The religious Left’s war against normative Orthodox Judaism

Usual suspects and usual subjects.

Contact Editor
Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer,

סיום כתיבת ספר התורה בביה"כ החורבה
סיום כתיבת ספר התורה בביה"כ החורבה
יוני קמפינסקי

On October 30, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) concluded an extended and robust internal discussion among its 1,000 members that had extended for more than a month, voting to implement a profound and historic action plan that adds unprecedented enforcement tools to its long-standing affirmation that Orthodox ordination does not march in step with Christian and non-Orthodox gender-based ordination innovations.  

RCA leadership has admitted publicly that the stance emanated from the membership itself.  RCA members may not:

  • Ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used
  • Hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution 
  • Allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a teacher of Limudei Kodesh in an Orthodox institution.

That is official RCA policy, as voiced unequivocally at the initiation of the RCA membership.

In voting as they did, RCA members voted in larger numbers than they ever before did in the organization’s history.  The vote was preceded by several weeks of extensive and intensive public comment. Because of confidentiality restrictions imposed on RCA members, who are prohibited from sharing outside RCA circles data and specifics of the RCA comments and internal debate, it may be said only that approximately 95 percent of the one-thousand-member RCA absolutely and unequivocally supports the Rabbinical Council’s position rejecting adopting Christian innovations for ordaining women as clergy.  That RCA policy has been stated formally at least three times in the past five years, always by unanimous consent. 

If “Two Jews, Three Opinions” is a law of nature, as dependable as the law of gravity, then “Two Rabbis, Five Opinions” may be a reasonable corollary. Among my colleagues who opted not to vote affirmatively, their reasons focused on a plethora of fascinating nuances that, as Tevye lovingly sang, “would cross a rabbi’s eyes.” 

  • Many were disappointed that the Resolution did not also include a  more wide-ranging statement that completely would address all halakhic deviations emanating from the non-halakhic "Open Orthodoxy" group whom Agudath Israel has declared to be outside the Orthodox community altogether.
  • Some felt that the record already was clear from prior unanimous RCA statements affirming the same policy.  
  • Some insisted on stronger language for addressing the remaining presence of five or ten outliers among 1,000 RCA members who act in defiance of organizational policy on this and other issues.  (The others had resigned from RCA long ago to join their own “Open Orthodox” denominational body.)

As an apt example of how the rabbis voted, the RCA also passed another Resolution during the same voting cycle, that one condemning racism.  It passed, but many voted against it on grounds that it was too pat and wishy-washy, purposeless pablum.  It ultimately passed, but many voted “No.”  

Those who opposed the Resolution hardly were supporting racism; rather, they wanted more “teeth” to the pleasant words. Others felt that the whole subject reeked of a “political correctness” environment. Others felt that, inasmuch as RCA members are not racist and have had no instances of racism, that such a Resolution was unwarranted.  Others wanted the Resolution to address racism against Jews, too. 

So, although everyone shared the same antipathy towards and disgust for racism, many voted "No" on the Resolution to send a message.  

Same here. It may be said definitively, from the robust debate and the overwhelming vote, that approximately 95 percent of the one-thousand-member Rabbinical Council of America absolutely and unequivocally supports RCA’s position rejecting adopting Christian innovations and those of non-halakhic Jewish groups ordaining women as clergy.

These past three weeks, since passing its Resolution on ordination, RCA has witnessed with fascination the line-up of the predictably anti-Orthodox and left-oriented Jewish media — truly the “usual suspects” who never miss a chance to attack Orthodoxy, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, or the most basic of Mesorah (Tradition)-based values — publish “hit pieces” against the Mesorah position. 

The pieces characteristically take the same form.  The writer begins: “I am a deeply observant Orthodox Jew.  I follow Jewish law, practices, Torah values, Orthodox observances.  In every way, I am the classic mainstream normative Orthodox Mesorah-based Jew.  But today I sadly write that the RCA disappointed me.”  It is a sympathetic opening paragraph, interestingly ignoring that, in the same week, Agudath Israel declared all of “Open Orthodoxy” — in its entirety — to be utterly outside the Orthodox orbit, and then the 700-member Council of European Rabbis followed identically.

And yet.  And yet.   Those non-halakhic voices disingenuously presented themselves.  Though suggesting or otherwise explicitly identifying themselves as being deep-rooted Orthodox Jews, people snuggled comfortably in the center of the camp of normative mainstream halakhic Judaism, so many of them really are not — and they know it.  Oh, the mendacity: "HaKol Kol Orthodoxy, v'Hayadayim Y'dei non-Masoretic Open Whatever." (“The voice is the voice of Orthodoxy, but the hands are the hands of non-Orthodoxy.”)  

There was the whining piano player whose intense and profoundly public  activity as an LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queeractivist belies the suggestion that the issue of women’s rabbinical ordination is the one solitary avenue where she parades out of step with RCA.

