Orthodox Judaism and the ordination of women rabbis.

Here is one interpretation of a development of considerable importance:

On 22nd March 2009, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox synagogue in the USA, held a formal ceremony officially giving Ms. Sara Hurwitz the title “Maharat – Manhigah Halakhtit Ruchanit Toranit”. However, some Orthodox leaders, such as the Rabbinical Council of America and the Agudath Israel of America, opposed this move and said it was not in keeping with Orthodoxy; in any case, Hurwitz was not given the title “rabbi”. However, in June 2015, Lila Kagedan was ordained by Yeshivat Maharat and, in keeping with newer policies, was given the freedom to choose her own title, and she chose to be addressed as “rabbi”.

June 2015 was historic for Jewish women. Orthodox women in both Israel and New York were ordained as clergy – although with a variety of titles from maharat to rabba to rabbi, but effectively all as rabbis. While Yeshivat Maharat is now the veteran institution with a few years of experience at this, Yeshivat Har’el appears more liberal in calling women “rabbi” or “rabba”. Israeli Orthodoxy thus effectively caught up with and then surpassed American Orthodoxy, creating a bizarre and beautiful historic twist in which organisations seem to be racing against one another to demonstrate the greatest commitment to women’s advancement in religious Judaism.

The advancement of Orthodox women is part of a historical narrative around women’s leadership in the Jewish world. All the denominations have roots in the conception of Jewish leadership as exclusive men’s clubs. The fight for women’s inclusion in the rabbinate began in earnest with the feminist movement of the 1960s – although in reality it began much earlier. The first Reform woman rabbi, Sally Preisand, was ordained in 1972. The first woman Reconstructionist rabbi, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, was ordained in 1974. The first Conservative woman rabbi, Amy Ellberg, was ordained in 1985. The first woman rabbi in Israel, Naamah Kelman, was ordained in 1992. Three women received private ordination from Orthodox rabbis before Yeshivat Maharat opened: Mimi Feigelson in 1994, Evelyn Goodman-Tau in 2000 and Haviva Ner-David in 2004.

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Here is a second interpretation of the same historically significant development:

On 16th June 2015, three Jewish women were ordained as Orthodox members of the clergy in the inaugural graduation ceremony of Yeshivat Maharat, which bills itself on its website as “the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halakhic authorities”. But even though Yeshivat Maharat also claims to be “actualising the potential of Orthodox women as rabbinic leaders”, its female graduates will not be granted the title of “rabbi”. Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rachel Kohl Finegold and Abby Brown Scheier will instead be ordained with the title of “maharat”, a Hebrew acronym for “manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit toranit”, or “female leader of Jewish law, spirituality, and Torah”.

While the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements of Judaism have been ordaining women since 1972, 1974 and 1985 respectively, the Orthodox community has resisted this development, except in a few unofficial cases in Israel. Orthodox women have completed courses of study in Torah and Jewish learning, but they have typically been granted non-clerical titles, such as “yoetzet halakha” or “halakhic adviser”.

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

I remember reading many years ago in a book devoted to feminist appraisals of religion around the globe that, once Orthodox Judaism opens its doors to women studying the Torah just as men do, it will be impossible to resist the pressure to ensure that women in Orthodox Jewish communities eventually became rabbis. This is fascinating stuff. Let us hope this has a beneficial effect on other expressions of religion still far too patriarchal in their outlook.

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