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How do you solve a problem like a maharat?

Orthodox rabbis are divided on what to do with the cadre of knowledgeable and qualified women who wish to devote their lives to serving the Jewish community. Why some look to Chabad for answers

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

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)

Before King Solomon described his vision of a perfect woman in Proverbs 31, he prefaced his famous poem “A woman of valor” with wisdom passed on to him by his mother. Although her son famously had some 1,000 wives and concubines, his mother Bathsheba admonishes him not to waste his vim and vigor on women and drink, for this behavior is unseemly for a king who must speak up for the mute and deliver justice.

And then comes the poem praising an idealized womanhood that has been sung by husbands to their wives at Shabbat tables for centuries across the Jewish Diaspora.

With weekly recitations praising this model of a fearless, brilliant merchant/mother, Jewish girls grow up learning that among her many esteemed attributes she was also a pious teacher of Torah. “Her mouth opens in wisdom and a Torah of kindness is on her tongue.”

Moreover, it is her acts — both public and in the home — and her fear of God that are cause for praise, versus the physical appearance so valued in today’s society. “Grace is false and beauty is vanity; a God-fearing woman will be praised,” reads the Proverb. “Exalt her for the fruits of her hand, and her acts will publicly glorify her.”

‘Her mouth opens in wisdom and a Torah of kindness is on her tongue’

This final verse may stick in the throats of Jewish feminists looking for a seat at the Orthodox table this Shabbat, coming on the heels of a week in which two Orthodox umbrella organizations, the Rabbinical Council of America and Agudath Israel of America, officially decried an elite group of ordained Orthodox female clergy and forbade them from being hired to lead congregations.

While these resolutions may or may not have practical impact, they are the stimulus for a fresh round of emotionally charged conversations among the Modern Orthodox about how to solve the problem presented by a growing cadre of passionate, learned and qualified women who desire to publicly offer the “fruits of their hands” in service to the Orthodox community.

For many in mainstream Orthodoxy, the question of whether the movement will one day have a female rabbinate is absurd. For others, subscribing to the evolutionary nature of halacha (Jewish law), the matter requires patience and small steps forward. But the more revolutionary wing sees a need for pushing the envelope and creating facts on the ground.

For these revolutionaries, seeing that women are already increasingly taking on leadership roles, the question of whether to allow a female clergy in congregations is moot since, as stated by a bitter YouTube response to the RCA’s resolution by Talia Lakritz, “They already are.”

Israel: A hotbed of feminist Orthodoxy?

This summer Jerusalem saw a historic ordination as Har’el Beit Midrash graduated its first cohort of rabbis. Among those receiving smicha from Rabbi Herzl Hefter and Rabbi Daniel Sperber were two well-known female scholars and teachers, Rav Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy and Rav Rahel Berkovits.

Their big night came some six years after the first high-profile ordination of a woman in the US, when Riverdale, New York, Rabbi Avi Weiss ordained Rabba Sara Hurwitz in a step that was called “beyond the pale” of Orthodox Judaism by his rabbinic peers.

But in Israel and largely under the radar, a few Orthodox women have been given private ordinations during the past several decades, often from US-born immigrant rabbis, including Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

The first rabbinic cohort of the Har'el Beit Midrash at their ordination in June 2015. 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 at their ordination in June 2015. From left: Rabbis Ariel Mayse, Har’el founder and head Herzl Hefter, Eliezer Lev Israel, Rahel Berkovits, and Meesh Hammer-Kossoy. (Sigal Krimolovski)

“Although it is true that we have a chief rabbinate here in Israel which does control some very important issues of marriage, divorce and conversion, for the most part on a day-to-day basis, Jews in Israel live autonomously and are free to do and say what they please. There is not one body who says what an individual shul or school can do or hire,” said Berkovits this week.

“That is why I think a lot of the most progressive things happening in the halachic world concerning women started in Israel (like partnership minyanim, toanot rabbaniot [rabbinic court pleaders], yoazot halacha [female halachic advisers for family purity laws] which was really the precursor to ordination), and why some of the biggest names dealing with these issues — Rav Daniel Sperber, Tamar Ross, Rav Shlomo Riskin, Rav Herzl Hefter — all live in Israel,” said Berkovits.

