According to Jerusalem lore, when the line at the city’s chief rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank’s home-based rabbinical court was too long, impatient petitioners would instead seek out his wife, Gita Malka, for her rulings.
As a girl in 1880s Kovno, Lithuania, Gita Malka did what was then considered impossible for a woman: She studied Judaism’s sacred texts with Rabbi Chayim Yaakov Shapira, who sat on the rabbinical court of one of the foremost Talmudic sages of the 19th century, Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Spektor. Later in life, Shapira moved to the Holy Land and became the head of the court of Jerusalem.
But she was no Yentl, assuming a male identity to study in secret. Rather, she helped her increasingly blind grandfather, the much revered Shapira, by reading aloud his complicated and esoteric tomes written in Hebrew and Aramaic.
Many generations later, the trail of female scholarship has been slowly blazed over the past 20 years. But until today, in most parts of Orthodox Judaism expertise in these texts is considered the sole property of men.
Recently, however, women seeking an Orthodox rabbinic role had their paths cleared by a steamroller: Gita Malka’s unconventional great-grandson, Rabbi Daniel Landes.
This week, Landes ordained an extremely diverse group of 21 men and women as rabbis in a very public affirmation of a new post-denominational model of halachic egalitarianism.
“While all coming from different personal and intellectual backgrounds, everyone learned a significant body of halacha and Talmud together, with an eye towards serving the Jewish people without regard for existing communal and denominational boundaries,” explained Rabbi William Friedman, who was ordained this week.
“This is an Orthodox semicha [ordination] from an Orthodox rabbi,” said Friedman, who is a doctoral candidate in Ancient Judaism at Harvard University. “Everyone is committed to God, Torah, and Israel, with a desire to serve the entire Jewish people. We all have different backgrounds and personal journeys, and are committed to klal yisrael [the entire Jewish people] rather than any particular denominational label(s).”
Since the late 1990s, this nebulous post-Modern Orthodoxy has proliferated across the Diaspora as a liberal, extra-denominational movement. Its adherents, who constitute a small minority of observant Jews, are the founders of partnership minyans and innovative post-college learning institutions, and, now raising children, they have established community Jewish day schools. In Israel, they are the young couples who seek independent halachic weddings rather than enter the halls of the Israeli chief rabbinate.
Having assumed the mantle of spiritual leader and teacher for these new rabbinic leaders, Landes is sending a signal to mainstream Modern Orthodoxy that — even in a family like his — the tide is shifting.
Now, this several thousand-strong bloc of individuals who resist denominational labels has the backing of a new “rebbe.”
‘The world’s got to be shaken up’
Sitting before a backdrop of venerable family sages’ portraits and shelves of Talmud and Jewish law, Landes, the 65-year-old Israel director for the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, explained his evolution from scion of two Torah dynasties to, this week, redraw-er of Orthodoxy’s lines.
Landes told The Times of Israel that some 30 years ago, he would debate the idea of Orthodox women rabbis — from the opposition.
“But slowly, I forgot the reasons why,” he said. And as he got over his “shock and fear” of the idea, he said, he came to the conclusion that female rabbinic leadership “is good for Torah, for women, and for the vulnerable.”
Landes is one of few Orthodox rabbis who publicly support female clergy. Faced with a growing number of rabbinically trained women, in 2015, the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America reiterated objections from 2010 and issued a ruling stating that “we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.”
‘RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used’
According to the RCA statement, the organization “resolves to educate and inform our community that RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; or hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution; or allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a teacher of Limudei Kodesh [sacred subjects] in an Orthodox institution.”
But for Landes, as he observed the attrition from Modern Orthodoxy, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, he began to wonder, “What would it be like if you would have Orthodox rabbis — men and women — who take care of the vulnerable,” he said, describing textually knowledgeable rabbis who were also activists who would interfere in the political sphere when perceiving injustices and fight against racism and sexism.
“It would be a great Judaism,” he said.
In many ways Landes is a modern-day Resh Lakish of the Talmudic era — an independent thinker who is part gladiator, part teacher, and whose stances often run counter to the entrenched establishment. And while he speaks, it often seems as if he is engaging in a hevruta — joint learning done through point and counterpoint — in his own head.
Asked if he now represents a splinter group or a schism in Orthodoxy, he firmly said, “There is no schism.”
He paused for a fraction of a second. “But the other side of me says, the schism is already taking place: The Haredi side of Orthodoxy doesn’t hire or marry into Modern Orthodoxy people — that’s just sociology. Concerning marriages, it is already a schism that is gaining more and more ground.”
