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Preaching to the Choir

The Rabbinical Council of America’s redundant resolution forbidding the ordination or recognition of female rabbis has prompted a new generation of Orthodox women to respond

David Zvi Kalman
November 06, 2015

If supporters and opponents of the ordination of Orthodox female rabbis can agree about anything, it’s that last week’s resolution by the Rabbinical Council of America was a huge waste of time.

Writing in defense of the RCA’s decision to forbid its members from ordaining or hiring women rabbis, Rabbi Gil Student wrote in Haaretz: “We waste our energy when we debate texts and traditions on women rabbis because that is a conversation for a past era.” Advocates of female ordination couldn’t agree more. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance released a statement calling the RCA’s resolution “redundant,” nothing that the council has already stated its opposition twice before in the last six years.

But a lot has happened in those six years. While Open Orthodox founding father Rabbi Avi Weiss continues to argue for the fundamental permissibility and necessity of female ordination, the growth of Open Orthodoxy’s infrastructure—most especially the construction of Yeshivat Maharat, which has ordained actual women—has transformed the way in which its supporters debate.

Women’s ordination used to be an institution-less ideology battling an ideological institution. By gaining an avatar, supporters of ordination have started to debate more like their institutional opponents: portraying the other as the outsider, preaching primarily to the choir, and seeing particular institutions as the embodiment of their ideals.

Open Orthodoxy’s institutional character is strongest among those who grew up alongside the movement, i.e. young people. In this round of opining, the two most interesting new critiques of the RCA came from women under 25. In an open letter to the RCA, high school senior Rana Bickel describes Yeshivat Maharat not just as a general necessity, but as a personal entitlement: “I am a 17-year-old girl who wants to get ordained at Yeshivat Maharat because I want to become a Jewish leader.” She does not waste much time defending her right to be ordained; she simply asks that the RCA not take it away.

Talia Lakritz’s widely-circulated music video response, which largely overlaps with JOFA’s statement but in verse and with piano accompaniment, is an even clearer indication of the way that debate is shifting. Lakritz told me that the video was intended to be funny. The humor and the format both suggest an audience that is already sold; indeed, some Orthodox Jews would object to hearing woman sing at all, let alone sing about one getting ordained. Here, too, the RCA is depicted as an assailant (“You can’t take us down / with some scary little words that you write on the page”) and Open Orthodoxy is described as the destination (“You want ‘communally appropriate professional opportunities’ / That’s what Maharats are busy doing with their lives already”).

Like the RCA’s own policy statement, Lakritz’s performance serves less to convince others than to reinforce an existing ideology. Both also mask internal ideological struggles; the RCA resolution was actually a close vote. Regardless, both point toward a not-too-distant future in which intra-Orthodox debate is just as passé as inter-denominational debate. This may just be the cost one pays for institutionalizing a controversial idea. When ideas conflict, it’s called debate. When institutions conflict, it’s just called politics.

David Zvi Kalman is a Fellow in Residence at the Shalom Hartman Institute and the founder of an independent Jewish publishing house.

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