“In light of this difference one must really appreciate Rav Avi Weiss’s courage when founding Yeshivat Maharat [the female clergy seminary run by Hurwitz] that he chose to act and go out on a limb for Orthodox women,” she said.

‘It is clear to me now in ways I could not have imagined six months ago that there is a contribution that women have to make specifically’

Not only Orthodox women benefit from the new influx of women leaders. Anecdotally, female clergy say that they find their new roles fill a vacuum in Jewish communal life — often one they themselves were unaware existed.

Hammer-Kossoy said that in the last six months since her ordination, she has been overwhelmed by calls from students and community members “suddenly seeking out guidance in light of my new status.” Some of these calls, she acknowledged, are questions that would have otherwise been referred to a “proper rabbi” or may have been asked of her even prior to her ordination.

“But a great majority of them, I suspect, are questions that might never have been asked,” said Hammer-Kossoy.

“It is clear to me now in ways I could not have imagined six months ago that there is a contribution that women have to make specifically, and that a religious title is a vital tool in enabling that contribution… why does the RCA want to impede us?” said Hammer-Kossoy.

Her long-time study partner Berkovits echoed her puzzlement.

“Not every synagogue or school needs to hire a female spiritual leader if it is not appropriate for its constituents, but for those communities which feel that they will be brought closer to Torah and mitzvot [commandments] by having women rabbis and leaders, why should they not be free to do so?” asked Berkovits.

From rabbanit to rabba

In the maelstrom of comments this week, there are those who peg the RCA’s new iteration of its anti-female clergy resolution to this summer’s ordination of Hammer-Kossoy and Berkovits. But in fact they, and their Yeshivat Maharat colleagues, are merely publicly claiming titles for roles that are already being fulfilled by women across the spectrum of Orthodoxy.

And ironically, according to Bar-Ilan Professor Adam S. Ferziger, in many ways contemporary ultra-Orthodoxy is no less readily harnessing female leadership potential than Modern Orthodoxy. The author of the recently published “Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism” calls this the “silent revolution of Haredi women.”

The best known examples are the Chabad female emissaries who have long been full partners with their husbands in their efforts to engage other Jews. But today, says Ferziger, there is a growing cadre of ultra-Orthodox women who have a public following on their own merit.

As an example he points to Lori Palatnik, a popular speaker and media personality who founded the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, an outreach initiative that brings Jewish women of all backgrounds to Israel as a way of helping them become more committed Jews. Palatnik was recently inscribed in Hadassah Women’s official honor roll of “Most Outstanding Jewish American Women of Our Time,” alongside groundbreaking figures like Ruth Bader Ginzburg, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem.

The ultra-Orthodox women’s very public roles are all conducted with the consent and blessing of their rabbinate. In many cases the women are knowledgable in Jewish texts, having grown up in the Bais Yaakov school system. But, although they may advise on some practical issues of Jewish law, they don’t presume to be recognized as equal halachic authorities to male rabbis nor to play active roles in prayer services.

Interestingly, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, looks to the incredibly successful Chabad Houses, which utilize both male and female leadership, as a model for creating a joyful communal atmosphere.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, head of New York's liberal Orthodox rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, in Jerusalem's King David Hotel, February 24, 2015. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/The Times of Israel)
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, head of New York’s liberal Orthodox rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, February 24, 2015. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

“For our shuls to be successful, we have to turn them into homes,” said Lopatin. And, based on the Chabad couples, he thinks women may well be better suited to spearhead this type of initiative and blur the boundary between institutional Judaism and the intimate Judaism of the hearth.

The overarching goal for Lopatin is to build a strong, cohesive and inclusive Jewish community.

“How are we going to get the women more involved? Hire a woman and get them more involved,” he said, calling it “strange and negligent” that synagogues don’t have a professional on the women’s side, “as clergy, guiding them on their religious journey.”

Since the institution’s founding in 2009, Yeshivat Maharat’s dozen graduates have overwhelmingly found work after their ordination in congregations or institutions that have embraced them.