‘I’m not going to fall into the denominational inclusion/exclusion game’
Raised in the tough south side of Chicago but mellowed through decades in groovy Los Angeles, Landes was a disciple of some of the greatest names of contemporary Orthodoxy. From Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook, and former Israel chief rabbi Avraham Shapira he gained different values — engagement in the struggle between modernity and Jewish law, a sense of mysticism, and love for the glory and continuity of Torah.
It is doubtful that these great religious leaders would count Landes’s students as part of their Orthodoxy.
“I’m not going to fall into the denominational inclusion/exclusion game,” Landes chided. When pressed, he said he does consider his students Orthodox and that they all observe Jewish Law.
Riffing on the words “dati leumi,” the Hebrew term for Modern Orthodox, he said, “Are they dati [religious]? Absolutely. Leumi [Jewish nationalist]? Yes. But how about universality?”
“They love God, Torah, are driven by the Divine, and are totally committed to the Jewish People,” he said. “The world’s got to be shaken up.”
A generation of flux
This model of melding halachic observance with egalitarianism can arguably find roots in the later writings of controversial Israeli Modern Orthodox thinker Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903–1994). In the first lines of his 1980 “Meta-Halachah and the Status of Women,” Leibowitz wrote, “The question of Women and Judaism is more crucial today than all the political problems of the people and its state. Failure to deal with it seriously threatens the viability of the Judaism of Torah and Mitzvoth in the contemporary world.”
‘Jewish religious society will not be able to survive if, for pseudo-religious reasons, we continue to deprive women of their due rights’
“The halachic decisions in Judaism barring women from public office tell us more about what actually was the case than about what ought to be… Jewish religious society will not be able to survive if, for pseudo-religious reasons, we continue to deprive women of their due rights. This is the point at which we — those of us resolved to practice Torah — cannot perpetuate the halachic decisions of our fathers dating from a social reality which differed radically from our own,” wrote Leibowitz.
Although far from being adopted as mainstream, Leibowitz’s words continue to serve as a warning.
“That prophecy has not yet come to fruition, but the possibility looms in the background,” said Bar-Ilan University Prof. Adam S. Ferziger.
The historian, the author of the award-winning “Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism,” said there have been post-denominational egalitarian activities going on for a long time.
‘We live in that generation of flux’
“We live in that generation of flux,” Ferziger said.
But leading Israeli Modern Orthodox Rabbi David Stav isn’t so sure. The head of the of the Modern Orthodox rabbinical organization Tzohar told The Times of Israel in an interview last year that he doesn’t object to the ordination of women, but wonders if there are communities that would accept them as their leaders.
The heir apparent to Efrat Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s Ohr Torah Stone institutions — which offer advanced halachic training for women, but do not bestow upon women the title “rabbi” — Stav said he will continue to look for areas to involve women in the mainstream religious establishment, “in ways that will create facts, not declarations.”
“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 in New York learning centers such as Yeshivat Maharat, as well as in Jerusalem, there are several small institutions that are ordaining women. Sometimes, as in the case of last year’s groundbreaking ordination of two Orthodox Women at Jerusalem’s Har’el Beit Midrash, the women are ordained alongside men.
‘I hope it gets more acceptable so we can move on to more important things, like the future’
Head of Har’el Rabbi Herzl Hefter told The Times of Israel that his institution recently received a generous grant from the Lindenbaum family which is allowing him to hire more staff and create a full-time rabbinical program. He projects that in another three years he’ll graduate another 12 candidates, six men and six women.
Hefter said this week that he firmly supports the work Landes is pursuing, and “hopes it gets more acceptable so we can move on to more important things, like the future.”
To date, according to Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, the executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, excluding Landes’s fledgling female rabbis, there are some 20 ordained Orthodox female “rabbinical leaders” who are working in Jewish communities.
At this year’s ceremony alone, Landes has added another eight women to the field and there are several more on the horizon, he said.
Wanted: A rabbi to kick students in the tuches
Seated behind an enormous vintage wooden table ahead of the ceremony during which he would bestow upon a record number of women and men his private ordination, Landes described how he became concerned for this group of “pious” post-Modern Jews.
“I worried about them. They are very independent, but would like to have a rebbe… a teacher, a mentor, one who validates, but periodically kicks them in the tuches,” he said.
