September 23, 2018

After #MeToo, an Orthodox Rabba confronts the limits – and possibilities – of her own power

In 2009, Rabba Sara Hurwitz made history when she became the first Orthodox woman to earn public ordination at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR), an established modern Orthodox synagogue. Later that year, she and her teacher, Rabbi Avi Weiss, then the spiritual leader of HIR, founded Yeshivat Maharat (YM), a New York seminary that ordains Orthodox women as “full spiritual and halakhic leaders.” In other words, as rabbis, but without challenging halachic limitations around what women can and cannot do.

Today, almost a decade later, there are 19 YM graduates working in clergy positions within and beyond the Orthodox community, and another seven will join them after ordination later this month. But for the 28 women currently enrolled in YM’s beit midrash, the year of the #metoo movement has unleashed new questions around the entrenched power structure of the Orthodox community and how it affects the growing number of women working to claim their place as leaders.

Hurwitz, 41, talked to the Journal about the “#metoo” effect on the modern Orthodox community, the power imbalance in traditional Judaism and how she squares the fact that even as a “rabba,” she doesn’t count in a minyan.

Jewish Journal: On May 9, you led an event at Yeshivat Maharat called “The complicated nature of power.” Why is the acquisition of power so complicated for Orthodox women?

Sara Hurwitz: As an institution that is training women to be authorities, we became very mindful during the #metoo movement [about] what our responsibility was in terms of helping our students know how to protect themselves, but also how to help them manage the dynamic between being authorities and protecting against authority. We realized this was a unique position for Orthodox women who, on one hand, are trying to protect [themselves] from harassment and power, and on the other hand, are trying to gain power.

JJ: What impact has the #metoo movement had on Orthodox women?

SH: The conversation has given women some language and confidence in speaking out about uncomfortable situations that they’ve been in. We all have had upsetting statements made about our bodies when we’re on display. [#Metoo] has given students and faculty a little bit more confidence in pushing all of us to come up with a more formal system of reporting and to explicitly create parameters around what’s appropriate.

JJ: Is the Orthodox community echoing the broader culture in terms of women coming forward to report sexual harassment and assault?

SH: I definitely think there’s more silence. We’re a traditional community that has used halachah as its guidepost and part of that system has been to be insular and to not have a system of reporting externally. That sentiment of not airing our dirty laundry still resonates for Orthodox people. But I certainly see a shift happening. It’s no longer possible to dust things under the rug.

Rather than throwing out the whole system, I’m really invested in trying to create change from within. I think about expanding the walls of the beit midrash rather than breaking down the whole building.

JJ: Do you see any connection between the power imbalance in Orthodox Judaism and the ability for a man to more easily abuse his power?

SH: It’s definitely a patriarchal system and men have held [the only] positions of authority for far too long. Our model is trying to ensure that women [be] seen as authorities in addition to men — not to usurp authority, but to create a system where both men and women are shaping communal conversation in partnership.

JJ: Earlier this year the Orthodox Union (OU) reaffirmed its opposition to ordaining women. How did you feel about a decision that essentially delegitimizes your work?

SH: The question about what to call women is just splitting hairs. We know there’s a tremendous need. In the last several months, we’ve [had] 20 phone calls asking to hire women or take an intern either in Hillels, schools or synagogues, so we haven’t felt a backlash in terms of placement. We’ve created a need, and the OU has put their imprimatur on the fact that there is a need.

JJ: As a spiritual leader, how do you reconcile your desire to share your gifts with the implicit limitations of a tradition that tells you you literally don’t count in a minyan?

SH: Rather than throwing out the whole system, I’m really invested in trying to create change from within. I think about expanding the walls of the beit midrash rather than breaking down the whole building. It’s true that I don’t count in a minyan, but I can create a certain experience for people davening in that space that resonates with my congregants.

JJ: Do you hope for an Orthodox Judaism that is inclusive of women in all aspects?

SH: I like to focus on all that women can do. I know it’s probably frustrating I’m not answering your question directly.

