It was a whirlwind of celebrations as friends of the newly married 50-somethings feted the happy couple and their late-in-life love, in a week of traditional sheva brachot. The couple’s many friends were vying to host the seven festive meals for the seven blessings, in celebration.
However, the final evening’s meal, organized by the bride’s closest female friends — among them a university professor, a surgeon, two lawyers, a few teachers — almost couldn’t commence. The seven blessings require a prayer quorum of 10 males and there was a suspicious scarcity of spouses — which may or may not have had something to do with a basketball tournament game in the heart of Jerusalem.
Spying a few teens playing soccer out in the apartment building’s courtyard, the hostess, a district court judge, invited them inside. Considered men in the eyes of Jewish law, these sweaty 13-year-old boys “saved the day.” In cases like this, many religiously observant women who have standing of their own are finding their exclusion in an Orthodox prayer quorum increasingly insufferable.
“Not counting as a person standing before God is the deepest offense you can lodge at a person. You know, when some guy starts counting heads and you are standing right there, you literally do not exist. Your body. Your soul. Invisible,” said Jewish feminist writer and researcher Dr. Elana Sztokman, author of “The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World.”
The status of women in Judaism is among the most charged and divisive issues facing Modern Orthodoxy. Addressing this painful issue, a recent statement released by the movement’s umbrella organization, the Orthodox Union, again emphasized mainstream Judaism’s red line excluding female clergy, but was tentatively supportive of a serious role for learned women in communities and schools.
In its wake and in light of the ever-growing number of female clergy and Jewish law advisers already working in Modern Orthodox communities, thinkers on both sides of the issue have voiced diverse opinions on the statement’s relevance — and validity.
On the one hand, there are clear halachic precedents that explicitly state prohibitions against women in a myriad of roles in public communal life. On the other, in an era in which a woman won the popular vote in the recent United States presidential election, it is difficult to maintain that a woman’s role is in the home.
But as the contentious conversations swirl around the issue of women rabbis, other voices from those who already do consider these women their spiritual leaders are wondering: How are these learned, ordained women still not “counted” in the prayer quorums of the communities they lead — not even by the rabbis who ordained them?
A new book by innovative egalitarian scholar Rabbi Ethan Tucker and a look back at the history of Orthodox Jewish feminism shed light on this most controversial issue.
The Jewish problem that has no name
Through her explosive writing and the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in the early 1960s, secular Jewish author Betty Friedan planted the seeds of the “second wave” of American feminism. Lasting until the 1980s, this international iteration of feminism called for an upending of the social order of the day and equality for women’s roles and legal rights at home and in the public sphere.
The conversation soon entered Jewish communities of all denominations, with each addressing the issues in its own manner. In terms of higher learning and public roles for women, the movements which do not hold themselves obligated by Jewish law were first to accept female spiritual leaders: In 1972, the Reform movement ordained the first American woman rabbi, Sally Priesand. The Reconstructionist movement soon followed in 1974 with Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso.
The Conservative movement, which officially does consider itself a halachic denomination and bound by an evolving Jewish law, began its process of addressing women’s issues in small but crucial steps, including the 1974 adoption by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly in North America of a minority opinion permitting women’s testimony. More than a decade later, Rabbi Amy Eilberg was ordained by the Conservative movement in 1985.
However, the relatively rapid pace of the steps toward the acceptance of a female Conservative clergy caused splits in the movement. In 1983, former Jewish Theological Seminary of America Talmud professor David Weiss Halivni founded the splinter denomination, the Union for Traditional Judaism (UTJ). Now very small, it once supported its own seminary and today inhabits a niche between the increasingly liberal Conservative movement and Modern Orthodoxy.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Modern Orthodoxy also began addressing the need for opening up the movement to female scholarship and the controversial idea of women’s prayer groups in which women would take on ritual roles.
The foundational thinker of Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, began pioneering university-level Talmud courses at the Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women in 1977. Soon after, in 1979, Rabbi David Silber founded Drisha Institute, for adult female learners. But the movement was clearly nowhere near ready for public roles for women.
