The Day the RCA Became Agudah

Not in the way you think. This is written in praise of the RCA, not to score points for Agudah. (I wouldn’t take sides – I have a high regard for, and work with, both.) If you can’t take a tongue-in-cheek title, please read no further.

The story, in the end, was not in the resolution that repudiated the ordination of women “regardless of title,” but how they arrived at it.

The resolution is reproduced in its entirety, below. Several people debated every phrase for days before it was put before the membership, who also debated it phrase by phrase. Four poskim within the RCA orbit were consulted. The language that was adopted represents a compromise, since the poskim did not always agree with each other, but could live with the final version.

After vigorous debate, the resolution was passed without opposition. A few people abstained, but all thought it was important that the organization should not be riven by dissent, so they agreed to agree.

Before the vote, the delegates heard a shiur by Rav Hershel Schachter, shlit”a, who said that there were two reasons lehalachah that women could not be ordained. He saw such ordination as a violation of the issur of serarah, citing an Avnei Nezer that modern semichah is invested with power. He then drew gasps from the audience when he said that it was also a yehareg v’al ya’avor – because the Conservative movement had made egalitarianism a key plank in its platform. [Note: It did not take long for the ignorant to demonstrate their ignorance. There are reports that people outside of Orthodoxy are reporting that RHS argued that it is better to be killed than to [fill in the blank.] I was not at the shiur, but anyone who spent time in a beis medrash understands that his reference was almost certainly to the Yam Shel Shlomo in Bava Kama which states that falsifying or misrepresenting what Torah stands for is impermissible under all circumstances. “Yehareg v’al ya’avor” translates into “No way!” and nothing more. People citing him to any other effect are only demonstrating their inability to handle rabbinic text.]

The resolution was a good reflection of where Centrist Orthodoxy stands on women’s issues. It endorses greater opportunities for learning for its women, and is comfortable with women assuming many roles in professional and Jewish communal life. It nonetheless is mindful of the guidance and balance provided by the Torah’s halacha and hashkafa.

In one important aspect, despite the very real differences in many other areas, the RCA became Agudah.

Agudah, people so often forget, means “coalition.” Rather than a monolith of the yeshiva world, Agudah is a big tent, under which are gathered many factions and their leaders, often with very different viewpoints. The most difficult job within Agudah is pursuing a path that all members of its coalition can live with. The final result is often not the prefered path for any one of its constituents, but something they can all live with.

The RCA discovered that Centrist Orthodoxy now operates the same way. The differences between the young, yeshiva trained rabbis on the right and the followers of Rabbi Avi Weiss are no longer variations on a theme. They are pronounced, and the differences cannot be glossed over. To the credit of all of them, they understood the value for Klal Yisrael of staying together under one roof. This gives them a more effective public voice, and mutes the deep-seated differences to a level below that of full-blown machlokes, which is never good for us. The RCA is now also a coalition.

There were some other areas of overlap. Agudah submits its questions to the Moetzes, which is often not of one mind. The RCA submitted its question – at least for guidance, if not for psak, which is a huge difference – to four unnamed greater authorities, who also did not agree. Like the Moetzes, they did arrive at a compromise they could all live with. Like the Moetzes, their proceedings did not lend themselves to transparency.

Agudah has not been afraid to stand by its principles, even when they would not be understood by many in the general community. The RCA did the same. It spoke with pride about its encouragement of greater participation for women (Agudah could not have articulated things quite the same way), but would not compromise its principle of fidelity to the Torah values of its leadership.

They did this without apparent acrimony or compromising civility, even while encouraging debate – something that many Agudah faithful would like to see a bit more of. They should be commended for a job well done.

Yehi ratzon that this tongue-in-cheek (mostly) comparison should augur well for greater connection between two machanos of Torah!

What follows is the fuller nusach of today’s earlier press release:

1) The flowering of Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women in recent decades stands as a significant achievement. The Rabbinical Council of America is gratified that our chaverim have played a prominent role in facilitating these accomplishments.
2) 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, hashkafah, tradition and historical memory.
3) 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.
4) Young Orthodox women are now being reared, educated, and inspired by mothers, teachers and mentors who are themselves beneficiaries of advanced women’s Torah education. As members of the new generation rise to positions of influence and stature, we pray that they will contribute to an ever-broadening and ever-deepening wellspring of talmud Torah, yir’at Shamayim, and dikduk be-mitzvot.