“The success of the maharat or women rabbis, and no less so their Chabad and Haredi counterparts, is a direct outgrowth of broader societal acknowledgment of women’s abilities and contributions in every stream of life. They often introduce alternative but no less effective approaches that are a little different than men and it works — in medicine, in Wall Street, journalism, academia. Similarly so in their burgeoning religious leadership roles,” said Bar-Ilan’s Ferziger.

“Regardless of your view regarding the formal titles, if you care deeply about Jewish continuity, why wouldn’t you want to utilize these resources?” asked Ferziger.

Reform, or reformation?

There are “flash topics” within Modern Orthodoxy, and egalitarianism is the biggest one, said Ferziger, who received rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University in New York.

Bar-Ilan Professor Adam S. Ferziger, author of the recently published 'Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism' (courtesy)
Bar-Ilan Professor Adam S. Ferziger, author of the recently published ‘Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism’ (courtesy)

“We’re seeing people who are fundamentally committed to a ‘halachic’ lifestyle as the foundation of Jewish life, but cannot countenance the lack of male-female parity in the religious realm. Their sense of injustice is buttressed by having been taught that halacha has room for more flexibility than most authorities let on,” said Ferziger, who is the S.R. Hirsch Chair for Research of the Torah with Derekh Erez Movement in the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan.

“It bears noting that there are often two types of change that operate in parallel: osmosis change — slow change — and then you have revolutionary rupture change. At some point they are likely to reach a similar place,” said Ferziger.

Asked if he thinks there will be a sort of counter-reformation — beyond formal declarations of protest like this week’s RCA resolution — to the more strident steps taken by Weiss and Hurwitz in New York, and now Jerusalem’s Hefter, he said, “There are no guarantees, but I don’t see it happening. The practical changes on the ground in the roles of women are already too fundamental, too anchored, too part of the fabric of Orthodox society.”

But there are a growing number in the ranks of Modern Orthodoxy who, while supporting Jewish feminists, wonder if the crusade for an equitable title has pushed the movement one step forward, two steps back.

‘I think that if we did not use the word “ordination” or “rabbi” in connection with women, we would make much more progress getting women accepted into leadership positions in our communities’

“I think that if we did not use the word ‘ordination’ or ‘rabbi’ in connection with women, we would make much more progress getting women accepted into leadership positions in our communities,” wrote former Rabbinical Council of America president Rabbi Dr. Marc D. Angel in a blog post this week. “But I also understand that the women involved want — and deserve — the recognition that goes along with a rabbinic title.”

The October 30 RCA resolution states that RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not: “Ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; 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.”

Yeshivat Maharat student Dina Brawer (Courtesy of Dina Brawer)
Yeshivat Maharat student Dina Brawer (Courtesy of Dina Brawer)

The resolution comes in conjunction with ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America’s highest rabbinic body’s condemnation and excommunication this week of the “dissident movement” Open Orthodoxy and its institutions, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Yeshivat Maharat, and the International Rabbinic Fellowship (an alternative to the RCA).

Elsewhere, in the United Kingdom, a vaguely worded letter last month from British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis warning against hosting “inappropriate speakers” that has been construed as a ban on hiring learned women such as Dina Brawer, the Hampstead Synagogue’s new scholar-in-residence who is a student at Yeshivat Maharat.

Open Orthodox ideologue Rabbi Avi Weiss’s arguably too pivotal role in the promotion of female clergy was condemned in a scathing piece by popular feminist writer Sharon Shapiro who blogs at the ironically named Kol B’Isha Erva (The Voice of a Woman is Nakedness).

‘We note, with dismay, that the RCA leadership, comprised only of men, is once again determining what Jewish tradition and law proscribe for women’

“When the advancement of women becomes the lynch pin issue dividing Modern Orthodoxy and Open Orthodoxy, or the focus of the rift between Rabbi Avi Weiss and his enemies at the RCA, it takes the fight out of the hands of women and places it squarely into the hands of men,” she writes.

In a similar vein, the Reform movement’s Women’s Rabbinic Network (WRN) and Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) released a statement saying, “We note, with dismay, that the RCA leadership, comprised only of men, is once again determining what Jewish tradition and law proscribe for women.”