“In the 1980s, those who pushed for greater roles for women in Orthodox ritual and leadership recognized that there were firm lines. They never expressed, at least in public, a desire to reformulate the halachah. Rather, they sought to fill what they believed were spaces in which halachah did not regulate behavior,” said Dr. Zev Eleff, a historian of Orthodox Judaism and the author of a Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History.
According to an article by Eleff, “The Modern Orthodox Women’s Agenda, the Eighties, and Bottom-Up Opposition,” “Halakhic discussions and treatments on this form of semiformal worship [women’s prayer groups] — they omitted all parts of prayer that required a quorum — is substantial.”
“It was not an easy matter for Modern Orthodox Jews to simultaneously support women’s Talmud but rebuff attempts to form prayer groups. Various women’s prayer groups claimed the support of Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and Rabbi Shlomo Goren,” writes Eleff.
Among the driving feminist forces within the Modern Orthodox movement is scholar Blu Greenberg, who from the early 1970s attempted to bridge secular “women’s” topics, such as abortion, with mainstream Orthodox thinking. And while overtly supportive of the newly opened frontier of female scholarship, alongside some other Modern Orthodox feminists, she was derisive of the trend of women’s prayer groups, and did not consider them the solution to the marginalization of women in the community.
In his article, Eleff quotes feminist thinker Greenberg, who wrote in her 1981 “On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition” that women’s prayer groups are an “interim solution at best.” In the context of today’s partnership minyan movement — founded in the 2000s in Israel and the United States to be more inclusive of women in public ritual — Eleff writes, “She prophesied quite correctly that a ‘separate minyan will continue to be satisfying only for a small number of women.'”
Among the unsatisfied Modern Orthodox women today are many members of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), a movement founded by Greenberg in 1997 to “expand the spiritual, ritual, intellectual, and political opportunities for women with the framework of halakha.” With JOFA, the Orthodox feminist movement organized and arguably became focused on the public roles of women in Judaism.
‘Orthodox female rabbis are no longer a dream — they are a fact’
Fast forward to 2017 and that strategy has borne fruit. This year’s JOFA conference saw 1,200 men and women from 24 states and four continents. There are 40 women who have been ordained or are enrolled in the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Maharat headed by Rabba Sara Horowitz, who was ordained in 2009, and dozens of other women who are learning in similar international Orthodox female seminaries with the goal of becoming halachic experts and/or community leaders.
“Orthodox female rabbis are no longer a dream — they are a fact,” writes Shira Eliassian, a program manager at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
An era of post-denominational halachic Judaism
Who are the communities these fledgling female rabbis most suit? Across the Diaspora and Israel, a cadre of knowledgeable individuals committed to their readings of Jewish law are seeking alternative progressive practices in a changing sociology.
Through a plethora of open-minded but rigorous institutions of Jewish learning in Israel and abroad, the global proliferation of the partnership minyan mode of prayer and the more recent phenomenon of mixed gender halachic ordinations, a new niche of “post-denomination” halachic Jewish practice is on the rise.
Among the respected thinkers and rabbis involved in the amorphous and heterogeneous movement are Rabbi Avi Weiss, Rabbi Daniel Sperber, Rabbi Daniel Landes and Rabbi Herzl Hefter. To many in the post-denominational niche, the idea of “authority” is of little concern. Rather, they are drawn to these leaders’ resonant reasoning and personalities. It is of note in mainstream Orthodoxy, however, that none of these thinkers has the gravitas or ability to move normative Orthodox practice, as Soloveitchik did, and their egalitarian inclinations are anathema.
Today, within this mix of intellectual post-denominational Judaism, there are also several young halachic innovators who grew up as the elite of the waning Conservative movement or are disaffected by Orthodoxy’s perceived misogyny. They are hopeful that the till-now closed conversation around women’s issues will slowly open.
Rabbi Ethan Tucker is one such young scholar who grew up between both worlds. The son of liberal Conservative Rabbi Gordon Tucker and more religiously observant Hadassah Lieberman, Tucker has successfully straddled the divide of his parents’ practices as the president and rosh yeshiva at Mechon Hadar, an egalitarian yet halachically serious institution in New York City.