JJ: Are you careful because you think you’ll be deemed too radical or do you really not wish for that much change?

SH: Rabbi Yitz Greenberg always says that in order to be a really successful leader you have to be just a little bit ahead of your community, and make sure that you’re bringing them along; but if you’re too far ahead of your community, you’re just seen as a kook. I think about that statement often.

JJ: Where is the most glaring lack of power for Orthodox women right now?

SH: What I see more and more is that girls are choosing to opt out of having more of a religious experience because they don’t have any role models for what a serious religious female leader looks like. In school they’ll see a [woman] who leads tefillah in the morning, but there isn’t the more authoritative female leader. And I think girls are opting out of the religious community in droves because they’re becoming apathetic [about their possibilities within] religious life.

JJ: Do you think increasing openness to women within the Orthodox community will inevitably extend itself to other forms of openness like gay marriage, or more inclusion for intermarried couples?

SH: Obviously inclusion is always important and we always want to be thinking about and embracing those who don’t fit within our halachic system. What I really hope is that it will become very normal and natural to have women be equal partners in the communal conversation, and I think that when you have more wisdom and more perspectives, there is a tendency towards thinking about inclusion.

JJ: Why should you not be allowed to sign a ketubah as a witness to marriage when some guy in the congregation who may know half of what you know is allowed to be a witness?

SH: Look, there’s a system that me and others in the tradition buy into. It doesn’t mean we have to be happy about every aspect of the system. But for me, at least, there’s a willingness to fully embrace it and at the same time engage in the struggle. Being a witness is a halachic category that doesn’t have such good reasons for why it should be gendered, but it is. So we still have to struggle and contend with that.

Can Open Orthodoxy help revive Judaism?

There are two ways to look at the controversy raging in the Orthodox world right now over a fledgling movement that calls itself “Open Orthodoxy.” One way is to put the controversy under a microscope and go through all of the arguments and name calling. I will do that, don’t worry. The other way is to consider a question I’m much more interested in: Does this movement have the potential to revive and strengthen not just Orthodoxy, but Judaism?

First, the name calling, and I mean that literally. One of the big issues in the controversy is whether the Open Orthodox movement — which believes in greater religious leadership roles for women, among other things — can call itself Orthodox. This issue has been brewing for several years, but it came to a head last week when a group of leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis, after examining statements and positions put forth by representatives of the Open Orthodox group, proclaimed that the movement is “beyond the pale of Orthodoxy.”

This proclamation followed one a few days earlier from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest association of Orthodox rabbis, banning members from employing women clergy in their synagogues, regardless of the title used. 

In response to the RCA proclamation, Los Angeles Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, whose Orthodox synagogue B’nai David-Judea in the past year hired its first female clergy, wrote a heartfelt and somewhat defiant column in the Jewish Journal, saying: “This is one of the most gratifying and satisfying moments of my life. A cause that emanates from the very root of my faith, from my passion for Torah and Mitzvot, and from my commitment to truth and to justice, has been acknowledged — however grudgingly — as being on the cusp of changing the face of the Jewish people.”

Now, if you’re a liberal Jew, like most American Jews, you might be looking at this and thinking: “Are these Orthodox leaders for real? Haven’t there been female rabbis in other movements for more than 40 years? Don’t they have anything better to worry about?”

Part of me shares that sentiment, but another part has a deep appreciation for the value of maintaining tradition. The easy thing to do would be to label the RCA position as sexist or retrograde, and just dismiss it or get angry. After all, in today’s world, the notion that a woman shouldn’t be allowed to do something only because she’s a woman is not just out of date, it’s offensive.

But what may look like sexism to the modern eye can, to a traditional eye, be a respect for gender roles. Generally speaking, the more you move to the right in Orthodoxy, the more a woman’s religious role is seen as shining inside the home rather than in public. This boundary may offend some people, but it’s not without merit or context.

As Orthodox Rabbi Gil Student wrote in Haaretz, “The synagogue is where we gather for a few hours each week, for some each day. Take away the synagogue and you can still have Judaism. Take away the Jewish home … and Judaism disappears in a generation.”

