

This past week the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), voted on whether or not women ought to be admitted to the organization. This was not the first time the IRF considered such a proposition. In 2008, before the advent of “Maharat” or “Rabba“, the IRF recognized that women have been functioning as religious leaders within Orthodox Judaism. In Israel women serve as “To’anot Beit Din” – advocates for women in religious courts and “Yoatzot Halakha” – halakhic consultants regarding family purity. Even without formal titles women serve as Torah educators alongside men and several synagogues employ women in some religious capacity. In fact the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC), under Orthodox Union (OU), sends married couples to college campuses across the country with the expectation that the wife serves the campus Jewish community alongside her rabbinic husband. Regardless of the semantics of titles – or lack thereof – Jewish women assume professional roles similar to those performed by male rabbinic counterparts and thus should not be excluded from conversations affecting the Jewish community at large based solely on gender.

When I was first confronted with this question I supported the theoretical inclusion of women into the group, even if it meant removing “Rabbinic” adjective from the organization’s name. I even submitted to a subcommittee my own proposal defining criteria for women to be treated as rabbinic colleagues given that no comparable title existed at the time.1 And yet despite my earlier positions and after hearing passionate arguments in favor of admitting women, when the IRF finally voted on including women, I voted “no”. My decision may appear at first glance to be inconsistent, dishonest, or indicative of intimidation from opposition. On the contrary, as I will explain in this essay my principles remain intact. My position is not based on the identity politics of gender but on what I perceive to be the role and function of rabbinic leadership in Judaism.
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Posted in Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava. Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

The Politics of Ordaining Orthodox Women Rabbis

(רבי צדוק אומר אל תעשם עטרה להתגדל בהם ולא קרדום לחפור בהם (משנה אבות ד:ה
“R. Tzadok said: Do not make [the words of Torah]
a crown with which to glorify yourself” (M. Avot 4:5)

The most recent significant communal and continuing “scandal” in Judaism this past year has been the issue of Orthodox women’s ordination. It began when R. Avi Weiss bestowed the newly created title “Maharat” on Sara Hurwitz and forming a new school dedicated to training future Maharats. While this innovation may have attracted some criticism the reaction was relatively minor. But when R. Weiss had “promoted” M. Hurwitz to “Rabbah” the subsequent backlash and rhetoric of “schism” (some even from within his own community) that he quicklybacked off the Rabba designation.

The positive and negative rhetoric over the title “Rabba” (and to some extent over women’s ritual leadership ) alternated between the halakhic – if ordaining women violated any Jewish laws, and the sociological – given the unprecedented opportunities in Jewish women’s education, formal ordination ought to be the next logical step. There has already been much written on this subject from either side of both perspectives which I will not repeat here. However, the passions of both advocates and detractors have obscured the real questions and implications of ordaining women rabbis in any form. In particular, I will argue that the argument over women rabbis – both for and against – have less to do with gender and competency than of religious influence, power, and the public recognition of religious authority.

When Conservative Judaism wrestled with this question in the 80’s, Rabbi Dr. David Novak framed the issue as one of altering the existing religious-political power structure:

Indeed, the question of rabbinical ordination for women epitomizes a confrontation which, in the broadest sense, is political. Feminism is asking the Jewish religious community to reconstitute its political order. A political order consists of institutions which structure relations among its participants. Authorities are those person within the order who determine the meaning of these institutional structures for the participants, that is, they legislate, administer, and, especially, judge. If Judaism is the constitution of the political order of the Jewish religious community, then the authorities in it, certainly since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., and probably earlier, have been the rabbis. Inasmuch as women have been excluded from the rabbinate, they have been excluded from authority in the Jewish religious community.

The demand of Jewish feminists that women now be included in the rabbinate can only be considered as revolutionary. Furthermore, this demand epitomizes the confrontation between Feminism and Judaism, since revolutions always seek a radical change in the existing authority which, because the designation of authority in the community, more than anything else, determines the character of the political community (Novak 1984:39).

Based on the text of the RCA’s recent resolution, it appears that the Orthodox rabbinical organization concurs with Novak’s sentiment:

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. [Emphasis added]

The RCA’s argument for not affirming or recognizing women rabbis as “Orthodox” is not based on Jewish law, but “sacred continuity.” In this statement the RCA validates what I described years ago that “Orthodox Judaism” is a social designation for a particular form of Judaism in which the society is itself sacred and the status quo is tautologically reified. For the RCA, internal social politics are indistinguishable from halakha and so a challenge to the political order – the Orthodox franchise – is comparable to challenging to the Torah itself.