After 15 years of work, Tucker recently published “Gender Equality and Prayer in Jewish Law,” a rich compendium of the legal arguments for and against inclusion of women in ritual. Tucker, who was ordained by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, said “ironically” that the message came more from his father than his mother that grappling with women’s issues was important.
He said that having grown up in a mix of egalitarian and mainstream Orthodox settings, he had begun to believe the disparity between male and female roles in halachic Judaism was “incoherent” by the time he entered university.
In his new book, co-authored with Rabbi Micha’el Rosenberg, he reviews classical biblical and rabbinic sources that forbid public female ritual roles and the traditional conclusions drawn from them.
“One of the tensions is how do we understand the terms we’ve been bequeathed from the past,” Tucker told The Times of Israel recently, giving the example: “Are women excluded or exempt? That’s an interpretative choice that the text does not resolve for you.”
In the book, he looks at the idea of “woman” and asks whether it is a biological term or meant to signify a social class.
“What is contentious in this moment, unprecedented in scope of experience, is splitting the biology from the sociology,” said Tucker. He said this idea of a sociological category of “woman” raises questions of tradition and stability in mainstream Orthodoxy.
In an normative Orthodox viewpoint, men are obligated in many more mitzvot (commandments) than women. Among other realms, this is borne out through thrice-daily prayer. For a variety of reasons including lack of obligation and child-rearing duties, in most Orthodox daily prayer quorums around the Jewish world, women are few in number or completely absent.
“One engages in a minyan as a manifestation of the fullness of a person’s obligation,” said Tucker. Without a sense of obligation, therefore, there is little action.
Shifts in the workings of mainstream communities are not going to happen through a campaign for political change, said Tucker, but only when “enough people became convinced that is what the halacha would want if written today.” In an era in which women are equally able to perform in almost every public sphere, presumably the halacha would have also obligated women in prayer.
This is a step which Tucker calls “courageous.” For many of those on the border of this ephemeral post-denominational niche, there is a preoccupation of “we’re still in Orthodoxy, but if we do the next step, we’re not,” said Tucker. For example, “for many, the partnership minyan is way beyond the pale.”
“A lot of the conversation tends to be clustered wrongly around authority and change,” he said. One of the keys is to return to the idea of community. If, for example, a community holds equal expectations of men and women — “everyone fully obligated” — such a community can count women in the minyan without forgoing its “kavod hatzibur” (public honor) (a halachic label that has historically precluded women’s participation in public ritual).
‘There could be room for a ritual practice that is fully egalitarian in terms of sexuality — but not gender blind’
“It is a category [public honor] that is internally bound up with sociological considerations as far as the halacha is concerned,” said Tucker.
Also, he said, “there could be room for a ritual practice that is fully egalitarian in terms of sexuality — but not gender blind.” There are those who “want the mehitza [physical barrier between men and women], want to say men and women are different, but do not want to apply inequality,” he said. He half-jokingly called it a “separate and equal model.”
Asked, however, if, in light of the fact that women are increasingly leading Orthodox communities, he thinks they would soon be counted in them, he said, “It is very hard to fully foresee.”
“If you had asked me 20 years ago whether there would be a female clergy, I would have said it’s way too soon. That part of me now says — maybe? But there’s a lot of changed thinking that needs to take place,” said Tucker.
Among the most progressive, resistance to women being ‘counted’
Despite the maelstrom of response following the OU statement against female clergy, few rabbis — even those who have ordained women or work with women rabbis — were willing to speak openly about the idea of women counting in a prayer quorum.
“Intellectually and ideologically, I recognize the dissonance in leading without being ‘counted,'” wrote one rabbi, who asked to remain anonymous. He said part of the way his community deals with it is through more nuanced terminology.
“We emphasize the prayer experience and the community (tzibbur) much more than the narrower quorum (minyan) component. We specifically call prayer services tefillot [Hebrew for prayers], not minyanim, and we believe that much more accurately reflects the spiritual and communal activity taking place there,” he said.