But if the inclusivity of women is certainly the most publicized and controversial issue, it’s hardly the only one. Rabbi Avi Weiss lays out other issues Open Orthodoxy is confronting that challenge many Orthodox taboos.

I can tell you from personal experience that the most important link in my own Jewish journey has been the thousands of Shabbat and holiday tables that my mother lovingly prepared in our home, with all the rituals involved and the family joy that came with it. She didn’t teach me Torah, but she taught me to love Judaism.

Still, that doesn’t mean Orthodoxy is not broad enough to meet modern challenges. The traditionalist’s question is, always, “Where do we draw the line?”

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, one of the leading lights of Modern Orthodoxy, is clearly in the camp of broadening the Orthodox tent to include a greater religious and public role for women.

“There is no question whatsoever that throughout the generations women have often provided halachic and spiritual leadership as is shown from Sarah the prophetess to Deborah the judge,” he said last week in an interview in the Jerusalem Post. Riskin also cited rulings from major halachic decisors, such as former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, who, according to Riskin, “state that women can become the great religious leaders of the generation, the gedolei ha’dor, and that they can provide rulings for halachic direction.”

Respect for halachah is something you hear over and over again when you speak to an Open Orthodox rabbi, which is what makes the movement hard to dismiss.

Many years ago, I met with Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, N.Y., who founded the flagship institution of Open Orthodoxy, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and is credited with inspiring the movement. Before leaving his office, I picked up a copy of one of his books, titled “Women at Prayer: A Halakhic Analysis of Women’s Prayer Groups,” and read it on the flight back home. I got the point: The man takes Jewish law seriously, whether it’s about guidelines for women’s prayers or a yeshiva for women clergy. 

At the heart of the controversy is Yeshivat Maharat, a yeshiva for Orthodox women in Riverdale founded by Weiss and Sara Hurwitz, the first formally ordained “rabba” and the dean of the school. So far, the yeshiva has enrolled 20 women and ordained five. Maharat is an acronym meaning female spiritual, legal and Torah leader and is a title used by some of the ordained women, in addition to or in lieu of rabba.

It is this religious leadership role for women that most irks the RCA. In its recent statement, the RCA specified that its resolution does not apply to “non-rabbinic positions such as Yoatzot Halacha [advisers on Jewish law], community scholars, Yeshiva University’s GPATS [Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmudic Study], and non-rabbinic school teachers.” But a clergy status for women? That crosses the line.

The RCA’s position against female clergy, which it has expressed several times in the past, is based on previous rulings by halachic heavyweights such as Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz and Rabbi Mordechai Willig, according to an article in Cross Currents by RCA executive committee member Avrohom Gordimer.

Sara Hurwitz is the first formally ordained “rabba” and dean of Yeshivat Maharat, which ordains Orthodox women clergy.

So, both sides claim Jewish law is on their side. Where does that leave us? Can both sides be right? What is the heart of the dispute?

“The dividing line within Orthodoxy today revolves around inclusivity,” Weiss wrote recently in Tablet, in a piece titled, “Defining Open Orthodoxy.” He asks: “Is Orthodoxy inclusive of women — encouraging women to become more involved in Jewish ritual and Jewish spiritual leadership?”

But if the inclusivity of women is certainly the most publicized and controversial issue, it’s hardly the only one. Weiss lays out other issues Open Orthodoxy is confronting that challenge many Orthodox taboos. For example:

• Notwithstanding the Torah prohibition on homosexuality, are those in such relationships included as full members in our synagogues, and are their children welcomed into day schools?

• Do we respect, embrace and give a forum to those who struggle with deep religious, theological and ethical questions?

• Do we insist upon forbiddingly stringent measures for conversion, or do we, within halachic parameters, reach out to converts with love and understanding?

• Should Orthodox rabbinic authority be centralized, or should it include the wide range of local rabbis who are not only learned but also more aware of how the law should apply to their particular communal situations and conditions?