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21 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein, are you saying we can expect the RCA and the (actual) Agudah to find more common ground in the future?

    [YA – No, I wasn’t saying that, but there are people in the camps associated with those organizations who would very much like to see that happen!]

  2. Gil Student says:

    For what it’s worth, a brief discussion of the Avnei Nezer can be found here:

    [YA- Since we don’t allow links, I will reproduce Gil’s excellent work verbatim:

    The Chasam Sofer (Responsa, Orach Chaim no. 12) expounds at length in favor of the position that rabbinic positions cannot be inherited. He claims that the Magen Avraham’s position is normative and the Rema was only speaking of a rabbi who rules over the population. However, in a later responsum (no. 13), he reverses his view. It is true that Torah positions cannot be inherited, however rabbis today do not function purely as Torah teachers but serve the community. Therefore, their positions are inherited. Should the rabbi lose the rights that the cantor has simply because the rabbi also teaches Torah? Significantly, the first responsum is roundly criticized in the literature. Its arguments are repeatedly refuted.

    In a remarkable responsum, really a booklet, R. Avraham Borenstein (Avnei Nezer, Yoreh De’ah 312 — a responsum with 103 sections!) disputes the original position of the Chasam Sofer. Instead, he proposes that the rabbinic function today is different from when we had the original type of ordination. The rabbi’s role used to be to be implement the Torah’s laws, like a shofet. Nowadays, however, they lack the prerogative of ordination to do that. Instead, their role is to ensure that the community functions properly, like a king. Since the position of community rabbi is not one purely of Torah but instead of facilitating the smooth running of the community, it is inherited.]

  3. Harry Maryles says:

    I’m not sure the RCA would agree that they have turned into Agudah. Yes, the there are similarities. But those similarities are based on similar prinicples of Halacha and Hashkafa.

    And I agree that the process seems to be the same. I had no idea for instance that they had consulted with their own “Gedolim”. But that is where the similarities end. They asked for guidance. Although I’m sure they weighed heavily the words of their “Gedolim’ – I doubt that they felt bound by their decision the way Agudah feels boud to the decisions of their “Gedolim”. That is a key difference. In one sense I am disappointed. Why the need to keep secret those whom they consulted?

    Another major difference is in the attitude they have about women’s full participation in society. I doubt that Agudah see things that way. For example – the tacit endorsement of advanced Torah learning for women. I’m pretty sure the Agudah is opposed to that. These differences are not trivial. They affect the way each community will lead their lives and educate their daughters.

    My hope though is that Agudah can respect those differences even if they do not agree with them. That remains to be seen. But I do think they will heartily applaud the policy statement WRT to female rabbis – and will not condemn those other issues with which they disagree. That is a baby step to some sort of unity I suppose. At least I hope it is. My only regret here is that there is this growing divide between the more or less Centrist RCA and the LWMO of Rabbi Avi Weiss. But then again – this is something I predicted would happen.

    [YA – Trying to figure out why you doubt they listened to their halachic authorities. I have no idea whether you are right or wrong.

    Harry, you should realize the way press work. The first people they contact for comment are the folks perceived to be in a different camp. They went to Agudah for comment, and it indeed supported the resolution and said nothing about any areas of disagreement. Perhaps it is indeed a start on some unity.

    The R Weiss issue is not going to go away. They will continue to push various envelopes; the rabbis within the RCA with more of a yeshiva orientation will continue to push for a parting of ways. (A resolution calling for dismissal from the RCA of anyone belonging to a competing rabbinic association, i.e. the new far-left one, was defeated. Maybe not so the next time.) Given the fact that we are in the period of Sefirah, perhaps it should be easier to accept the decision to delay as long as possible creating a firm rift within our ranks.]

