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Saturday, April 20, 2019

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On behalf of the RCBC and all of its members, I sincerely hope that Rabbi Helfgot will remain a member of the RCBC.  Rabbi Helfgot is a close friend to me and to many of our rabbinic colleagues, and he has contributed a great deal of religious leadership to our community over the past decades. It should go without saying that we categorically reject any and all of the misguided and offensive statements that have recently been made about Rabbi Helfgot or Netivot Shalom. We all hope that he will decide to remain a member of the RCBC and I would like to explain why.

Recently, the RCBC took a position that opposes female clergy and legislated a bylaw that requires all of its members to abide by that position.  After our initial discussion it was decided that this rule will be phased in over the next year so as not to interfere with commitments that were made already. While this decision was not unanimous, like all organizations, the RCBC functions democratically. We discussed the issue, presented all views, painfully weighed the options, and voted. We respect the democratic process and value the community that we are. To be part of a community means that at times, individuals must suppress their own opinions.

The issue of female clergy according to Jewish law is complex. Sometimes it is difficult to draw conclusions from the texts and apply them to the modern construct of or today’s clergy. This issue may not yet be fully developed and there are a variety of perspectives. However, the current communal consensus is implicitly and explicitly clear. The OU and the RCA have both publicly articulated their opposition to female clergy, even as they have promoted other forms of female religious leadership roles. Women have been thriving in religious leadership in our communities as teachers, community educators, Yoetzet Halachot (in some shuls) and other important roles.  We have been enriched by the contributions of these smart, educated and talented women and we hope to see these opportunities expand. However, in the Orthodox community, women nearly universally do not serve as clergy.

Conformity to communal norms and to consensus is not an act of weakness; it is a Jewish imperative. This cardinal principle is stated and reinforced throughout our sacred texts, beginning in Parshat Mishpatim with the instruction to “follow the majority in ruling” (Shmot 23:2).  It is reinforced in Pirkei Avot (2:4) by Hillel who taught us “al tifrosh min hatzibur,” do not separate yourself from the community.  And the Talmud instructs us (regarding the famous anecdote of the “tanur shel achnai” in Bava Metzia 59b) that even if God would descend and reveal the truth to us, we should nevertheless follow the majority consensus of rabbis.  

Thus, while there may be different opinions about the halacha of female clergy, the broad consensus of poskim does not allow it and I think that we should follow the majority. The question of whether this should be included in our bylaws was the subject of debate. In the end, we will all abide by our collective decision. I hope that Rabbi Helfgot and Netivot will choose to remain part of the RCBC community. I am hopeful that over the course of this year we will have the opportunity to discuss these issues and to bridge the gaps that remain. Regardless, my respect of Rabbi Helfgot will not be diminished and I will continue to pray that we all succeed in our common goal of enriching the religious lives of our entire community.

Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz

President, RCBC