SPRING GLEN, N.Y (Jun. 13)
In an effort to prevent further division between liberal and conservative elements in the modern Orthodox movement, the Rabbinical Council of America has reinstated the eight rabbis it had effectively suspended because of their membership in the more liberal Fellowship of Traditional Orthodox Rabbis.
The RCA’s 50-member executive committee passed a resolution reinstating them to membership in good standing on Monday during its annual convention here. It called for a case-by-case evaluation of their positions within the RCA by the organization’s internal affairs committee, the Va’ad ha-Kavod.
Rabbis involved on both sides say they are now hoping to resolve their differences quietly, without the rancor and recriminations that have characterized relations for the past two years.
The more liberal rabbis have described RCA efforts to get them to drop their FTOR membership “coercive” and “threatening,” while RCA rabbis have considered the FTOR rabbis “renegade troublemakers,” say some of those involved.
Early in 1988, the RCA passed a resolution declaring membership in the FTOR “incompatible” with membership in the RCA, which is the largest association of Orthodox rabbis in the United States. The resolution was reaffirmed in March 1990 by the RCA executive committee.
This spring, the RCA sent eight of the rabbis affiliated with both organizations letters telling them the RCA would no longer consider them members in good standing.
Why the RCA sent the letters to only eight of the estimated 15 to 20 rabbis with dual affiliation remains unclear. “The RCA may not know about the rest,” one rabbi suggested.
CONTRARY STANCE ON MIXED SEATING
The move effectively suspended the eight rabbis, denying them the RCA imprimatur on the conversions, marriages and divorces they perform. That imprimatur is extremely valuable because the Israeli Chief Rabbinate accepts the RCA’s approval in matters of personal status.
Moreover, many of the synagogues belonging to the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America require their pulpit rabbis to be RCA members or eligible for RCA membership.
The original RCA decision was based on the fact that the FTOR includes rabbis who are RCA members and rabbis who are not, some of whom do not meet RCA standards for membership, according to Rabbi Marc Angel, the RCA president.
But the RCA also does not like the fact that the FTOR has taken positions contrary to RCA policy by endorsing the right of women to pray with a Torah at the Western Wall and allowing men and women to sit together in the synagogue.
“We saw it as divisiveness within the Orthodox rabbinate, which is not healthy,” Angel said. “A small group of rabbis was able to divert attention to themselves in a way that was inimical to the positions and policies of the RCA,” he said. And “this group had credibility because it had RCA rabbis.”
“I felt they should function within the council. We could handle any items on their agenda,” he said.
But it was precisely because the founders of FTOR felt that there was no room within the RCA for many of their concerns that they first founded the FTOR in 1987.
It began as a way for liberal Orthodox rabbis — often called “traditional” — to share items of concern, issues that they felt were not being addressed by the 1,000-member RCA.
The FTOR has developed into an organization that takes public positions on issues and helps match rabbis who need pulpits to congregations seeking rabbis.
NOT AN OUTRIGHT EXPULSION
A lawyer representing the dual-affiliation rabbis sent a letter to the RCA in mid-May stating that its de facto expulsion of the eight rabbis took place without due process and was an infringement on their rights.
“Our attorney, after examining our constitution, informed us that we have a right to expel members, call them before the Va’ad ha-Kavod or leave them alone,” said Angel. But “there isn’t a category of ‘member not in good standing.’ “
Angel said the eight rabbis in question were not simply expelled, because he wants to bring about conciliation, rather than further disharmony, between those on the left and right in modern Orthodoxy.
The issues of concern to the FTOR rabbis “should be mainstream RCA discussions,” he maintained.
But one rabbi belonging to both groups is not sure the reinstatement was necessarily motivated out of a desire to find a place for the liberals’ agenda in the RCA.
According to the RCA constitution, “they cannot expel anyone through the executive committee, only through the Va’ad ha-Kavod,” Rabbi Avraham Weiss of New York pointed out.
“On the one hand, their decision is a capitulation,” he said. “On the other hand, it could be ominous.”
However, by most accounts, efforts this week to establish communication between the two groups have met with some success, in large part because of efforts made by Angel, who is concluding the first year of his two-year term as president.
Rabbi Ira Grussgott, one of the rabbis who is a member of both organizations, acknowledged that Angel has “left the door open to see if we can’t resolve this in a way that isn’t confrontational.”
‘BEGUN TO UNDERSTAND EACH OTHERS’ POSITIONS’
Grussgott met with Angel during the convention at the Homowack Lodge here and came away with the sense that “for the first time, we had begun to understand each others’ positions in a far more extensive fashion” than before.
“More face-to-face talks would help us resolve our differences,” he said. The “FTOR has felt a frustration that some of its needs are not on the agenda of the RCA. At least negotiations can now ensue in good faith.”
“Under Rabbi Angel, the RCA has in fact become an organization responsive to the needs of all of the rabbis,” said Rabbi Ephraim Zimand, president of the FTOR and a member of the RCA.
“But is it a reflection of the presidency of Rabbi Angel, which will end, or is it indigenous to the organization?” he asked. “Is he indicative of the direction of the council, or is he an anachronism?”