• Are we prepared to engage in dialogue and learn from Jews of other denominations, and, for that matter, people of all faiths?

These questions may sound outdated to my liberal friends, but in the Orthodox world where I live, they are deeply disruptive and uncomfortable. When the world is changing so fast around us, when secularism and hedonism and commercialism are encroaching into religious communities like never before, there’s a tendency to circle the wagons and get overly protective.

Weiss is going in the other direction. He looks at the hurricane of social change and sees opportunities. Instead of building walls of protection, he wants to build bridges of connection. Instead of seeing the outside world as a threat, he sees a healthy engagement with it as enriching the Jewish experience.

“Put simply, is our focus on boundaries, fences, high and thick — obsessing and spending inordinate amounts of time ostracizing and condemning and declaring who is not in — or is our focus on creating welcoming spaces to enhance the character of what Orthodoxy could look like in the 21st century?”

Because Modern Orthodoxy has moved to the right in recent years, the word “modern” has lost some of its relevance. As Weiss writes, “'Modern' issues of 40 and 50 years ago are no longer modern. We are, in fact, in the postmodern era, as we face new issues and challenges.”

Weiss believes Open Orthodoxy can inject some vitality that will help Orthodox Judaism better address these issues and challenges. A number of institutions and organizations have emerged over the years that follow in that spirit. In addition to Weiss’ Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Yeshivat Maharat and Amcha– The Coalition for Jewish Concerns, these include the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Edah, the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, and the International Rabbinic Fellowship.

Which brings me back to the question I mentioned earlier that I’m most interested in: Does this movement have the potential to revive and strengthen not just Orthodoxy, but Judaism?

Let’s go back to my mother’s Shabbat table. One thing I’ve learned from decades of sitting around a joyful Shabbat table every week is that you can’t build a lasting Jewish identity with just words or ideas. You need action. Sacred action. 

Orthodoxy, more than any other denomination, is obsessed with sacred action. It doesn’t matter what you call it—halachah, rituals, commandments, rules — the net effect is an unbending dedication to the kinds of acts that connect you continuously to your Jewish identity. Chabad's success is very much based on this primacy of Jewish action.

I have this theory that the transformational ritual of Orthodoxy is the prohibition against driving on Shabbat. The simple act of walking on Shabbat, whether to a synagogue or a friend’s house, organically creates Jewish neighborhoods and tight-knit communities where Judaism becomes a way of life, not just an occasional episode.

The downside to this way of life, however, is that it can also make you more insular. When your Jewish experience is concentrated in one place, it sometimes feels safest just to hunker down and shut out the rest.

Open Orthodoxy is trying to balance two ideals: It wants to keep the neighborhood-like intimacy and rituals of Torah Judaism but make them more open and inclusive.     

“It’s the model of our forebears Sarah and Abraham,” Weiss writes. “Unlike Noah, who is best known for his ark — insulated and separated by high walls from the rest of society — Abraham and Sarah dwell in a tent. It is open on all sides, welcoming not only those who come in, but they are also prepared to run out of the tent and greet all passersby, encouraging them to drink from the waters of Torah.”

Of course, these waters of Torah will always be open to interpretation and criticism. Liberal Jews may criticize Open Orthodoxy because its interpretation of Torah is not egalitarian enough, and the Orthodox establishment will criticize it because it goes too far. There’s no way around that. It is the fate of the struggler.

In Weiss’ case, his struggle is to insist on the “foundational divinity of Torah and observance of Halachah,” while aiming for an Orthodoxy that “is not rigid” and “open to a wider spectrum.”

This effort to put a genuinely open face on Orthodoxy may be controversial, but it also presents opportunities. For one thing, it makes Open Orthodoxy an ideal movement for Jewish outreach.

Just as Chabad is the outreach arm for ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Open Orthodoxy can be the outreach arm for Orthodox Judaism. Open Orthodoxy could be especially appealing to a new generation that welcomes and expects a more open and inclusive Judaism, including, not least, a leadership role for women.

