At Orthodox women’s ordination, preaching a halacha of compassion
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At Orthodox women’s ordination, preaching a halacha of compassion

Head of new Jerusalem co-ed smicha program says ordaining women rabbis is ‘just the normal thing to do.’ But is Modern Orthodoxy ripe for such a radical step?

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Four fresh rabbis ordained in June 2015 by Har'el Beit Midrash. From left: Rabbis Rahel Berkovits, Meesh Hammer-Kossoy, Lev Eliezer Israel, and Ariel Evan Mayse. (Sigal Krimolovski)
Four fresh rabbis ordained in June 2015 by Har'el Beit Midrash. From left: Rabbis Rahel Berkovits, Meesh Hammer-Kossoy, Lev Eliezer Israel, and Ariel Evan Mayse. (Sigal Krimolovski)

The Jerusalem synagogue hosting the Tuesday night ordination celebration is undergoing renovations. The outer walls are standing, showing off the structure’s swooping modern design, but the interior is being updated. So through a trail of makeshift paper signs, guests are directed to use a side entrance to an assembly hall in the synagogue basement.

It is fitting that this celebration should take place near the building’s foundations as the synagogue above is being overhauled in that tonight’s ceremony marks a historical shift in Modern Orthodoxy: As the Har’el Beit Midrash graduates its first cohort of four fledgling rabbis, two are women.

Har’el, a Jerusalem-based Orthodox center, is populated by veteran teachers and lifelong students who are drawn together for serious traditional text study in a co-ed environment. Its founding head, Rabbi Herzl Hefter, says the yeshiva is “post-feminist” and based on “bringing the Torah home to the people.”

“This is just the normal thing to do,” Hefter told The Times of Israel ahead of the celebration. He emphasized that Har’el is not a women’s smicha program (using the Hebrew term for ordination), but that “it’s more radical than that.”

‘This is just the normal thing to do’

Hefter is a longtime Orthodox educator who is a graduate of Yeshiva University in New York where he studied with Modern Orthodox giants Rabbi Yerucham Gorelick and Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik. He was ordained in Israel at Yeshivat Har Etzion by another rabbinic master, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein.

“I’m not naive, I know it’s an issue for people,” said Hefter. “I want to exploit the attention to drive the real point home — that we’re past it.”

The first rabbinic cohort of the Har'el Beit Midrash. From left: Rabbis Ariel Mayse, Har'el founder and head Herzl Hefter, Eliezer Lev Israel, Rahel Berkovits, and Meesh Hammer-Kossoy. (Sigal Krimolovski)
The first rabbinic cohort of the Har’el Beit Midrash. From left: Rabbis Ariel Mayse, Har’el founder and head Herzl Hefter, Eliezer Lev Israel, Rahel Berkovits, and Meesh Hammer-Kossoy. (Sigal Krimolovski)

The “it” Hefter refers to is the ongoing decades-long discussion surrounding the question of whether Orthodoxy is ripe for female leadership, and if so, in what manner? And what should these women be called?

This issue, fraught with emotion and conflicting scholarship, is increasingly on the forefront of Modern Orthodoxy’s agenda as new institutions — and even firmly entrenched ones — have ramped up their efforts to include women in the realm of rigorous rabbinic study. And as more and more women are ordained as clergy, the idea of female Orthodox rabbis, something well out of bounds for feminist thinkers even 15 years ago, is slowly becoming mainstream.

The question remains, however, whether the communities that choose to be led by the new ranks of female clergy will still be included in mainstream Modern Orthodoxy.

‘I didn’t believe it could happen’

 

Seated in her study partner’s blooming Jerusalem garden a few hours ahead of their smicha celebration, Rahel Berkovits is still getting used to the idea of being a rabbi.

“I can’t believe this has happened. I’m going to cry tonight. [Editor’s note: She did, joking in the midst of her speech, “Hey, real rabbis cry.”] I didn’t think it would happen, didn’t dream it would happen. It snuck up on me so quick,” she said.