Then the publicity writer for the Israeli daily who presents himself as normative Orthodox but who in fact elsewhere, when writing in a different vehicle, proudly declares that he worships at a mixed-seating temple without a mechitzah, where he can hold his wife’s hand during prayer, and explains that he turns off his air conditioner during Shabbat to protect the environment.

There was the feminist-first youthful activist who concedes that her friends all tell her she is not Orthodox — and who finally concedes her non-Orthodox beliefs herself, with her own pen — but she concedes that in a separate forum.

There is the playwright who excoriates the Rabbinical Council of America for its halakhic stance on the issue — without disclosing in his article that he himself affiliates  ideologically with Conservative Judaism and deems “Open Orthodoxy” as a hopeful successor to the more traditional Conservative Judaism of days gone by.  Consequently, of course his approach to Mesorah (halakhic Tradition), to the Oral law, to the way of P'sak (rabbinical legal ruling) stands at odds with a normatively Orthodox rabbinical association's policy statement on religious practice. 

There is the apologist for the teen girls at his school who haplessly tried to gain momentum for a movement to encourage girls to wear tefillin.  (The movement predictably failed for reasons so obvious that they need not be elaborated here.) 

There is the activist who was founder of Manhattan’s first “Partnership Minyan,” itself a practice long ago rejected by RCA and by theYeshiva University normative Orthodox world, long before October 30, 2015.

The response to the RCA adopting its historic policy has reflected the following:

1.  Prior RCA statements on the subject had been so nuanced that they had failed to touch a chord or to impact public policy.  Like the recent RCA resolution on racism, which no one cared about, prior RCA statements affirming Orthodoxy’s rejection of Christian and non-halakhic Jewish groups ordaining women had been pulverized into pablum and utterly failed to resonate.  Now, this time, a clear policy has been stated at the insistence of RCA membership.  It resonates.

2.  The same left-oriented Jewish media outlets that attacked this RCA Resolution also attack RCA whenever the organization acts with fidelity towards halakhic standards.  In striking an historic accord with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate for assuring uniform standards for halakhic conversion to Judaism, the same RCA was attacked with the same specious velocity and ferocity that it has encountered this time, by the same media. 

And it was the same when RCA affirmed Torah standards and values in the face of the June 2015 United States Supreme Court Obergefell decision. It always is identical: the same media, the same “Open Orthodox” sources attacking.

3.  There has been a huge response of public encomia, applauding RCA heartily, with an admiration rarely expressed this intensely for RCA, coming from media in the normative Orthodox community. Those who previously have challenged RCA’s historic reticence, in the era after Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik’s passing, have coalesced to applaud RCA for taking a stand and saying it boldly.  RCA, though always a favorite piñata among the non-halakhic segments of the Jewish community and their media, now enjoys a new level of public respect in mainstream normative Orthodox publications in America.

4.  There is something disquieting in the mendacity of presenting an argument by shaping it in a contextual back story that differs from actuality.  A person who marches as a “Queer Activist” in Gay and Lesbian parades should state openly — in the same article — “I believe in the LGBTQ+ cause, I am a proud Queer activist, and that same value system impels me to I believe in ordaining women as clergy, just as Christian denominations and non-halakhic Jewish movements do.” 

A person who affiliates with Conservative Judaism should state openly — in the same article — “I am not Orthodox.  I affiliate with a different movement that rejects core premises of Orthodox Jewish belief and practice.  Here is why I think the Orthodox rabbis have it wrong.” 

A person who worships in a mixed-seating environment, holding hands with a spouse during prayer, a person who turns off electric devices during Shabbat to save the environment, a person who is a sincere feminist-firster and who herself acknowledges that she does not observe or believe as an Orthodox Jew, should state openly — in the same article — “I am someone who does not accept the Orthodox Judaism premise that certain laws are inviolable, that Oral Law or Rabbinic Tradition traceable to Talmudic and Medieval halakhic authorities should be binding on me.  And here is why I reject the Orthodox rabbis on this issue, too.” 

That would be honest.  Honesty sometimes requires courage — the same kind of courage manifested this season by the rank-and-file membership of the Rabbinical Council of America.

5.  All is not lost for non-halakhists of Reform, Conservative, and “Open Orthodox” Jewish groupings.  There is an RCA that ordains women as clergy: the Reformed Church of America.

Rabbi Dov Fischer is author of General Sharon’s War Against Time Magazine (Steimatzky: 1985). His political commentaries have appeared on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, National Review,  Los Angeles Times, and in other major American publications.  He formerly was Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review, is an adjunct professor of law at two prominent American law schools, and is Rav of Young Israel of Orange County, California.  He is author of Jews for Nothing (Feldheim: 1983) and is in his sixth year as a member of the National Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His writings can be found at RabbiDov.com  As with all of Rabbi Prof. Fischer’s writings, this commentary expresses his own views.