Gender Agenda of the RCA

The Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America met this week and on the agenda was gender. This reminded me of another conference of professionals, the Arizona Engineers’ Society (l’havdil) which I attended as a civil engineer when we lived in Phoenix in 1981. On their agenda was the question of whether someone who had no degree in engineering, but worked for years in the field, could list himself or herself in the phonebook as an engineer. It turned out that the phonebook company claimed that they were not in the business of checking credentials, and anyone could list himself/herself as an engineer even without a degree, and even without any experience. This drove home for me the fact that the label you give yourself, the label other people give you, and the label a professional organization gives you may vary widely.

The discussions in the RCA, and here on cross-currents, about ordaining women sent me back to reread portions of a kuntres printed in Altona in 1819, Eleh Divrey haBerit, a collection of 22 responsa containing arguments objecting to Reform innovations. As I hold a 1969 reprint of this book in my hands, one aspect stands out in particular. The Reform innovators did not cast aside Jewish law; the opposite—they got rabbis on their side to prove b’Rachel bitcha haketana that the relatively mild changes they practiced (first they did, then they asked) were within Jewish law. These included sermons in the vernacular, music played by non-Jews on Shabbat or by Jews just before Shabbat, relocating the bimah, etc. As Prof. Judith Bleich writes in her landmark 1992 essay on the subject of “Rabbinic Responses to Nonobservance in the Modern Era”: there was an obvious attempt by “writers who favored Reform to prove that the new norms could be justified on the basis of halakhic sources.” (I wonder whether Prof. Bleich has spoken or written on the current issue before the RCA?)

Just as in 1819 leading Orthodox rabbis drew clear boundaries where others were trying to push the envelope, I hope the RCA rabbis will not let their concern for unity override the necessity of defining what is in and what is out.

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survived the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She and her husband appear in the documentary film about the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, “Hidden Face.” She is available to lecture in Israel and in the US and can be contacted via

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9 Responses

  1. yitznewton says:

    To what extent can we really compare this to early Reform innovations? It seems to me that the motivation of Reform was integration into German society. I don’t see that as the goal of this women-rabbi movement; an indirect outcome of prior integration, if anything – i.e. the influence of the roles of women in American society. Were the Reform attempts to wrap themselves in a cloak of halachah actually honoring and trying to abide by halachah, or were they merely (perhaps slightly subconsciously) merely using their quasi- or pseduo-halachic method to parry the defense of Torah traditionalists whilst they proceeded to transform the core of Judaism? Is not the women-rabbi movement more narrowly-focused? Does it have the same goals or necessary outcome as Reform did? I am not personally familiar with this movement, so I don’t have any feel for the answer to these questions.

  2. charlie hall says:

    And interestingly, almost every O shul in the world now has sermons in the vernacular.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    Charlie, if we knew Hebrew or Yiddish well enough, it would not be necessary to address us in English. Is your point that proposals to ordain female rabbis are also results of our ignorance?

  4. yitznewton says:

    For that matter, what language *did* they use for sermons in Germany before Reform?

  5. S. says:

    >For that matter, what language *did* they use for sermons in Germany before Reform

    For the most part, none, as there were only two sermons a year. The sermon issue was about weekly sermons. However, when the sermons were delivered (Shabbos Ha-godol and Shabbos Shuva) it was delivered in Judeo-German. The new, weekly sermons were delivered in Hochdeutsch or literary German.

  6. Charlie Hall says:

    Bob, my point is that regarding sermons in the vernacular, today we follow the Reformers rather than their Orthodox opponents.

    Long before the Reform movement existed, sermons in New York were in Portuguese. The language was changed to English in the late 18th century, still decades before the Reform movement existed. I have a copy of a sermon from Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1789, given in English by Geshom Mendes Seixas at Shearith Israel in New York. (I scanned it an uploaded it to my facebook page if anyone is interested.)

  7. mycroft says:

    Of course, the use of of Aramaic rather than Hebrew is an obvious use of vernacular.

  8. Yossie Abramson says:

    I wonder if you will comment on the other resolution of the RCA.

    [YA – I consulted with a colleague very much involved with communal handling of abuse and abusers. He certainly found nothing wrong with that resolution, but did not find anything particularly innovative either. What was stated should have been stated many years ago, and is today accepted in principle by most parts of the community. The issue at the moment is seeing to the carrying out of its sentiment, not simply its statement.]

  9. dr. bill says:

    yitznewton, you hit the nail on the head. there is a critical difference between the desire to integrate into a society and the need to address societal changes. women’s learning and bat mitzvot are two examples among many of the latter. i need not quote chapter and verse from gedolai Yisroel and their opposition in previous generations. the pace of change and its implementation is what ought be debated, not ahistorical analogies.

    it has been observed that orthodox response is not entirely blameless for how quickly reform innovations escalated. The accomodations with modernity took almost a century to mature in Germany and in other western european countries. They never had time to develop in eastern europe, where societal changes came 3-4 generations later and the Shoah occured before widely accepted methods could be developed and mature. IMHO, instead of using the western european models, some have tried to recast/deny them and choose in their stead methods that were failing in eastern europe.

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