Berkovits and her chevruta Meesh Hammer-Kossoy (a Hebrew term for a friend and study partner of sacred texts) began this journey in 1992 when they were Bruria Scholars at Midreshet Lindenbaum, an institute for advanced women’s studies under the auspices of the Rabbi Shlomo Riskin-founded Ohr Torah Stone umbrella which recently began giving women a form of ordination.

A year later, in 1993, the pair was allowed to silently attend classes taught by Lichtenstein while sitting behind a mehitza, a partition used in prayer services, to keep out of the sight of the male attendees.

Study partners and new rabbis, Rahel Berkovits (left) and Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy in their usual seats on the eve of their ordination, June 9, 2015. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)
Study partners and new rabbis, Rahel Berkovits (left) and Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy in their usual seats on the eve of their ordination, June 9, 2015. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)

In her speech at Tuesday night’s celebration, Hammer-Kossoy emphasized that Har’el is the first beit midrash that has allowed them to join the discussion of sacred texts as full participants.

“I never dreamed of smicha, because you need someone who is part of the traditional authority to pass that authority to you,” explained Berkovits prior to the ceremony.

‘I never dreamed of smicha, because you need someone who is part of the traditional authority to pass that authority to you’

The pair said they found that authority in Rabbi Hefter, the head of Har’el. A respected rabbi and educator, Hefter’s gravitas is further bolstered by the participation and support of Rabbi Daniel Sperber, an Israel Prize-winning Talmud professor and pioneer in halachic discussions of women in Judaism.

“It’s a miracle to me, from the heavens. I feel that Rav Hefter and Rav Sperber are two incredible people. What is so unique about them is they are not concerned with the politics — they are truly concerned with Torah and what is good for the Jewish people,” said Berkovits.

Rabbi EliezerBerkovits in Sydney, 1950 (Brum Berkovits CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons)
Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits in Sydney, 1950 (Brum Berkovits CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons)

Berkovits, a Jewish educator at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, is a founding member of Jerusalem’s flagship partnership minyan, Shira Hadasha, an Orthodox prayer quorum that, using Sperber’s arguments, pushes the boundaries of halacha (Jewish law) to increase women’s roles in public prayer.

She has the struggle for women in Judaism in her yichus (lineage): Berkovits is the granddaughter of Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, a major Jewish theologian, philosopher and historian whose 1990 book “Jewish Women in Time and Torah” is a source of inspiration for Jewish feminists.

Hammer-Kossoy, who holds a PhD from New York University and is a fellow educator at Pardes, explained the significance of Berkovits’s lineage. “Rahel’s grandfather, the foremost leader of bringing modernity to halacha, was very forward thinking on so many issues, not the least of which women’s issues. In my mind, Rahel is the direct continuation of her grandfather’s legacy.”

‘The gates of halacha weren’t open for us. To go back and claim that was very significant’

The two women are in their mid-40s, both married to supportive husbands. Berkovits’s four children and Hammer-Kossoy’s three find their mothers’ leadership roles a natural phenomenon. Neither are planning on becoming pulpit rabbis, instead focusing on furthering the reach and influence of their teaching.

Hammer-Kossoy is already using the title on her email signature and said many of her students have told her they already thought of her as their rabbi.

“Those people who are saying ‘What would a woman leader do?’ would be shocked to see how as soon as there is a woman leader available, the world is filled with needs for them,” she said.

Making the most of the unusually mild June weather with grapes and coffee on her patio, Hammer-Kossoy said she and chevruta Berkovits “came of age as the gates of Talmud were being opened for women. The gates of halacha weren’t open for us. To go back and claim that was very significant,” she said, noting “how revolutionary evolution can be.”

What a difference 15 years makes

A 2000 New York Times article discussed the recent private ordination of Eveline Goodman-Thau, the planned ordination of Haviva Ner-David, and the 1994 secret smicha given to Mimi Feigelson by disciples of Rav Shlomo Carlebach, who had reportedly given smicha for the purpose of teaching meditation to Mindy Ribner prior to his death.

‘Sometimes there are situations in life in which something needs to be done but everyone’s afraid to do it’

Back in 2000, when asked why he took it upon himself to ordain Goodman-Thau, Rabbi Jonathan Chipman said to The Jewish Week, “Sometimes there are situations in life in which something needs to be done but everyone’s afraid to do it.”

