Orthodox women leaders – the snowball continues

The Bible itself boasts the examples of Miriam, Devorah, Esther, not to mention the Matriarchs, leaders of courage, who inspired the nation and left their pronounced mark on history.

Carmit Feintuch (photo credit: COURTESY CARMIT FEINTUCH)
Carmit Feintuch
Historians may yet debate whether the exciting and momentous appointment of Rabbanit Carmit Feintuch to the position of spiritual leader of the Ramban Synagogue community last week was a major turning point or just one more step on a steadily rising continuum.
Those who consider the event to be of enormous significance note the pivotal impact of the democratic process that transpired. While there are already a handful of Orthodox female spiritual leaders around the country, this is the first time that a woman has competed with others in an open tender for a position, including interviews before a committee, and one may assume she will be paid by the community.
The moral authority and influence of a leader elected by constituents is incomparable to one who is appointed without consulting the flock. While it would be a mistake to belittle the impact of the employment last year of Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld as the spiritual leader of Efrat, Dr. Rosenfeld (reportedly, she prefers not to be called “rabbanit”) was personally selected by chief rabbi of Efrat, Shlomo Riskin, and leads a city, not a community.
Similarly, Rabbi Tzvi and Rabbanit Oshra Koren have jointly and equally led a community in Ra’anana for some 20 years. As beloved and revered as they are by their community, the model of a couple who founded the synagogue themselves is also different. Finally, it is noteworthy that Rabbanit Dr. Hannah Friedman is the spiritual leader of the Yahad community in Tel Aviv, which openly welcomes LGBT families. Even though de facto it is true that she leads the community, her leadership sprang from her remarkable scholarship and extraordinary empathetic character, and is neither official nor paid.
Nevertheless, despite the differences of these precedents, one would be blind not to appreciate that we are in the midst of a snowballing phenomenon. We are witnessing a trend in which religious communities are finally recognizing women scholars with extensive Torah background and rewarding them for their efforts with significant communal positions. Perhaps the pattern is more significant than any one particular event.
But how large is the snowball? How far have we come? One can point to the rabbis and rabbaniyot of Beit Hillel, which grants total equality to female members in leadership and decision-making, and has in fact placed the empowerment of female scholars and the enhancement of female religious experience as one of the basic pillars of its platform. It is telling that all the rabbaniyot Feintuch, Koren and Friedman are members of the organization.
But Beit Hillel is an island in a sea of patriarchy. Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) society still fails to see the inherent morality of affording equal rights and privileges to women, and even the more modern Religious Zionist institutes have a long journey to travel until we celebrate the day when they will be led by half men and half women.
One enters an ulpana, a religious school for girls, and is dismayed that all the portraits on the wall are of rabbis. Are there no female role models? Perhaps one day a school will hang a picture of Rabbanit Carmit Feintuch. Yet one still hears voices of opposition whenever another religious female leader breaks through a new glass ceiling, almost pathetically still claiming “it is not the role of Orthodox women to lead.” Throughout the ages when women barely received an education, it was not an appropriate role. But in a world where women are prime ministers and scientists, where the next president of the US is likely to be a woman, it is not only appropriate, it is absolutely mandatory. It is also a practical necessity for women to be led by other women, with whom they often feel more comfortable confiding or consulting on matters which often demand a woman’s experience.
In fact, the Bible itself boasts the examples of Miriam, Devorah, Esther, not to mention the Matriarchs, leaders of courage, who inspired the nation and left their pronounced mark on history. The swelling wave of woman leadership we are now witnessing is not a break from tradition, but a return to our roots and a restoration of our legacy.
On the bright side, women’s midrashot- tertiary Torah institutes, parallel to yeshivot, are sprouting around Israel like mushrooms after the rain, encouraging young ladies to excel in Torah scholarship.
But usually these girls stop after a year of study, as there is no future for them. Hopefully the appointment of Rabbanit Feintuch can change this pattern, as young women note that there can be a practical future to their studies, preparing them for leadership roles.
“This is the day of the Lord’s making; we should rejoice in it and be joyful.”
Mazal Tov to Rabbanit Carmit Feintuch and the Ramban community. Mazal Tov to us all!
The author is a rabbi and member of the rabbinical organization Beit Hillel.