If the wise sages of the Orthodox world were able to pull back for a minute and look at the big picture, they would see Open Orthodoxy not as a threat but a potential asset.

They would see that the real threat to the Jewish future is a Jewish house that is on fire while we squabble inside about the rules of the household.

Every Saturday throughout America, the great majority of Jews prefers to do anything but visit a house of prayer, and every Friday night, that same majority prefers to do anything but sit around a Shabbat table. When Orthodox Jews complain about a slippery slope, that’s the slope they should worry about most — Jews slipping away from Jewish action and Jewish identity.

If a movement like Open Orthodoxy can come along and make sacred Jewish action more inclusive and attractive to a vanishing generation, what’s not to like? 

And if having Orthodox women as religious leaders means expanding the richness and breadth of Torah study in our community, what’s not to like?  

Our communal bond has eroded in recent years in part because we’re missing a genuine and respectful engagement between Orthodoxy and other streams of Judaism. This is a shame. Open Orthodox rabbis regularly engage with Jewish religious leaders with whom they may have ideological or theological differences, and they’ve taken a lot of heat for it. But if that kind of courageous bridge-building doesn’t promote diversity and Jewish unity, what will?

There’s no bigger mitzvah in the Torah than Kiddush Hashem — sanctifying the name of God. This happens when the world sees Jews doing good deeds in the name of their religion. Perhaps the most memorable example in America was the image of a pious Abraham Joshua Heschel walking alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a 1960s civil rights march. Rabbi Weiss, who for decades has been marching for human rights while proudly wearing his yarmulke, is the Orthodox embodiment of social justice and Kiddush Hashem. Doesn’t that reflect well on all of Orthodoxy?

Here’s what I would say to the big guns at the RCA and others who agree with them: Have different branches. You can call yourselves Traditional Orthodox and call this other group Open Orthodox. Embrace them as an asset. Let them wrestle with this crazy, changing world while you stick to your guns. It’ll make all of Orthodoxy look good.

I know, I’m dreaming. I don’t expect the RCA to do any of that. The RCA believes it must protect its turf and its standing, so it will probably dig in and double down, especially because it believes it has the truth, the whole truth, on its side.

The problem is that you can ostracize Open Orthodoxy, but the issues they’re dealing with won’t go away. If anything, issues such as changing women’s roles will become even more urgent with time. An Orthodoxy that ignores the most crucial social issues of our time is an Orthodoxy that becomes more narrow and less relevant. (Maybe it’s no coincidence that, according to the latest Pew Research Center study, only 48 percent of people raised Orthodox are currently Orthodox.)

Religious luminaries, especially among the ultra-Orthodox, like to say that their Torah is the only “authentic” one. But they’re overlooking something else that is exceedingly authentic: the societal changes Open Orthodoxy is fearlessly confronting within a Torah context. Instead of showing a little respect for this difficult and complex work, some prefer to smugly malign it under the guise of “inauthentic Torah.”

What I’ve always found admirable about Open Orthodox rabbis is that, no matter how alienated they feel or how poorly they’re treated, they refuse to leave Orthodoxy. They believe in it. They don't believe they're on a slippery slope to non-Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is their home. It’s their tent.

That’s why it’s worth noting that, from what I hear, one place where they feel more welcomed is at the Orthodox Union, a “big tent” global Orthodox organization that over the years has embraced a kind of Orthodox pluralism — refusing to alienate either the right or the left. Let it become a model for Orthodox tolerance.

Ultimately, all the arguments over religious labels and Jewish law, and the antagonism from the establishment, will matter a lot less than the facts on the ground. If Open Orthodoxy can grow from the painful birth pangs of its beginning and become a movement that significantly impacts Jewish identity in America, every Jewish institution in the country will take notice — even groups that refuse to call it Orthodox. 

They may even conclude that Open Orthodoxy is good for the Jews.

With resolution against hiring women rabbis, RCA votes for confrontation

When America’s main Modern Orthodox rabbinical association voted last week to ban the hiring of clergywomen by its members, the question wasn’t whether to endorse female rabbis.