  4. Moshe says:

    Anyone know who the 4 rabbis consulted were? I’d assume R. Schachter, R. GD Schwartz, R. Willig, and R. Lichtenstein. Those would be the 4 I’d turn to for psak within centrist orthodoxy. But it’s a wild guess.

  5. Garnel Ironheart says:

    Kol hakavod to Rav Schechter, shlit”a and the RCA on confronting the issue and dealing with it al pi halacha.

    As for the RCA becoming the Agudah, given this other statement, I’m now waiting for the Agudah to become RCA!

    Apr 27, 2010 — Whereas we have become increasingly aware of incidents of the sexual and physical abuse of children in our community; and

    Whereas, there have been a number of high profile cases in which Orthodox rabbis have been indicted or convicted for child abuse or child endangerment; and

    Whereas the lives and futures of many of these victims and their families are harmed in significant ways: suicide, post traumatic stress syndrome, inability to form healthy relationships, inability to develop healthy intimate relationships, etc.; and

    Whereas many victims of abuse in our community still remain silent and do not come forward to accuse perpetrators or seek help for fear of stigma, personal and familial consequences, or perceived halakhic concerns; and

    Whereas the Rabbinical Council of America has resolved through past resolutions its condemnation of abuse and its censure of abusers, and has affirmed, under the guidance and direction of its poskim (Rabbinic decisors,) that the prohibitions of mesirah (reporting crimes to the civil authorities) and arka’ot (adjudication in civil courts) do not apply in cases of abuse and in fact, it is halakhically obligatory to make such reports; and

    Whereas reiterating this long held position can serve to provide pastoral and halakhic leadership, support, direction and affirmation to abuse survivors and their families and advocates.

    Therefore, the Rabbinical Council of America resolves that

    • It reaffirms its unqualified condemnation of all forms of child abuse.

    • It reaffirms its halakhic position that the prohibitions of mesirah and arka’ot do not apply in cases of abuse.

    • It will regularly issue on its website and to the media appropriate statements of condemnation when public attention is drawn to a case in which Jews are either victims or perpetrators of abuse.

    • It will regularly evaluate the competence of its members in understanding and responding to issues of child abuse and initiate training and continuing educational opportunities for all of its members in this area every year.

    • The members of the RCA address the issues of child abuse in their communities in at least one sermon, lecture or article within the next twelve months, and that contact information for local abuse services be displayed in a public place in all synagogues, schools, and Jewish community institutions serviced by its members.

  6. Dovid says:

    Rav Schecter shlitah’s applying this Avnei Nezer to modern day Rabbonus non withstanding, it’s very difficult for me to do so as well.

    Today’s shul Rabbi, especially in the Modern Orthodox world, is a paid employee whose “power” is directly tied to his abilities to keep his congregation happy and, especially, to not step on any powerful toes. Otherwise, he’s gone, outta here. He is a “leader” only in the sense that he is also a “follower,” a follower, that is, of the power brokers in that shul.

    The situation might, perhaps, be different with those Rabbis who essentially have life-time contracts. Perhaps Serora would apply in a case like that. However, they also tend to be beholden to the power brokers and the membership, given that the members — at least in the densely populated areas — can easily vote with their feet and pack out for a shul and Rabbi more to their liking.

    I do not believe that these options were available to ba’alei battim at the time of the Avnei Neizer, nor do I believe that the Rabbis at that time were “at will” employees to the extent that they are today.

    WIth the greatest of honor and respect, I therefore find it puzzling how Rav Shachter shlitah would apply the Avnei Neizer’s approach to our times.

    [YA – I have a novel suggestion to all similar commenters. Why don’t we wait till the shiur is released and listen to it before analyzing it?]

