Does ordination ruling herald a split in Orthodoxy?

The Western Wall Plaza is separated in two sides: one side is for women, and one for men. MESSIANIC BIBLE PHOTO
The Western Wall Plaza is separated in two sides: one side is for women, and one for men. MESSIANIC BIBLE PHOTO

Is there room for women in the Orthodox rabbinate? The answer may be no or yes, depending on who you ask.

Earlier this month, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the leading institution of Orthodox rabbis, issued a resolution reiterating its 2010 verdict on the subject of female rabbis. Back then, the RCA ruled it “cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.” While many, including some rabbis associated with the RCA, questioned the timing of this latest statement, its meaning is not in doubt: for mainstream Orthodoxy, the idea of female rabbis remains a no-go.

And yet, the facts on the ground might suggest otherwise. A number of women are currently establishing their place in modern Orthodox communities, where they have achieved ordination under the labels “maharat” and “rabba,” clever titles meant to carry the same weight as “rabbi” without resorting to that specific terminology. Two of those maharot –  Abby Brown Scheier and Rachel Kohl Finegold, who are both CJN contributors – currently work in Montreal. (There are no other maharot working in Canada at present.)

So, while some leading rabbis pronounce from atop the Orthodox universe, the existence of these maharot, not to mention the Orthodox (male) rabbis who signed off on their ordinations, suggest that the RCA may not have the only word on the subject.

In this week’s CJN, we report on the practical implications of the RCA’s ruling and consider some of the underlying currents behind its decision. Reporter Sheri Shefa talks to maharot Brown Scheier and Kohl Finegold , while, in our Rabbi 2 Rabbi column, rabbis Lisa Grushcow and Daniel Korobkin debate how the resolution is being perceived among both the Orthodox and the larger Jewish community.

This is potentially a seminal moment for Orthodox Judaism. The RCA had no practical reason to restate its position on female rabbis at this moment –  indeed, Rabbi Korobkin explains that he voted against the resolution for that very reason, even though he agreed with its substance. But Orthodox rabbis may have felt a need to distance themselves from the leaders of the “open Orthodox” movement, which, among its causes, has backed female ordination.

The question now is whether mainstream Orthodoxy and its open iteration can coexist. And the split in Orthodoxy encompasses much more than female rabbis – there is the issue of male ordination, too. This past June, Rabbi Avi Weiss, one of the architects of open Orthodoxy, quit the RCA because it would not accept rabbis ordained by his institution. Also, the open Orthodox service – which invites women to lead the congregation in prayer, layn the Torah and receive certain aliyot, and generally observes an ethos of equality  – differs significantly from traditional Orthodoxy.

It’s hard to see how the Orthodox community can stick together through this, especially when the RCA and leaders of open Orthodoxy don’t seem inclined to find a solution. For Orthodoxy – in all its facets – to flourish, these two groups may have to go their separate ways, and agree to disagree. It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened in Jewish history.