At that time, Rabbi Adam Mintz was at the pulpit of the Lincoln Square Synagogue, where he had hired the first “congregational intern,” Julie Stern Josephs, for a job created for women that included some rabbinic responsibilities.

In a 2000 Jewish Week article, Mintz said, “I do not see a time when a woman is going to lead services in a traditionally Orthodox setting. You have to define Orthodoxy within traditional bounds and develop women’s opportunities within those bounds.”

Other rabbis, such as the head of Israel’s liberal Tzohar rabbinical group Rabbi David Stav, echo Mintz’s sentiments today. In a recent conversation at The Times of Israel’s Jerusalem office, Stav said while he doesn’t object to women receiving smicha, he wonders if there are communities that would accept these women as their rabbis.

Stav, the heir apparent to Riskin’s Ohr Torah Stone institutions, noted Riskin’s work in founding women’s Torah programs and said, “I will look for areas to make women involved in the religious establishment in ways that will be practical… in ways that will create facts, not declarations.”

Stav said his daughters and the women in his community are not concerned that the minyan only begins when there are ten men, because they’re not usually participating in the daily prayer quorums. He pushed for creating more ways “to make a deeper connection between women and spiritual life.”

“The many questions that concern many men and women in modern life, don’t begin and end only in the question of whether women can read from the Torah or not,” said Stav.

But speaking this week with The Times of Israel, Mintz happily reversed his 2000 statements and said he now believes there is a place for Orthodox women rabbis.

“The community has evolved to a place where women can lead the congregation even though they cannot lead certain rituals,” said Mintz, adding that women’s issues may just be the defining issue of American Orthodoxy.

Yeshivat Maharat graduates at their ordination ceremony at Ramaz High School in New York City, June 16, 2013 (photo credit: Joe Winkler/JTA)
Yeshivat Maharat graduates at their ordination ceremony at Ramaz High School in New York City, June 16, 2013 (photo credit: Joe Winkler/JTA)

Part of the key to this change, said Mintz, is there are now institutions that train and ordain women, alongside the plethora of partnership minyanim that have demonstrated that women are proficient in leading congregations.

Founded in 2009 by Riverdale Rabbi Avi Weiss and his protegee Rabba Sara Hurwitz, New York’s Yeshivat Maharat is the first Orthodox yeshiva to systematically train women as clergy. It ordains five to seven women a year — this year’s class graduates June 14 — and the resounding majority have found work.

‘We’re going to blink and there’ll be 100 Orthodox women rabbis in America that have been given ordination’

“We’re going to blink and there’ll be 100 Orthodox women rabbis in America that have been given ordination. The facts on the ground are that you have all these women and Orthodoxy is going to need to find a place for them,” said Mintz, who is the Talmud professor at Yeshivat Maharat.

In an email to The Times of Israel, Yeshivat Maharat head Hurwitz welcomed Berkovits and Hammer-Kossoy to the rabbinate.

“Although they certainly are pioneers, they also represent a proud and ancient tradition of Jewish women leaders that goes back to Devorah and extends down the ages into the present day. It can be a challenge to balance both tradition and change, but I know they are up to the task.

“Speaking for Yeshivat Maharat, we welcome the ordination of women by Har’el Beit Midrash and all other yeshivot serious about the training and ordination of qualified and credentialed women as spiritual and halachic leaders,” wrote Hurwitz.

Other serious scholarly programs in the Modern Orthodox fold include New York’s Drisha, and in Jerusalem, Nishmat, Matan and Midreshet Lindenbaum, which have trained women in Torah scholarship for decades.

What’s in a name

 

Hurwitz uses the title “rabba,” the literal female equivalent in Hebrew to “rav” or rabbi. It was conferred upon her six years ago by Weiss. “I was proud to take this title then and remain proud to use it now.”

She said that since the ordination of women is recent, it is “natural that this has led to a proliferation of different professional titles for ordained scholars once they leave the academy to serve communities.”

At Yeshivat Maharat, the practice is to allow communities and their clergy to decide on the title together. “I believe the issue will sort itself out over time,” said Hurwitz.