  7. Ida Ruth says:

    Thank you for clarifying some of what went on behind the closed doors. From the perspective of the RCA I understand that this was a winning situation – they could find common consensus and keep their unified voice. But for how long will they be able to keep the forces of the right at bay? I think this was also a victory for the thousands of Orthodox women and their rabbis who are supportive of women taking on greater leadership roles and of the important contributions these women are making to Torah study, communities, schools and the countless individuals who turn to them and learn from them. I don’t think there was anyone (reasonable) who really thought the RCA was going to come out and say women could be rabbis at this juncture, so to leave the door open and not to condemn individual rabbis for their choices is a victory. At the same time, I think to ignore the very real issue of titles is just postponing the inevitable. And by having R. Shechter deliver the shiur on the topic (someone who has famously compared women performing public Jewish roles to parrots or monkeys)it seems that the RCA wanted to confirm their bona-fides with the Right even as its leadership knew what the right thing was to do.

    [YA – Perhaps R Schachter gave the shiur because, hands down, he is the most respected talmid chacham in the Centrist world, and no one from the left in his right mind could claim to compare?]

  8. Michael Balinsky says:

    It is true Rav Schacter spoke before the vote, but it was the day before the vote. Nor was his voice the only one heard. Rabbi Michael Broyde handed out a paper (not yet ready for publication and therefore I cannot quote from it and a paper by Rav Lichtenstein was distributed an hour or two before the vote. Unfortunately, after Rav Schacter’s presentation, there was no time built in for questions and challenges and that is very unfortunate, especially because the Conservative movement ordination debate was much about ritual/performance issues by rabbis which is not relevant to the RCA discussion.

  9. Tal Benschar says:

    Dovid: Your post brought a chuckle to my throat. When I was studying for semikha in YU, we had to do shimush with a musmakh, either in rabbonus or chinukh. The rabbi I worked for told me a story that when he first came to the pulpit in a small, MO shul, the shul had a board meeting (where they served some coffee and cake), and afterwards one of the baalei batim came over to the new Rov with a broom and said, in effect, here is what you need to sweep up!

    Yes, some shuls treat their Rov like a shmatta. But generally the authority vested in a Rov is indeed a serara — he is responsible to make sure religious standards are followed in both the shul and town — including the mikvah, eruv, kashrus, etc.

  10. L. Oberstein says:

    Great Title, as a card carrying member of the Agudath Israel of America, I always tell them that every organization needs a left wing. Thanks for confirming that the Agudah is indeed a coalition. Rabbi Sherer was much more successful in this country in keeping the Agudah one organization. I attended the very last Knessiah Gedola of the Agudah in 1980. Sadly, I do not know if there will ever be another one. The RCA is full of learned rabbonim and the nature of most orthodox shuls is a lot different from the way they were a generation ago. I honestly think that YCT is catering to the remnant of old style modern orthodoxy and offering a liberal interpretation that appeals to less orthodox members. The shul in Washington that is led by one of Rabbi Weiss’s talmidim has been reborn from almost closed to thriving and is attracting people who previously never set foot into an orthodox shul. A Baltimore shul is supposed to be hiring a YCT rabbi. I wonder what will happen. Time will tell.

  11. Harry Maryles says:

    Trying to figure out why you doubt they listened to their halachic authorities. I have no idea whether you are right or wrong.

    I didn’t say anything about doubting they listned to Halachic authorities. I said they did not feel bound by their views the way the lay leadership of Agudah does by theirs. IOW, the RCA sought guidance, not necessarily Psak. You said it yourself:

    The RCA submitted its question – at least for guidance, if not for psak, which is a huge difference – to four unnamed greater authorities

    At any rate I’m happy to see that Agudah reacted in this way to the RCA resolution, but I am not suprised it either.

  12. Reb Yid says:

    This should be interesting to monitor in future years. The RCA’s own President has a daughter who is currently a congregational intern, and certainly has her sights set on becoming a Maharat or something similar.

    Let us hope and pray that eventually women like these also become part of the process at work here.

  13. YM says:

    Maybe its because I live in Passaic, but why is the RCA and not the Agudath considered “Centerist Orthodoxy”? How do you define “Centerist”?

  14. lacosta says:

    see the morethodoxy blog, wherein their LA rabbi expresses disappointment that the RCA has slammed the door on ever allowing women rabbis. it is clear that this is the direction the YCT wing of judaism is heading; the only question is how soon in this decade can it be accomplished….