But while the political perspective adequately accounts for the positions of the RCA (and presumably others), more explanation is required to apply this explanation for women’s ordination advocates to address the plurality of the arguments.1

One category of arguments is rooted in simple equality. In the academic sense, if women choose to attain the same knowledge and qualifications as men, then they should have the opportunity to receive the same title. While male colleagues are addressed with designation “Rabbi”, there is no equivalent honorific for women – even those who are equally qualified (or superior) to their male counterparts.

The lack of a rabbinic title for women also has professional and financial implications as well. Certain pastoral fields such as chaplaincies require a clerical title, which would not only limit Orthodox women from those fields but also deprive the fields of talented individuals. Alternatively, advanced degrees tend to demand higher salaries. While the rabbinic field is hardly lucrative, preemptively denying women the title potentially deprives them of financial opportunities.2

While there is truth to these arguments, they all suffer from the same fallacy that no options exist. Specifically, if the title “rabbi” is only a professional degree then even orthodox women would be able to receive ordination through one of the other denominations. That there is no Orthodox equivalent does not by itself restrict the acquisition of the title, but only of the communal acceptance of such a title.

And therein lies the rub. The underlying impetus for Orthodox women’s ordination is not merely in the semantics of creating an honorific, but rather in attaining social religious acceptance and validation for one’s Torah study from within their own Orthodox community.

This point is evident from the controversy itself. Unlike the other denominations in Judaism, there is no official regulating body for Orthodox Judaism,3 and thus there is no legal or halakhic impediment for any woman to call herself “Rabbi” and “Orthodox” simultaneously. However the communal opposition to the title Rabba from the Orthodox world was strong enough to compel R. Weiss to retreat from his position.

Were this a matter a pure ideology, based on the conviction that Orthodox women ought to be able to receive ordination, then such opposition would not matter. Women would be ordained and those who choose to accept or reject such ordinations – and the individual women rabbis as spiritual and educational leaders – would do so as their conscience dictates. However, this would inevitably lead to a controversy over exactly who has the right and authority to determine what meets the social criteria for “Orthodox Judaism.” Self-identification is one solution, but if the self-identification contradicts the establishment, individuals will find themselves excluded from the very communities they profess to identify.

The irony of the dispute over women’s ordination is that both sides are employing similar authoritarian tactics of forcing their authority on the broader community at large. The RCA could argue that it is fact their mandate to do so as a major Orthodox rabbinic organization. At the same time, no one who possesses any sort of rabbinic title has the right to demand or expect others to respect their degree or position as a religious authority. For example, a graduate of Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school should not expect Jews in hareidi communities to seriously acknowledge their ordination and vice versa. In the spirit of egalitarianism, women who wish to be ordained as rabbis have no right to assume that because of their ordination they will be taken seriously as legitimate halakhic authorities, but just like male rabbis, they must constantly and consistently prove themselves to their specific constituents.

In contrast to the above debate, the Tanna Yehoshua Ben Perachya stated “עשה לך רב” – make for yourself a master (M. Avot 1:6). The choice of a spiritual leader is ultimately an individual one, not dictated by society, and there does not seem to be evidence to preclude a woman from being in this role regardless of title. This relationship is ideally a sacred bond, and one which must be entered into freely and nurtured regularly without the burdens of social politics. Similarly, all rabbis and rabbinic professionals must remember that their primary mission is not the defense of “Orthodox Judaism” – by any definition – but rather to teach Torah to the best of their ability.

It is my hope that the Orthodox Jewish collective remember this fundamental principle so that it need not become fractured further in the name of a Torah in which no one truly believes.

1. The following arguments are from private conversations with intelligent advocates of women’s ordination.

2. I am not implying here that the RCA and male rabbis are trying to maintain a male monopoly on the rabbinic market for competition reasons. While talented women rabbis may have additional skill sets, they would still be ineligible from counting in a minyan, leading services, or serving as witnesses – actions for which many Jewish communities depend on their rabbis. In other words, male and female rabbis would necessarily have different tasks and responsibilities.

Furthermore, the Sages explicitly reject preserving an educational monopoly, stating “קנאת סופרים תרבה חכמה” – the jealousy of scholars (lit. scribes) increases wisdom (B. Bava Batra 22a). This of course assumes the individuals in question are in fact scholars, but that is a discussion for another time.

3. Despite self serving PR statements to the contrary.

Sources:
Novak, David. “Women in the Rabbinate?” Judaism, 33:1. (1984) 39-49.

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