‘Open Orthodoxy has been on the march for over a decade’

The impetus for the RCA resolution, which was widely unpopular with the RCA leadership and passed by a narrow margin, came from a petition from a group of 50 RCA members who “were quite disappointed that mainstream institutional Orthodoxy had largely done nothing to address the growing trend of women rabbis, despite credible assertions on the part of leaders of mainstream institutional Orthodoxy that they are committed to the RCA’s halachic authorities and oppose the ordination of women (and other Open Orthodox innovations),” according to Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, a member of the RCA’s Executive Committee and a frequent blogger.

Riverdale's Rabbi Avi Weiss. (courtesy)
Riverdale’s Rabbi Avi Weiss. (courtesy)

“Open Orthodoxy has been on the march for over a decade, three classes of women have been ordained by Yeshivat Maharat, but all we heard from mainstream institutional Orthodoxy was silence. It was clear that something had to be done, and that it required a grassroots initiative,” wrote Gordimer.

And while the content of the resolution is in line with traditional Orthodoxy, many men and women straddling religious tradition and modern egalitarian sensibilities were taken by surprise at its tone.

In a conversation with The Times of Israel on Tuesday, Chovevei’s Lopatin said, “To tell you the truth, I can wrap my arms around the Agudah Israel resolution a little more. It’s one thing to say our poskim [halachic decisors] disagree. Once you get into who you’re not allowed to hire, or let this person into your shul — that’s heavy handed, that’s disappointing.”

‘I think a lot of men are scared of women; some men are afraid of women taking over’

Lopatin chalks up part of his more conservative colleagues’ reticence to women clergy as coming from a place of fear.

“I think a lot of men are scared of women; some men are afraid of women taking over,” he said.

As of this year, Chovevei will have graduated some 110 rabbis. To compare, the RCA has 1,000 members. However, said Lopatin, 95% of his graduates are working in “avodat kodesh” [holy work], at congregations and institutions including Hillel Houses on campuses across North America. As a whole, although they may disagree regarding the scope of the role, Chovevei grads are fully behind female clergy, said Lopatin.

‘Orthodox Judaism doesn’t have an easy way to evolve’

The vote on the RCA resolution was very close and only half of the RCA’s 1,000 members voted on it. It is hardly the case that Modern Orthodoxy’s foremost rabbinical organization is bent on pushing out women.

Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America (courtesy)
Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America (courtesy)

Many RCA rabbis have personal connections to progressive advanced learning programs that train women for roles such as halachic advisers on family purity laws. Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, is the proud uncle to one.

“We are looking for ways to embrace and encourage women’s service, and maintain a loyalty and fealty to tradition. There is a feeling among most of us that new types of positions that carve out niches for women that are in keeping with the nature and nuances of the traditional community are important to the evolution of Orthodoxy,” Dratch told The Times of Israel.

He is empathetic to the anger and frustration felt by more revolutionary elements in Modern Orthodoxy, but takes a more holistic approach to the issue.

“Orthodox Judaism doesn’t have an easy way to evolve. Clearly over the years and generations, all of Orthodoxy has evolved in different directions, in response to social movements, all types of things, which has always been accompanied with divisiveness and anger. What is happening now is part of that process as well,” he said.

‘It is not the RCA that is changing the facts on the ground, we’re not changing the religious status quo’

“I think that people who are very sincerely motivated, who are passionate about halacha, do often disagree and we don’t have mechanisms for negotiating these disagreements between various groups. Some defer to rabbis of great distinction, others are more independent. Some look to defend historical practices, others to innovate,” he said.

“The position the RCA took is the traditional, historic position. It is not the RCA that is changing the facts on the ground, we’re not changing the religious status quo,” he said.

As the conversation came to a close he added, “We have many opportunities for women today that did not exist a generation ago and they’re wonderful and I personally embrace them.”

The first class of ‘yoazot halacha’ trained to practice in the US includes graduates (left to right) Lisa Septimus, Nechama Price, Avital Weissman, Tova Warburg Sinensky, Dena Block, who pose with their certificates of completion in October 2013. (photo credit: Norman Goldberg)
The first class of ‘yoazot halacha’ trained to practice in the US includes graduates (left to right) Lisa Septimus, Nechama Price, Avital Weissman, Tova Warburg Sinensky, Dena Block, who pose with their certificates of completion in October 2013. (Norman Goldberg)
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