The RCA convention is over, and everybody’s gone home. Back to the work we do, the work, with God’s help, of healing and helping, teaching and inspiring. The convention was – for me – a two day stroll in the twilight zone, to a place far removed from the daily realty of rabbinic life, a place which sometimes vibrated with a palpable sense of historic significance, and other times was permeated by an exaggerated sense of self-importance. We, the members, recognized that there were many outside the walls of the convention who’d be anxiously awaiting the outcome of our deliberations concerning women’s roles in Orthodox leadership. But we were also at times candid enough to admit that the anticipation was at least partly for the Jewish community entertainment value we‘d provide, as we added the next chapter to this juicy ongoing saga of gender, power, politics and personalities.
A couple of important things did actually happen. Many great rabbis worked very very hard to keep the “big tent” intact, to preserve a reasonable amount of unity within the everybody-except-Chovevai, non-Haredi Orthodox rabbinate. And to their great credit, they succeeded. First, by defeating the amendments that (a) would have rendered the sin of ordaining women a capital crime (in organizational terms), and (b) would have declared the sin of belonging to a group that thinks about women’s leadership roles in an expansive way to be an automatic disqualification for RCA leadership. And second, by crafting a resolution that one the one hand applauded and encouraged progress in women’s higher Jewish education and communal involvement, and on the other hand drawing a red line at women’s ordination. I can only imagine the number of hours, and the dedication of mental energy that had to have been invested in drafting a document that would satisfactory to so many members. The preservation of organizational unity was an admirable feat, to be congratulated.
But on the day after (who knows? Maybe it’s my jet lag?), I have an overriding queasy feeling. It feels to me that by drawing such a bright red line, by trying to slam the door shut on the ordination question not just for today, but forever, the RCA has placed itself on the wrong side of history, just as Rav Kook did when he opposed suffrage for women in the 1920’s. Rav Kook’s arguments then were almost identical to the RCA’s arguments today (e.g. time-honored tradition, appropriate gender roles, the surrender to value systems that are alien to Torah) But Rav Kook’s world was moving forward, and it was, in retrospect, a time to get aboard the train, not a time to lie down in front of it. It feels to me that the RCA has made the same miscalculation. Tellingly, the RCA resolution on women’s roles contained no specific forward-looking vision for Orthodox women’s leadership. Only the delineation of its limits. It wasn’t about playing to win, rather about playing to not lose.
And there’s a factor that contributed to this outcome that needs to be acknowledged. On my flight back, my thoughts kept returning to the fact that while this resolution had been crafted by so many learned, wise and esteemed rabbis, and then approved by so many others, not a single one of these rabbis was herself a woman. Which of course sets up a mad, closed circuit – the sort that history tends to eventually leave in its dust.
So what happened at the convention? Important achievements for unity and for tolerance. And some cold water thrown on the forward progress of Modern Orthodox women and their supporters. And we go on from here.