Orthodox women rabbis: It’s about time

Living in a small egalitarian community has helped me experience the absurdity of nonegalitarianism.

By HAVIVA NER-DAVID
March 12, 2010 17:33
Woman rabbi.

NNWoman rabbi 311. (photo credit: NAlissa Altman)

As one of the first women to receive private Orthodox rabbinic ordination, I was initially pleased to hear that finally there are other Orthodox rabbis besides Rabbi Arie Strikovsky (who granted me private smicha), Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman (who ordained Rabbi Evelyn
Goodman-Tau), and the three anonymous Orthodox rabbis who granted smicha to Rabbi Mimi Feigelson, who are wise enough to understand that there is no future for Judaism without the full participation of all members of the Jewish people.

At first it had seemed that Rabbi Avi Weiss had recently granted smicha to Sara Hurwitz, a woman who has been acting in a rabbinic role with the title “maharat” (halachic, spiritual and Torah leader) at the modern Orthodox synagogue Weiss founded and is rabbi of, the Hebrew
Institute of Riverdale, for the past few years. He announced in January that she will henceforth be called by the title “rabba” in Hebrew, which I assume means that she would have been referred to as rabbi in English. Weiss recently backed away from the idea of ordaining women at his Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school, apparently over fear that the Rabbinical Council of America would revoke his ordination.

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It is sad that Rabbi Weiss was forced to go against his ideological stance because of bullying by those more right wing than he in the Orthodox rabbinic establishment.

Over a year ago, the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem also announced that it will be granting rabbinic ordination to the women in their educators program who will be going on to serve as day-school principals in the US. I assume one impetus for this move was to ensure that these women would receive equal salaries to the male rabbis who serve in these positions. It is unclear to me, however, whether this is a smicha limited to serving in the field of Jewish education or whether it is also meant to apply to pulpit positions and other life cycle ritual roles. Of course, anyone can preside over such rituals, but often people prefer to have a rabbi.

As a woman who devoted many years to studying for Orthodox smicha and much energy towards advocating for that and other Orthodox feminist cause, I am pleased to see that at least the more liberal sector of the Orthodox world is heading in this direction. Of course, these announcements were followed by condemnation from the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, as well as the usual statements I heard when I announced my bid for Orthodox smicha and when I finally received ordination five years ago: “Any rabbi who would give a woman smicha is no longer Orthodox”; “a woman rabbi is an oxymoron.”

Most likely the Orthodox world will split on this issue, and liberal Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy will become two separate movements – which, in fact, they already are. This should lead to a generally more bold and progressive approach on the part of liberal Orthodoxy, so that, in the end, it will grant women full equality.

FOR A number of years now, I have found my spiritual home in the world of full egalitarianism. Before that, I was ensconced in the Orthodox feminist movement. For instance, I was one of the founders of Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem, the first “partnership” synagogue. At these synagogues, which self-define as Orthodox, there are parts of the
service that only men lead, parts that only women lead, and parts that anyone can participate in. While women are not counted there in a traditional minyan, those prayers recited only in the presence of a minyan are not recited until both 10 men and 10 women are present.

Where I pray now, in the only synagogue in Kibbutz Hanaton, on some days we don’t even have 10 adults present, let alone 10 men and 10 women. The community, although constantly growing, is currently made up of only 15 to 20 families. If a few families are away or do not
show up, we could not say Kaddish if the women and men were “partners” rather than “equals.”

Living in a small egalitarian community has helped me experience the absurdity of nonegalitarianism. When a community does not have the luxury to discriminate, people are forced to reach their potential and push themselves in directions they may not have chosen.

But our community is really a microcosm of the Jewish world. Does the Jewish world truly have the luxury to discriminate? Are we in such great shape that we can afford to cut out potential contributors in the name of tradition?

I only hope that the liberal Orthodox community is truly headed in the direction of full egalitarianism and does not plan to perpetuate the “partnership” model of distinct but equal roles. Granting women partial participation is a step in the right direction, but it should
not be the goal. And cutting men out of certain ritual roles to make the situation seem more “fair” is not the answer either. That model continues to prevent some women and men from doing certain things that may have been their calling.

I also hope the Hartman-ordained Orthodox women rabbis serving in the school system and the maharats serving in modern Orthodox synagogues do not make it their agenda to prove they can be just as Orthodox as the men rabbis. That would be missing the point of the feminist enterprise. The biggest fear of those male rabbis who refuse to share their authority and power with women is that this step will cause the breakdown of the status quo. And the truth is, I hope they are correct in their prediction. No tradition is worth preserving simply for the sake of “tradition.” Especially not if it is discriminatory, immoral, obsolete or spiritually meaningless.

Change is difficult and scary, but it is also inevitable and is actually our only hope for survival. If ordaining women does not change the status quo, we are in big trouble. If the goal of equality for women is for women to gain the power to perpetuate the status quo, what have we accomplished?

It is my vision that incorporating the sincere voices and unique input of all human beings into shaping our future will help repair our broken world.


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