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Orthodox rabbinical parley to address women’s leadership

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Rabba Sara Hurwitz lectures to a group of junior high school students who attended the recent conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Josh Newman

With a high-profile discussion scheduled on women’s leadership and two proposed rules aimed at marginalizing rabbis who deviate leftward on hot-button issues, an upcoming Orthodox rabbinical conference is expected to draw its largest crowd in years.

The Rabbinical Council of America’s three-day conference set to begin Sunday in Scarsdale, N.Y., comes just months after the near-ordination of a female rabbi by one of the RCA’s highest-profile members drew a sharp rebuke from the haredi Orthodox leadership of Agudath Israel of America.

“I think it will be one of the more exciting RCA conventions,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the council’s first vice president, seeking to put a positive spin on what also could prove to be a highly divisive gathering of mostly Modern Orthodox rabbis.

Two amendments to the RCA convention that have been put forward are clear reactions to the controversy sparked by Rabbi Avi Weiss’ decision in January to confer the title “rabba” — a feminized version of rabbi — on Sara Hurwitz, a member of the clerical staff of his New York synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

Following the Agudah condemnation and discussions with RCA officials, Weiss stated that he did not intend to confer the rabba title on anyone else, saying Orthodox unity was of more pressing importance.

One amendment effectively would expel from the council any member who “attempts to ordain as a member of the rabbinate, or to denominate as ‘rabbinical’ or as ‘clergy,’ a person not eligible to serve as such as those terms are understood under the policies and positions of the RCA.”

A second amendment would bar from officer positions anyone who is a member of another national rabbinic group “whose principles or tenets of faith are antithetical or contrary to the policies and positions of the RCA.”

Weiss is one of the founders of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a liberal Orthodox group founded, in part, to serve as an umbrella for graduates of Weiss’ rabbinical school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Graduates of the school have been unable to secure automatic membership in the RCA, which has never taken a public position on the fellowship.

RCA insiders say adoption of the measures, neither of which would be retroactive, is unlikely. But their existence still points to a tug within the organization between those seeking to maintain the council as a broadly inclusive group and those who want to draw firmer lines.

“The RCA leadership has always been centrist,” said one RCA official involved in planning for the conference. “The rank-and-file rabbis, those on the front lines, can’t afford to be radicals on either end. But it’s getting harder and harder to promote an RCA which is led by the center, but which includes the whole range.”

Following the Weiss controversy, the RCA announced that women’s leadership would be placed on the conference agenda. A committee is in the late stages of crafting a policy on the issue.

The policy, which will have to be ratified by the membership, would express general support for women’s scholarship and their assumption of appropriate leadership roles while drawing the line at ordaining them as rabbis. But lately there has been resistance from those seeking stronger language marking certain functions as forbidden.

“The committee expects for there to be pushback and perhaps alternate language from both the right and the left,” said the RCA official.

Whether any formulation could quell the controversy is unclear. Weiss has never backed down from his view that Hurwitz is a member of the synagogue’s rabbinic staff, though he says the school he is launching to train women will bestow a title other than rabba.

Moreover, several women now serve important Modern Orthodox congregations in various capacities — some of which clearly overlap with traditional rabbinic functions.

The results of a survey to be presented at the convention show a clear consensus among RCA members against granting “smicha,” or ordination, to women, according to an official involved in the council’s strategic planning process. On other issues, the official said, there is no “strong consensus.”

The policy that the council is to enact on women’s leadership will likely remain vague on specifics as a result. Its drafters say that a policy of calculated ambiguity is necessary in part to maintain unity across a broad range of opinion.

“I believe that we can have clarity on the red lines and have a degree of inclusiveness in the areas that are not as clear,” said Goldin, religious leader of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood. “We as an organization have to provide latitude for members within the organization to be able to follow their conscience in areas that are not black and white.”

But it is precisely that approach that has encountered some turbulence and that is leading some to push the organization toward a firmer line.

“I think there’s a need for clarity,” said Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, an RCA regional vice president and religious leader of Cong. Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck. Pruzansky said he supports the amendments in principle, adding, “What we don’t want to offer the public is a blurring of the lines, that the RCA is all things to all people.”

JTA

 
 

Rabba comments on her inclusion on list

Three Englewood rabbis were named last week among “The 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America” by Newsweek magazine, a list topped by Yehuda Krinsky, head of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Using what they describe as “unscientific” criteria to award points to contenders, two friends in the entertainment business, Sony Pictures chair and CEO Michael Lynton and Gary Ginsberg, an executive vice president of Time Warner Inc., have published this annual compilation since 2007.

While many of the “winners” have appeared before and are virtually household names in the pantheon of Jewish spiritual and communal leadership, including Englewood’s Shmuley Boteach (#6 and a Jewish Standard columnist), Mark Charendorff (#4), and Menachem Genack (#16), one of this year’s picks may come as a surprise to some.

As Newsweek described it, Sara Hurwitz (#36) “rose to national prominence when Rabbi Avi Weiss (#18) bestowed [on] her … the title of ‘rabba.’ She is considered the first Orthodox woman rabbi ordained in the United States, and in this role she has had an impact on the roles considered acceptable for modern Orthodox women.”

That decision by Weiss earlier this year stirred controversy in Orthodox circles, as the movement has yet to officially sanction the ordination of women. He changed her title from maharat, a term that was little understood when Weiss invented it to mark Hurwitz’s completion of a five-year course of study for rabbinic training under his tutelage. Hurwitz was also a student at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, a center of advanced Judaic study for women.

Hurwitz, however, does not consider her selection by Newsweek inappropriate.

Reached at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the rabbinical seminary founded by Weiss and whose office is located at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale where Weiss is senior rabbi and Hurwitz is a member of the clergy, Hurwitz noted that she holds smicha — she was ordained by three Orthodox rabbis, Weiss and Rabbis Daniel Sperber and Joshua Maroof.

“In my case, I see the word ‘rabba’ as a description of my duties and roles: teaching and being a presence for congregants on a pastoral level, answering questions, speaking from the pulpit,” she said.

Declining to label herself “rabbi,” she nonetheless sees herself as a beacon of change for women in Orthodoxy and for the modern Orthodox community. “It’s a semantics game,” Hurwitz asserted. “I see myself performing rabbinic duties, but it has a new title to describe and explain the role of women in spiritual and halachic leadership. It’s new language, a new concept, which I know is very confusing.

“I think my most important contribution is helping other women see that it’s possible to become a spiritual leader in the Orthodox community,” she added.

Asked if her having being designated one of America’s 50 most influential rabbis by a mainstream, secular publication would help advance the cause of women’s ordination by the Orthodox movement, Hurwitz replied, “I hope so. I hope this whole conversation has helped put women’s spiritual leadership on the map in a serious way and will only continue to inspire women to pursue a career in spiritual leadership.”

 
 
 
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