“There are moments of discomfort/dissonance that I feel when we do not have 10 men present on occasion, when a weekday tefillah is scheduled to begin, and a female clergyperson (or any woman or women, but it is certainly heightened with our female clergy) is present, but we all accept that as the reality of our Orthodox/halachic community, and so we move forward with it,” said the rabbi. That being said, this Yeshivat Chovevei Torah-ordained rabbi does feel men and women are equally obligated in prayer.
Another rabbi, Rabbi Herzl Hefter, the head of Beit Midrash Har’El, last year ordained four scholars as rabbis in Jerusalem — two of whom were women. He said while he respects the OU statement’s authors who “are driven by concern for the Jewish people and with the desire to bring the Jewish people closer to God through the Torah,” it is a “hilul Hashem” (desecration of God’s name). Their thinking, he said, is circular: “It always was the way it is, and so it shall and should always be.”
On the matter of women being counted in a minyan, however, he was less unequivocal and said he is “in formation about the question of minyan.”
‘I humbly submit to halachic and communal norms. If that was demanded with regard to ordination as well, I would do so’
“I think that these types of issues, the issue of women in the rabbinate and the changing status of women in the community as it impacts ritual as well, is something for communities to grapple with,” Hefter said.
One of the women ordained by Hefter last year, Rabbi Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy, said, “It is our job to keep creating facts on the ground and showing naysayers the depth of the contribution that female leaders make to Torah Judaism. I am in it for the long haul, we are moving in the right direction, and I have full faith in Hashem and the process.”
But she is not in favor of counting women in the prayer quorum because she sees herself “as squarely within the Orthodox tradition and halacha and that is not where we are,” said Hammer-Kossoy.
“I don’t see the issue of minyan and clergy as interdependent. Women’s leadership is easy to navigate from a halachic perspective… I do not reduce halacha to my desires. I humbly submit to halachic and communal norms. If that was demanded with regard to ordination as well, I would do so,” said Hammer-Kossoy.
The ‘next thing’ for rabbis to grapple with?
Hefter said he thinks the issue of women being counted is “probably the next thing” progressive rabbis will begin discussing.
“What people are sensitized to does have to deal with historical processes. What bothers me today is because I have become aware of things I wasn’t aware of before,” said Hefter. “Today, the issue of women rabbis bothers me more,” but added that he is much more sensitive to concerns surrounding the idea of who is counted in a prayer quorum than he was five years ago.
But it is the fact that the issue is not on most liberal Orthodox rabbis’ radars — male and female — that angers some Jewish feminists.
“It doesn’t make sense not to count women in minyans [prayer quorums] anymore. Women can be neurosurgeons, prime ministers, but she’s not counted in the group? There’s nothing in it that makes sense,” said Prof. Tova Hartman, a leading voice in Israeli Orthodox feminism.
“There’s a difference between knowing something is off, and whether there’s a halachic mechanism to change it,” she said. Hartman, a founder of the partnership minyanim movement, is the daughter of Dr. David Hartman, ordained at Yeshiva University, who was a leading thinker in promoting pluralism and tolerance.
“Do people feel it’s a problem and are they committed to being part of a process of changing it?” asked Hartman, who looks at the role of gender in religion and psychology. “People are saying, we now have women who are poskot halacha [deciders of Jewish law] but are not counted but can teach you halacha. Does that create a dissonance in their minds and hearts, what does it mean?”
‘Do people feel it’s a problem and are they committed to being part of a process of changing it?’
Alongside others, Hartman founded Jerusalem’s Shira Hadasha congregation. There, prayer services only begin after 10 women and 10 men are present.
“I believe that Orthodoxy has solutions, and it’s too easy to leave. In our shul, we found a way: a community is only 20 people. Is it 100% satisfactory? Obviously it is not,” she said.
“People say where there’s an injustice we work on all fronts,” said Hartman. “I want to know if it bothers you, if you feel weird in a place where there is a sheva brachot and you say let’s go bring in two 13-year-olds from their soccer game, when the women who are there are a poseket halacha and a neurosurgeon?”