Our Torah portion this week opens with the death of the Matriarch of our People, Sarah. She derived great joy from the birth of her son Isaac. But throughout most of her life, she encountered great difficulty and pain, much of which came about from the secondary position to which she was relegated within her marriage, and the society at large, as a woman with no power or resources of her own.
As the children of Sarah, we have created a new world of possibilities and challenges for Jewish women. We in the Reform Movement in particular have expanded the role of women in our community to include all avenues of leadership and participation. Happily, our friends in the Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Renewal Movements have followed suit as well, by and large.
It is thus with great dismay that we read this week of the Rabbinical Council of America’s (RCA) rejection of any ordination or rabbinical validation of women within mainstream Orthodoxy. Morally courageous rabbis like Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Daniel Sperber, among others, have parted company with the RCA in recent years, in support of Orthodox women who choose to pursue rabbinical studies and ordination. My good friend Rabba Sara Hurwitz, ordained by Rabbi Weiss, now serves as Dean of Yeshivat Maharat, the yeshiva dedicated to the training of Orthodox women for the Rabbinate.
It is in light of the RCA’s reiteration of its rejection of progress this week that the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Women’s Rabbinic Network has published the following Official Joint Statement, dated and released Tuesday, November 3, 2015.
“At the spring assembly of the Rabbinical Council of America’s (RCA) 51st Annual Convention held in Scarsdale, NY on April 26, 2010 a unanimous resolution passed amongst rabbinic leadership, stating that women cannot be ordained and be considered rabbis or any other name that designates rabbinic status. This past week, that resolution was formally adopted by a direct vote of the RCA membership. Despite the fact that this resolution had already been publicized in 2010 and reasserted in 2013, the RCA now found it necessary to restate and adopt, once again, a resolution as of October 30, 2015 that bans half the population of its constituency to perform the sacred tasks of spiritual leadership.
“Using the phrase “a violation of our mesorah (tradition),” leaders of the RCA have condemned any persons or institutions granting ordination to women and proclaimed that they will under no circumstances be recognized. We note, with dismay, that the RCA leadership, comprised only of men, is once again determining what Jewish tradition and law proscribe for women.
“As such, we, the Women’s Rabbinic Network and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, hereby stand with unequivocal support of ANY woman, who after appropriate, rigorous study and counsel through a recognized rabbinical seminary is ordained by said institution. We applaud these women and their commitment to the study of Jewish law, history and culture for the sake of transmitting our sacred tradition to future generations. We also commend the rabbis and lay leaders who have taken the bold step of teaching, supporting and hiring these newly ordained women as clergy. We stand together with our new Orthodox colleagues who, together with us, work to ensure that Judaism is alive and thriving for all Jewish people who wish to be included in our sacred community.”
The photo to the right was taken on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Though the signs look blank from the camera angle, they actually contain the signatures of over a million Americans. The women carrying them are Suffragettes. On August 19, 1920, 95 years ago, Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote. While the Women’s Suffrage Movement was officially initiated in 1848, the battle for women’s voting rights had been waged for over a century in this country before that August day in 1920.
During these weeks in the Book of Deuteronomy we see the effort to construct a society within Ancient Israel that was concerned with fair treatment of the people within that society, based on the rule of law. Obviously many of the specifics of that time and place would be considered outmoded and inappropriate in our own time and place. The powerlessness of women is one of the most glaring of these. Nevertheless, American women have had to fight for virtually every civil right, including the right to vote.We have secured property ownership rights. But we’re still working on equal pay for equal work. We’re still working on employment non-discrimination, and parity in elected office and CEO positions. We’re still working on harassment prevention. We’re still working on anti-trafficking laws. We’re still working on paid pregnancy and maternity leave as a universal right. We’re still working on unimpeded access to health care and family planning. Despite decades of demonstrating, petitioning, and sustained pressure, there is still no Equal Rights Amendment within our Constitution. 95 years – fully an entire century – after being guaranteed the right to vote for the people who will decide our fate in state houses and the halls of Congress, and we are still fighting for basic civil rights. The battle over funding of Planned Parenthood continues to escalate, particularly as presidential politics continue to heat up. But women’s health care and family planning are not bargaining chips in presidential politics. They are the most fundamental rights that every woman ought to expect to take for granted.
While American women do indeed live in far better circumstances than many others in the world, there are still glaring insufficiencies in our legal system regarding women’s rights and protections. Within various non-white communities, the disparities are more glaring still. As the election season moves into high gear, women’s equality should be one of the top priorities in anyone’s platform. Anything less is unacceptable.