Orthodox women rabbis – who cares?

Those who stay within the system, fighting against the scare tactics of groups like the RCA, deserve our respect and require our support, our lobbying and, yes, our social media outrage

Orthodox Jews walk along Whitehall in central London (photo credit: REUTERS)
Orthodox Jews walk along Whitehall in central London
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Jewish social media has been bent all out of sorts these past few weeks after the Rabbinical Council of America, one of modern Orthodoxy’s key umbrella organizations, passed a contentious resolution prohibiting its member congregations from employing Orthodox Jewish women if they’ve been ordained with the titles rabbi, rabba or maharat.
The resolution, which squeaked by with just a small margin and was panned even by the RCA’s president Rabbi Shalom Baum as “ill-timed” and “unnecessary” given that the resolution reiterated a nearly identical one from 2010, is an unambiguous attack on the growing Open Orthodoxy movement and its Yeshivat Maharat in New York (as well as smaller institutions in Israel, such as Rabbi Herzl Hefter’s Beit Midrash Har’el) which have begun – audaciously, in the official eyes of the RCA – to ordain Orthodox women as rabbis.
The RCA’s reactionary slap gave ample fodder to Orthodoxy’s more progressive pundits to bemoan the rightward drift of the movement; non-Orthodox leaders have been quick to condemn the decision as well. All of which led me to a very strange reaction.
“Who cares?” I asked to the surprise of our guests around the Shabbat table recently. “I mean, why are we even having this conversation in 2015? Why should we still be debating whether women can or can’t do this, fill or not fulfill that role? Haven’t we moved past that? And in any case, we’re not exactly Orthodox anymore. Our congregation’s rabbi is already a woman. So why does it get us so upset?” My wife, Jody, was quick to answer. “Things that have to do with gender inequality or sexism are bigger than any specific denomination.”
“OK, so maybe I’m asking the wrong question,” I responded. “Maybe what I meant to say is, why would someone who cares about women’s leadership roles choose to stay in a system that denies women the ability to fully actualize their potential? Why aren’t they running away from Orthodoxy, like Alice Shalvi did, to a framework that’s more welcoming and encouraging?”
In 1996, Prof. Shalvi, then the principal of the prestigious Pelech high school for religious girls in Jerusalem and the chairwoman of the Israel Women’s Network, astounded the modern Orthodox community by announcing that she was joining the Conservative Movement. She soon became the rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, the movement’s theological seminary in Israel.
Nor is this question of “why stay?” limited to just issues of women and Orthodoxy.
I could ask it about a whole range of modern- day conflicts where Western values clash with religious tenets. The problem of agunot (“get”-refusal) in Orthodoxy is enough to make one head for the secular hills.
“It’s not easy to leave a community where you’ve spent many years, perhaps your entire life,” a guest at the Shabbat table said.
She was right, of course. It took me more than 20 years to redefine myself as something less than Orthodox. My reasons for leaving were broader than the way women are treated, although the slow pace of egalitarianism in Orthodoxy definitely played a part. Nevertheless, it was a shock to the entire worldview I’d built up during that time, even though I was returning to something familiar from my pre-Orthodox youth, not heading off blindly into the unknown, like Shulem Deen or Deborah Feldman, whose book Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hassidic Roots was chosen as one of Oprah’s “10 Titles to Pick up Now.”
Once you’ve left the system, you start making friends with others who have either gone a similar way or are wavering. One friend has become a closeted atheist; he continues to live in a black-hat Anglo haredi community where he acts “as if.” His wife knows and has made peace with his self-proclaimed quiet heresy. Another friend has been threatening for years to take off his kippa. “But I would probably lose my job,” he sighs. Every time I see him, his head remains covered.
Not everyone has such existential angst.
An article in Commentary magazine last year by Jay Lefkowitz may help explain why people remain in the Orthodox world even when it comes into conflict with their changing values – on the role of women or even more heavenly matters. Lefkowitz defines a phenomenon he dubs “Social Orthodoxy” – “one of the fastest-growing and most dynamic segments of the American Jewish community,” he claims.
Social Orthodox Jews, Lefkowitz explains, are fully observant, but “not because they are trembling before God.” They may not be “sure how God fit[s] into their lives [nor are they certain] if Jewish Law is divine or simply the result of two millennia of rabbinical interpretations,” but they still get up every morning to pray with tefillin. They wouldn’t think of eating bread on Passover, even though they doubt its origin story.
“Much more important to [Social Orthodox Jews] than theology,” Lefkowitz concludes, “is maintaining the continuity of the Jewish people. The key to Jewish living is not our religious beliefs but our commitment to a set of practices and values that foster community and continuity.”
Being Jewish, Lefkowitz adds, means “being a member of a club, and not just any club; a club with a 3,000-year-old membership, its own language, calendar, culture, vast literature, including histories and a code of law, and of course a special place on the map.” Judaism even adds the ultimate physical test for acceptance: circumcision. (It’s pretty hard to fake membership when something so sensitive is at stake.) Yuval Noah Harari, author of the best-selling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, describes what makes such a club a religion.
“Religion is a system of human norms and values founded on a belief in a superhuman order,” he explains. “Superhuman” is not the same as supernatural, Harari stresses. “The theory of relativity is superhuman, in that humans can’t change the laws just like that.”
But relativity doesn’t include the second requirement of a religion: that the belief in this superhuman order also establishes ways of behaving.
Harari says that the last 300 years have seen an “intense religious fervor” but with an emphasis on what he calls “natural law religions” – capitalism, nationalism, humanism, liberalism – all with their own immutable superhuman (though not supernatural) truths (“All men are created equal”) and the legal and behavioral codes that result. In this light Lefkowitz’s Social Orthodoxy seems very much a piece with these more modern “religious” systems, despite its ancient Jewish origins.
That doesn’t make it any easier to leave, though. If anything, understanding and acknowledging the importance of the social element ought to give one added respect for those who remain, despite the cognitive dissonance that undoubtedly arises.
Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the first Orthodox Jewish woman to be ordained at Yeshivat Maharat in New York, and now its dean, wasn’t looking for a way out. She would probably recoil at the appellation of Social Orthodoxy.
In an article published a few weeks ago, she recalled that when the RCA issued its 2010 denunciation of women with rabbinical titles, she felt “isolated and unsure of the future of Orthodox women in my position, of which there were very few. She was shocked “by the threatening phone calls and emails I received.”
But five years later, the train has decisively left the station. Yeshivat Maharat has ordained 11 women and another 22 are currently studying there. Ha’rel graduates Rabbi Meesh Hammer-Kosoy and Rabbi Rachel Berkowitz made news in Israel earlier this year for doing the same. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin oversees the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halachic Leadership at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, which gives women the title of morot hora’ah – essentially equivalent to ordination, although it’s not labeled as such.
After the RCA proclamation, an online petition titled “We Support Women in Orthodox Leadership Roles” garnered more than 2,000 signatures in 48 hours. “Today, I feel 100 percent certain of the future of Orthodox women serving as clergy in halachically committed communities across the United States,” Hurwitz says. “Trying to write us out of the narrative is no longer an option.”
Those who stay within the system, fighting against the scare tactics of groups like the RCA, deserve our respect and require our support, our lobbying and, yes, our social media outrage.
So let me ask the question again. Who cares about Orthodox women rabbis? I do.
The author is a freelance writer who specializes in technology, start-ups and the entrepreneurs behind them. More at www.bluminteractivemedia.com.