What Happened at the RCA Convention?

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.

15 Responses to What Happened at the RCA Convention?

  1. minda says:

    Cold water not only on women, but also MO& YCT. Is this two steps forward & one back? (women recognized, sort of)
    Can women pilpul?

  2. Gil Student says:

    “everybody-except-Chovevai, non-Haredi Orthodox rabbinate”

    Really? There are no YCT graduates in the RCA? They are all blackballed and forbidden entrance?

  3. Mr. Cohen says:

    Shevet Mussar, Chapter 24, paragraph 1:

    A kosher and modest woman is equal to a man, even though she is exempt from positive time bound mitzvot and Torah study, because she causes men to do Torah and mitzvot.

    CHRONOLOGY: written by Rabbi Eliyahu ben Avraham Shlomoh HaKohen Itamari of Izmir (Turkey) born 1650, died 1729

    Rabbi Avraham HaKohen Pam remarked that he never heard his mother speak slander [Lashon HaRa]. He explained: She had so much love for her fellow Jews [Ahavat Yisrael], even the person who acted strangely and unfriendly, that she simply had no room and no time for slander.

    SOURCE: Hakhel Email Community Awareness Bulletin 2010 April 21
    To receive quick quotes from Jewish Torah books, go to:


  4. Jonathan says:

    The question is: Was Rav Kook really on the wrong side of history? Regarding the particular issue of women’s suffrage he lost. But the larger values behind that rejected position have not only withstood the test of time, they have even succeeded in hijacking Religious Zionism in Israel today.

    The Religious Zionism that rejected Rav Kook’s position on women’s suffrage is today in retreat. On that specific issue there will, of course, never be a practical change, and it will always look like Rav Kook “lost” that battle, because NO group, not even Degel ha-Torah, will ever willingly sacrifice 50% of their voting power and thus grant political advantages to the evil chilonim…

    But I think Rav Kook actually won this war (and it saddens me). His metaphysical views on woman and tzniut are widely accepted in Religious Zionist psak and reality: Even the most “modern” schools in Israel are now separate sex, and so is the Bnei Akiva youth movement nearly everywhere. Not all the people are happy with this, but nearly all of the rabbanim are. The Torah world is in Rav Kook’s pocket today regarding views on woman. The kind of rabbis who once reject his position on women’s suffrage are a barely tolerated and much maligned minority.

    Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook wrote that there are two famous halakhic kulot which should never have been published, because even though they technically correct on a halakhic level, they are harmful on a spiritual level.

    The first in the halakhic permission to tell Lashon Hara about an apikorus.

    The second is the Mishnah Berurah’s ruling that a women’s skirt need only reach below her knees, and not to her ankles.

    It is amazing how in the world of Torah that trumpets the names of both Rabbi Kooks (father and son), the first kulah doesn’t bother anyone anymore, but the second is of primary importance!

    The real issue today is the rejection of Chovevei by the RCA. That came long before “Rabbah” and “Maharat”. I hope the feelings behind that rejection belong to the past, not to the future.

  5. Adam Frank says:

    From the above mentioned Resolution on Women’s Roles, “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 (Jewish law), hashkafah (Jewish thought), tradition and historical memory…,” followed by “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.” Too bad the reishah and seifah of this statement are so disparate.

    I just read the RCA 2010 Convention Resolution entitled: Exercising Care When Interacting With General Society — by the title, I thought it was going to resolve about greater responsibility in refraining from acts of ‘hillul Hashem’…I was mistaken.

    Finally, the RCA 2010 Convention Resolution entitled: Supporting and Defending Converts — why didn’t the RCA retract its capitulation of conversion to the Israeli Rabbanut as a result of the Rabbanut’s inappropriate treatment of converts?

    Perhaps next years RCA convention resolution will have some greater bite to them like resolving that the earth is indeed round.

    Sorry for the cynicism, but my hopes for RCA leadership are much greater than the leadership on displayed by the 2010 resolutions.

  6. EBF says:

    “. . .gender, power, politics and personalities.” That, along with the “closed circuit” says it all, doesn’t it? Rabbi Kanefsky is right to feel queasy, not only because this issue is not going to go away, but because it will now be easier for more young women and men to turn their backs on the orthodoxy the RCA stands for, and attach themselves to other philosophies that interpret halacha in a derech consistent with the reality of the 21st-century lives we lead — and that is even further afield from the RCA view. I know — because my children are there already.

  7. Michael Stein says:

    How many RCA members are there today? And could you provide us outsiders with a sense of approximately what percent of those members would say:
    1) The RCA position should be more forthcoming regarding women rabbis;
    2) The RCA position went too far in tolerating women in rabbi-like positions;
    3) The RCA position is just about right.

  8. Skeptic says:

    For those who are interested, here is R. Kook’s letter on women’s suffrage from 1920:


  9. Charlie Hall says:

    The halachah is according to Rav Uziel and not Rav Kook in this matter.

    In this case, it is pretty clear that the halachah is not according to the RCA ban. We’ve had three well reasoned and sourced essays supporting semichah for women, and absolutely nothing from the opponents. But it may take a century for people to realize this, and I can cite a historical precedent: An American woman was ordained as a Protestant minister in 1853, but it was not until the 1970s that female Protestant clergy became widely accepted.

  10. I’m not sure you can make such a gloomy conclusion, unless one says there should have only been a positive-on-feminism outcome. But if we recognize this as another bit in the evolution of Judaism institutionally confronting, evaluating, and deciding on a large issue; then this may not be what you say it is. What remains to be seen is, will the next year bring renewed effort to address the educational, religious, and social needs of observant Jewish women? The resolution didn’t only draw a red line. That is misleading. It also created a demand to ‘put up or shut up’ on advancing women’s needs and roles in Jewish communal religious life. So, now the question is, ‘where will that go?’

  11. […] Yosef Kanefsky (full post here): A couple of important things did actually happen. Many great rabbis worked very very hard to keep […]

  12. […] And I don’t believe that this is a problem. Jews are different, and just because I personally would be fine with having a woman Rabbi does not mean that all people would. So people choose their synagogues based on where they fit in the best. This is not to say that movements as a whole should not be grappling with the changing roles of women in Judaism—they should, especially when faced with a growing Modern Orthodox female population interested in taking on leadership roles. […]

  13. JJ says:

    Seems like a little less orthodoxy and more modernity is needed.

  14. ordination says:


    […]What Happened at the RCA Convention? « Morethodoxy: Exploring the Breadth, Depth and Passion of Orthodox Judaism[…]…

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