For the past two decades Landes has been a leader at Jerusalem-based Pardes, a 40-year-old learning center for overseas students who spend a year acquiring the tools of serious text study in a non-denominational beit midrash, or house of study. When he somewhat surreptitiously began training a few individuals some 15 years ago, the board objected on the grounds that it changed the status quo toward Orthodoxy. He was told by the board that he would not have institutional backing for a rabbinics program.
“It was a disappointment, but I understood it,” he said.
For almost a decade, he desisted. But five years ago, he decided to step down from his administrative roles at Pardes and begin afresh. To implement his vision of a new prototype of halachically observant rabbi with a pronounced social conscience, he reverted to the “very terrifying and very intimate” model of private ordination his venerable ancestors used.
“I had to get rid of the authoritarianism and then think about what does authority mean to me today,” said Landes. He said with affection that his students, most of whom are educators already employed in Jewish institutions around the world, consider “respect for their teacher” to mean continually challenging and debating him.
‘The last time I checked, the sky isn’t falling and the earth isn’t opening up’
This mutually challenging relationship was on display at the standing-room-only ordination ceremony in Jerusalem on June 7. Following this celebration of the men and women’s paths to the rabbinate, as guest speaker Rabbi Brad Hirschfield noted, “The last time I checked, the sky isn’t falling and the earth isn’t opening up.
“But we need to be attentive to those for whom the sky is falling and the earth is opening up. This moment is difficult and challenging and they too will be a part of our Torah,” said Hirschfield, the president of the United States-based pan-denominational CLAL–The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
What’s in a label?
Calling Landes “courageous,” Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, a founder of the halachic/egalitarian institution Mechon Hadar in New York City where a number of the ordained women teach, said the Landes ordination is “significant.”
“I think what’s significant in this ordination is that Rav Landes is ordaining people who don’t necessarily live out exactly the kind of Judaism he is living out, but he understands, respects and encourages the Judaism they are living out,” said Kaunfer, who wrote “the book” on post-denominational Jewry, 2010’s “Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities.”
“In many ways it’s the last stand of some kind of integrated vision of Jewish life that does not say ‘I’m dati [religious]’ or ‘I’m hiloni [secular],’ but says there can be some interplay and some shared language,” said Kaunfer.
“Hopefully the trend here is not even limited to the daringness of an Orthodox rabbi deciding to give semicha to women. The real daringness is to move beyond the labels that have dominated the conversation for the last century, and to go back to ‘Torah and mitzvot’ as the most important unifying terminology,” he said.
However, for Ra’anana-based Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, co-founder of the Modern Orthodox organization Tzohar, the conversation of how to accept these newly ordained women as rabbis is all about semantics.
When asked if he would embrace the idea of a female Orthodox rabbi, Cherlow answered that he would — if she were purely an educator.
The word “rabbi” has several layers of meaning, said Cherlow.
“Are we talking about a teacher, or a posek [legal expert], or a leader? I think that it’s very dynamic,” he said. For now, he said, emphasizing repeatedly that he means at this particular point in time, he feels there’s no place for women to be legal experts or leaders as it is currently not part of the Jewish tradition.
For now, he said, “The real revolution is that there are more and more women whose lectures are worth listening to.” These women he would freely call rabbi, he said.
“I don’t know what will be in the future,” said Cherlow. “Will things change? Probably yes.”
For some, the future is now
Speaking the day after the ceremony, Rabbi Naama Levitz Applbaum sighed and said, “I feel like I’m in an emotional hangover. It was a very emotional evening.”
The mother of three grew up in an ultra-Orthodox household, but in time drifted to a much more liberal Judaism. Although she began her rabbinical studies at the Israeli Conservative movement’s Schechter Institute, she quickly saw that it wasn’t a good fit for her.
“I was looking for a rav to study with,” said Levitz Applbaum, referring to a mentor who is expert in legal and spiritual Judaism.
The newly ordained Landes student would not define herself as Orthodox.
“I haven’t considered myself within the folds of mainstream Orthodoxy for a long time and I have no expectation to dive back in. I see myself on the fringes of Orthodoxy or post-denominational,” said the educator and prayer leader.
‘I do what I believe in’
A founder of Jerusalem’s egalitarian Sod Siach minyan, the seventh-generation Israeli said that the fact that the prayer group is not connected to any denomination enables people from different backgrounds — from yeshiva students in Otniel and Maale Gilboa to the children of Reform rabbis — to feel comfortable there.
“The expectation is that they’re fluent in prayer. If they’re not, they’ll get there,” she said.
“I don’t think my struggle is to prove what I do as Orthodoxy. I’m not at that stage any more — I do what I believe in,” she said.