Head of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) Dr. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg (courtesy)
Head of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) Dr. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg (courtesy)

Head of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) Dr. Sharon Weiss-Greenberg agreed, but cautioned against minimizing the importance of a title.

“Women today are standing on the shoulders of giants, who didn’t have titles. But it’s very difficult to make it without a title; they help people further their careers and influence,” said Weiss-Greenberg.

“I really think that so many different communities are relating to titles in such different ways that I do think it makes sense to make sure the women are in place with a title they are confident with, and that is empowering,” she said.

Har’el’s pioneering use of the title “rabbi” is very exciting, said Weiss-Greenberg. “Now there’s precedent that may greatly affect what other titles other women will take on.”

Dina Najman, also ordained by Rabbi Sperber, led Kehilat Orach Eliezer from 2006 to 2013. Today she leads the Kehilah of Riverdale. In both communities, occasionally people have called her “rabbi,” and she also uses the title “Rosh Kehilah” (community leader).

Arguably the only woman leading an Orthodox community, she told The Times of Israel that her role is like that of every other Orthodox synagogue’s rabbi, except she doesn’t count toward a minyan.

“I have smicha and could be called rabbi — which is ‘my teacher’ [in Hebrew]… Yet, being that my position was the first [female] head position of a community within Orthodoxy, I wanted to be clear that this was a place within Orthodoxy. I did not want to confuse the issue with the title,” wrote Najman.

Najman initially turned down the offer to lead KOE, not wanting to uproot her Riverdale-based family each week to commute to Manhattan.

Dina Najman has led Kehilat Orach Eliezer since 2006. 'I was not interested in being a token "woman" leader in a community.' (Ilene Squires)
Dina Najman led Kehilat Orach Eliezer 2006-13 and now leads the Kehilah of Riverdale. ‘I was not interested in being a token “woman” leader in a community.’ (Ilene Squires)

“After the first meeting, when I saw that they were interested in an individual leading the community, irrespective of gender, it was clear that this was a community that valued leaders based on skill.

“I was not interested in being a token ‘woman’ leader in a community. If the community could value and respect what I was able to contribute — that was a position I was interested and honored to lead and be connected with,” she said.

Before leading KOE, Najman advised rabbis on matters pertaining to bioethics and halacha. When the community’s previous head went on sabbatical and made aliya to Israel, the community began a wide-ranging search for a replacement and were uniquely open to a woman in the role.

“While training women to be leaders, we must begin to think about having these women in roles beyond the assistant positions. One of the most important issues still… is encouraging communities that we need to empower women through taking what they have learned and have proficiency in halacha to put the authority in the hands of women as well as men,” said Najman.

Talmud profesor Mintz agreed that the next important step for women is to become head rabbis.

“I think like all evolutionary processes, it’s going to start with these women being assistant rabbis, then become the main rabbi for funny reasons — the head rabbi will leave, or something will happen and they’ll be the logical choice. My hunch is a woman will become the number one rabbi before being hired as one,” said Mintz.

For Najman, however, the point is moot.

“Whoever can lead and inspire — should,” she said.

A new Jewish denomination?

Last month Rabbi Avi Weiss sat with The Times of Israel for a brief afternoon conversation in downtown Jerusalem, where the founder of several liberal Orthodox institutions — including Yeshivat Maharat — spoke about the evolution of his activism for women.

Riverdale's Rabbi Avi Weiss. 'Many rabbis who are looking for a rookie rabbi give preference to finding a woman’s voice.' (courtesy)
Riverdale’s Rabbi Avi Weiss. ‘Many rabbis who are looking for a rookie rabbi give preference to finding a woman’s voice.’ (courtesy)

“There’s a general understanding in the Orthodox community — the more open Orthodox community — that you need a woman’s voice in spiritual leadership. Many rabbis who are looking for a rookie rabbi give preference to finding a woman’s voice,” said Weiss.

Weiss, who also took an early leadership role in freeing the Russian Prisoners of Zion, has gone against the grain of Modern Orthodoxy numerous times. His most significant challenge came upon his ordination of Yeshivat Maharat head Hurwitz.

“There was a painful pushback. It was probably the most difficult time of my professional life,” said Weiss.