  15. Guest says:

    [YA – Perhaps R Schachter gave the shiur because, hands down, he is the most respected talmid chacham in the Centrist world, and no one from the left in his right mind could claim to compare?]

    I’m sure you didn’t mean to slight Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, someone who Rav Schachter himself reveres.

    [YA – I certainly didn’t. RAL wasn’t at the convention!]

  16. Jonathan Mizrachi says:

    Rav Schachter was recently introduced to the Agudah world in a comprehensive article in Mishpacha penned by one Rabbi Frankfurter. That was the first step in bridging the gap between these two worlds. When Klal Yisrael is united the sky is the limit as to what can be accomplished.

  17. Rabbio Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg says:

    Follow the money. It is all about jobs and power.

    Women can be Rabbis. Halacha does not forbid it. It is a question of Leshem Pritzot, respect for men.I f so a wom,an should not be an editor and women should not be doctors. There are certain roles forbidden to women such as edas, but a Kohen also cannot do certain things. Edas was because women were considered stupid. Interesting since they made the money. , The RCA would does not consider me a Rabbi. worthy of belonging or sitting on a Bet Din since I serve in Conservative congregation . The orthodox movement placed me in my first conservative shul and then told be to get out and become a real estate agent or drive a cab.. 15 years later. I have been a Rabbi for 35 years. Do not want to drive a cab., Oh well. Maybe I will become a woman.I hope I turn out pretty.Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg

  18. dr. bill says:

    I’m sure you didn’t mean to slight Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, someone who Rav Schachter himself reveres.

    [YA – I certainly didn’t. RAL wasn’t at the convention!]

    If you measure by impact rather than physical presence, you might disagree.

  19. L. Oberstein says:

    In the past, YU placed many musmachim in non orthodox shuls, including the one I grew up in. Had they not done so, I would not be frum today. The shuls looking for rabbis today are quite split. The non orthodox want not only egalitarian but many other compromises to attract non observant and frequently non Jewish members.It’s about money and keeping the institution viable. On the other hand, real orthodox shuls want to talmudic scholar , a posek, and someone who is a very good counselor to deal with people’s problems.He should also be a great speaker. But, that later category won’t get him the job if he can’t give a great shiur. Thus the real divide between traditional or Conservative synagogues and orthodox is wider than ever. When I was a child, our shul could switch back and forth depending on who was the rabbi of the moment. No longer.

  20. ss says:

    Rav Moshe ztl writes that a ger may act as a Rosh Yeshivah because the position is not one of serarah. In other words, according to Rav Moshe a Rosh Yeshivah does not (necessarily) have coercive power, which is the test for serarah. Rabbis today are not always independent in all matters but rather many are beholden to the shul’s board of directors. In those cases, it would seem questionable whether such Rabbis have coercive powers. In other words, some rabbinic positions might not fall under the rubric of serarah. IMHO the better argument against women Rabbis is simply that it is not within our tradition.

    [YA – I think we need to listen to the shiur first. The fact that RHS leaned heavily on the Avnei Nezer might indicate that he saw rabbonim exercising coercive powers ex officio. It is a very long teshuva.

    I would have also though that the way to go was to stress that the problem is not halachic, but metahalachic. Everyone I spoke to before the gathering also assumed that the arguments offered would not be halachic, because you can often come up with a competing halachic view. I attributed the surprise that my source said greeted RHS’ yehareg v’al ya’avor argument as directed at taking a very strong halachic approach, rather than metahalachic. (Unlike some commenters in other places who have no experience with rabbinic jargon, it never even dawned upon me that the surprise was generated by using such an expression. I should add that I have since heard from others at the convention who denied that the shiur was met with any surprise at all!) But I will defer to R Schachter.]

  21. LazerA says:

    Just wondering, does Rav Hershel Schachter’s (and the RCA’s?) reliance on the halachic position of the Avnei Nezer regarding the authority of a rabbi (akin to a king) indicate a shift in the Modern Orthodox world in favor of the concept of Daas Torah?

    After all, in essence, all “Daas Torah” really is is the granting of authority to rabbis/Torah scholars beyond the narrow function of teaching Torah and paskening shailos.

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