It was whether to widen the group’s well-established repudiation of female clergy or keep quiet and focus on finding common ground with Modern Orthodox Judaism’s progressive wing.

While the Rabbinical Council of America’s (RCA) membership ultimately voted for the confrontational approach, the margin of victory was narrow, and the group’s president made a point of saying he voted against the motion.

The RCA first addressed the issue of Orthodox clergywomen in 2010, coming out unanimously in opposition. The group reaffirmed that stance in 2013.

The resolution announced Oct. 30 went a step further, barring member rabbis at synagogues, schools and other Orthodox institutions from hiring women who carry clergy-like titles.

“RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; or hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution, or allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a teacher of Limudei Kodesh [Jewish studies] in an Orthodox institution,” the resolution says.

In addition to noting the closeness of the vote, RCA leaders pointed out that the resolution was proposed by members, not by the RCA’s resolution committee. In keeping with RCA policy, it declined to provide the exact vote tally, but said that about of half the association’s 1,000 members participated.

“The vote count on the women’s resolution was very close,” the professional head of the RCA, Executive Vice President Rabbi Mark Dratch, told JTA. “Many of the people who voted against the resolution weren’t voting against it on the merits, but felt this wasn’t the right way to handle the issue, that it needed to be handled in a more nuanced, proactive and educational manner.”

The RCA’s president, Rabbi Shalom Baum, issued a similar statement in a news release, noting that he, as well as “the vast majority of current officers and rashei yeshiva [yeshiva leaders] with whom he consulted,” felt the resolution was unnecessary and ill-timed.

RCA leaders are doing a delicate dance between their opposition to Orthodox clergywomen and the growing agitation within some segments of Modern Orthodoxy to allow women access to greater leadership opportunities and ritual roles, such as leading prayer services. At the grass-roots level, there is a widening fissure between Modern Orthodox Jews who support pushing the envelope on women’s issues and those who want to hew more closely to tradition.

The envelope-pushing camp, sometimes called Open Orthodoxy, is led by Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, N.Y. He founded a progressive Modern Orthodox rabbinical school for men in 1999, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, as an alternative to Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school; established America’s first and only seminary for ordaining Orthodox clergywomen in 2009, Yeshivat Maharat; and ordained the first American Orthodox Jewish clergywoman, Sara Hurwitz, upon whom he conferred the title “rabba,” a feminized version of “rabbi.”

Hurwitz is now dean of Yeshivat Maharat and a clergywoman at Weiss’ synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Like male clergy, she delivers sermons, officiates at weddings, brises and funerals, and provides pastoral counseling. Hurwitz has said she wants to see women lead Orthodox synagogues on their own. Her synagogue recently hired its second clergywoman, Rabba Anat Sharbat, a 2015 graduate of Yeshivat Maharat.

In Los Angeles, the Modern Orthodox B’nai David-Judea Congregation hired Alissa Thomas-Newborn last May with the title of Morateinu, to serve as a member of the clergy alongside its senior rabbi, Rav Yosef Kanefsky. Also trained at Yeshivat Maharat, Thomas-Newborn is the first female rabbi to join the clergy of an Orthodox congregation in L.A.

In the traditionalist camp are the RCA and Yeshiva University. In 2014, Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, threatened to withhold rabbinic ordination from a student who hosted a so-called partnership minyan: a traditional prayer service with gender-separate seating, but in which women may read from the Torah and lead certain prayers.

In August, an influential rosh yeshiva (rabbinic leader) at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Mordechai Willig, caused a stir by penning a d’var Torah, or homily, suggesting it may have been a mistake to allow Orthodox women to study Talmud given the subsequent campaigns for expanding the religious roles of Orthodox women.

“The inclusion of Talmud in curricula for all women in Modern Orthodox schools needs to be reevaluated,” Willig wrote in his essay “Trampled Laws.” “While the gedolim [Torah greats] of the twentieth century saw Torah study to be a way to keep women close to our mesorah [tradition], an egalitarian attitude has colored some women’s study of Talmud and led them to embrace and advocate egalitarian ideas and practices which are unacceptable to those very gedolim.”