His supporters outnumber his detractors, however. When last year Weiss’s rabbinic authority was publicly called into question by the Israeli chief rabbinate, his many friends, including congressman Eliot Engel, took the matter all the way to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to remove Weiss’s name from the religious authority’s blacklist.

Weiss is a rallying figure — during our conversation, a kippa-wearing man approached the rabbi and asked to shake his hand — and many say that in Weiss’s work on creating a more inclusive Judaism, he has founded a new movement, Open Orthodoxy.

The battles of Modern Orthodoxy have been fought and won, said Weiss. It is now completely acceptable for Modern Orthodox students to be exposed to secular subjects, including literature, and across the board children are sent for higher education.

‘To me the issue now is inclusivity — that’s what “open” means’

“To me the issue now is inclusivity — that’s what ‘open’ means,” said Weiss. He calls himself “an unapologetic pluralist.”

Drawing parallels to his work with Soviet Jewry, Weiss said the keys of spiritual activism are believing in what you’re doing and trying not to look over your shoulder.

“You don’t announce movements, they evolve. They happen or they don’t happen, but when I think back to the early 1990s, when Modern Orthodoxy had really lost its compass, and where we’re at 20 years later,” he said, naming several progressive Orthodox institutions including Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Yeshivat Maharat, and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

“Now my agenda would be, can you bring together all these voices under one umbrella?” But is it a movement? “Something is clearly happening,” said Weiss.

Building blocks for a new era

“What happens when you remove the gatekeeper and make the Torah available to everyone?” asked Hammer-Kossoy at Tuesday night’s celebration. As she took the podium, she said a silent prayer that seemed to ground her before launching into an explication of a passage describing the open beit midrash of Eleazar ben Azaria.

Rabbis Meesh Hammer-Kossoy (speaking, far right), Daniel Sperber (center) and Herzl Hefter at the June 9, 2015 celebration marking the ordination of the first cohort of Har'el Beit Midrash. (Sigal Krimolovski)
Rabbis Meesh Hammer-Kossoy (speaking, far right), Daniel Sperber (center) and Herzl Hefter at the June 9, 2015 celebration marking the ordination of the first cohort of Har’el Beit Midrash. (Sigal Krimolovski)

“The gates needs to be open wide; we need to listen to each other,” she concluded, ending with “an earnest prayer that our small Torah will contribute to new inclusivity.”

On Tuesday, each of the four fresh rabbis — Berkovits, Hammer-Kossoy, Sefaria website architect Lev Eliezer Israel, and Jewish mysticism scholar Ariel Evan Mayse — briefly spoke after accepting their ordination certificates.

In true yeshivish fashion, each speaker, including Hefter and Sperber, relayed their personal messages through words of Torah — Jewish wisdom extracted from and interpreted through sacred texts.

Hefter used the weekly Bible portion to explain his radical move to ordain women, saying, “Staying in the desert was not an option for Bnei Israel [the children of Israel], and it’s not an option for us.”

Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber at the June 9, 2015 ordination celebration of the first cohort for Har'el Beit Midrash. 'One of the major things halacha needs is compassion.' (Sigal Krimolovski)
Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber at the June 9, 2015 ordination celebration of the first cohort for Har’el Beit Midrash. ‘One of the major things halacha needs is compassion.’ (Sigal Krimolovski)

Sperber delivered a lesson pegged to the question of whether a blind man is allowed to bring his guide dog into a synagogue so he may participate in the prayer service.

“One of the major things halacha needs is compassion,” said Sperber, illuminating the question through the prooftexts brought by foremost halachic scholar Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. He used a section that stated that it is not halacha, rather a traditional practice that menstruating women (in medieval times) did not attend the synagogue — unless, the text continues, it causes them undue personal suffering, in which case they should attend.

“Smicha is an important event, but it’s sort of like a halfway house,” said Sperber. “You need to know the Shulhan Aruch [a codex of Jewish law] well, and then how to get over the Shulhan Aruch.”

Sperber charged the new rabbis with making sure people are not suffering, and to “push aside the next gatekeeper” and go into the next room filled with a halacha of compassionate love and peace.

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