I spent the past two days at a conference of the International Rabbinic Fellowship.

A short history of the IRF (feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you know this already): Rabbis Avi Weiss and Marc Angel started this group a couple of years ago. Among other things, Rabbi Weiss was driven by the absence of a professional organization for musmachim (ordainees) of his rabbinic school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Rabbi Angel had become fed up with the politics governing the mainstream orthodox rabbinate’s approaches to handling conversions. Both of them wanted to create a forum where orthodox rabbis could genuinely express themselves, learn together, and support one another. Over 120 rabbis are now members of the IRF.

This meeting marked a watershed on a few levels. First, Rabbis Weiss and Angel formally stepped back. A new board of directors and slate of officers were elected, with a new generation of rabbis represented.

Second, the members present reached a pretty clear consensus that this organization will include women who have done the advanced learning in Jewish law requisite of rabbis, and who are functioning in clerical roles like rabbis. Without taking a stand on whether women can or should be ordained as rabbis per se, there was general agreement among those assembled that women who are doing what orthodox rabbis do should be welcome as full members of this organization. A membership committee will work out the specific details of a membership policy by next summer.

Third, the IRF adopted a policy on conversions. The main points of the policy are that the autonomy of the local rabbi is to be respected, that conversions performed by a halakhic beit din (rabbinic court) may not be retroactively annulled, and that IRF members will perform conversions in an open and generous spirit. A special committee for conversion matters (va’ad l’inyanei giyur) consisting of both scholars and practicing rabbis has been established to give guidance to IRF members and to ensure the integrity of the conversions they perform.

All of this was the business of the meeting, and all of it is historically significant in and of itself. I went to this conference partly because I wanted to be able to say I was there when these things happened.

But equally as significant, in my mind, was the tone and character of the gathering. As Rabbi Weiss pointed out, it is hard to imagine an orthodox rabbinic organization where these difficult questions could be discussed with such openness. (It goes without saying it is impossible to imagine an orthodox rabbinic organization where women were present and in which they will soon be eligible for membership.) It is hard to imagine an orthodox rabbinic organization where ideas like ecology and sustainability would be themes and values. And it is hard to imagine an orthodox rabbinic organization where fifty rabbis would be dancing to a musical Hallel led by a guitar-strumming colleague.

It’s not perfect, it has work to do. But as I said to my colleague Rachel Kohl-Feingold when Reb Avi led us in singing and dancing after approval of the new board of directors, this was why a lot of us went to the yeshiva we did. This is why a lot of us became rabbis, to be able to bring about a more compassionate, open, and spiritual orthodoxy. We made some history in the past couple of days, and it makes me proud.

 

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