For its part, the RCA has long refused to open membership to clergywomen — or even male rabbis whose sole ordination is from Weiss’ seminary. Weiss, who was ordained by Yeshiva University, announced earlier this year that he had quit the RCA over these policies. The rabbinic association Weiss co-founded some years ago as an alternative to the RCA, the International Rabbinic Fellowship, admits clergy from both his male and female seminaries.

The Charedi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America has taken an even harsher line against the purveyors of Open Orthodoxy, seeking to cast them outside the pale of Orthodoxy. On Monday, Agudah leaders decided to issue a fresh condemnation.

“ ‘Open Orthodoxy’ and its leaders and affiliated entities (including, but not limited to, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Yeshivat Maharat, and International Rabbinic Fellowship), have shown countless times that they reject the basic tenets of our faith, particularly the authority of the Torah and its Sages,” the Agudah’s Council of Sages declared in a statement. “We therefore inform the public that in our considered opinion, ‘Open Orthodoxy’ is not a form of Torah Judaism (Orthodoxy), and that any rabbinic ordination (which they call ‘semicha’) granted by any of its affiliated entities to their graduates does not confer upon them any rabbinic authority. May the Almighty have mercy on the remnants of His people and repair all breaches in the walls of the Torah.”

By contrast, RCA leaders in recent months have sought to steer clear of doing direct battle with Weiss and the proponents of Open Orthodoxy. The RCA says it supports expanded leadership roles for women within the bounds of Jewish law, or what is “halakhically and communally appropriate.” That means no to female rabbis or clergy, yes to female yoatzot halachah — Jewish legal advisers who may serve as authorities on such women’s issues as laws of sexual purity —and female lawyers in religious courts.

“The RCA stands for a lot of positive things about the Modern Orthodox community; unfortunately, we don’t get those out enough,” said Baum, who assumed the RCA presidency this summer. “While I don’t support women as rabbis, I don’t for a second question their motivation, sincerity or commitment to the Jewish community.”

Baum said RCA leaders tried to derail last week’s resolution but were outnumbered by member rabbis determined to draw a line in the sand. Those backing the resolution — according to RCA rules, they were not publicly identified — were motivated by a number of developments over the past year, according to Dratch, including the growing acceptance of Maharat graduates as clergy, the ordination of Orthodox clergywomen by Har’el Beit Midrash in Israel and the activities of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat in the West Bank.

Riskin has established a Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership at the Midreshet Lindenbaum college for women in Jerusalem that offers women the same training offered to male clergy, and in January he hired an American-Israeli woman in Efrat, Jennie Rosenfeld, to be the first woman to jointly lead an Orthodox community in Israel.

It remains to be seen whether last week’s RCA resolution empowers the organization to take punitive action against rabbis who violate the ban. Dratch said the RCA’s executive committee is in the process of determining whether the resolution constitutes a new rule or is merely a statement. The RCA has no authority over Orthodox institutions.

One thing is clear: The resolution is likely to exacerbate the growing divide within Orthodoxy over women’s roles, mobilizing opposition rather than quelling controversy and unifying the movement.

On Sunday, a Chicago-area doctor, Noam Stadlan, launched an online petition called “We Support Women in Orthodox Leadership Roles” that as of press time on Tuesday had garnered more than 1,500 signatories. Also on Sunday, Hurwitz distributed a fact sheet about Yeshivat Maharat that underscored the seminary’s growing cadre of female Orthodox clergy.

Hurwitz told JTA she didn’t think the RCA resolution would have any impact on Yeshivat Maharat’s clergywomen.

“Our graduates are continuing to do what they’ve always been doing, which is to teach and to serve and to do what they were trained to do,” Hurwitz said. “We’re continuing to train women, and synagogues are hiring our women. We’re creating facts on the ground.”

The Jewish Journal contributed additional information to this report.