Something is going on in the Jewish world that may be the most important thing to happen in a very long time. In a recent statement, a leading board of Orthodox rabbis reaffirmed that although they encourage many different professional opportunities for learned women, “due to our aforesaid commitment to sacred continuity, however, we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.” (Full statement is here.) For those of you unfamiliar with Judaism, this may seem bizarre and silly (and I will explain it all here, and we’ve included a number of resources below for those of you who want to read more on the subject); but for those of us who are Jewish, it’s incredibly important.
While the Reform and Conservative denominations of Judaism have been ordaining women as rabbis since 1972 and 1985 respectively, the most ‘stringent’ denomination, Orthodoxy, has not, largely because there are certain restrictions about women’s roles in traditional Judaism that have not before been challenged or changed since they came into being. As an example, a woman cannot serve as a witness in a court of Jewish law (other prohibited categories include imbeciles, children and professional gamblers). Why were women banned from being witnesses? Because thousands of years ago, women were typically either too busy rearing children – which they were solely responsible for — or deemed too unstable or emotional (as most every culture in the world has claimed women to be) to make legal decisions with consistency.
These kinds of stereotypes have led to an Orthodoxy that – despite historical shifts that have allowed Orthodox women to enter just about every other arena of society – remains largely devoted to maintaining the roles of women as caregivers and rulers of the home sphere rather than the public sphere. Today, an Orthodox woman can go to law school and become a lawyer and serve as a senior judge in a court, for example, but in her own Jewish community, she could not even serve as a witness or sign a legal document such as a marriage contract.
It doesn’t make us look good, I know. Especially considering the fact that other religions have made significant shifts in their representation of women. It doesn’t make us look good.
In the past decades, the number of Orthodox women who want to join the leadership of the Jewish people in ways that are consistent with Jewish law has been growing. There have been trailblazers in this world of female scholarship and leadership. Reb Mimi Feigelson is a scholar among scholars and a profoundly devoted religious leader here in Los Angeles. Rabba Sara Hurwitz in New York established Yeshivat Maharat, a Jewish seminary to train women who are learned in Torah and devoted to religious life who want to be a part of Jewish leadership in a formal and recognized way. Their titles point to their scholarship and their leadership, but are also a source of controversy. Only in the most modern Orthodox of circles are they seen as equal to the males who hold the “rabbi” title.
Like it or not, Jewish law does not preclude a female rabbi. And that’s not opinion, it’s fact. So what’s the issue here? Why are we having this discussion? As the joke goes: where there are two Jews, there are three opinions. And lots of Jews have lots of opinions on this subject. Here are mine.
The way I see it, there are two issues at hand.
In Judaism, men and women occupy distinct and important roles which are historically relevant and compelling. As a matter of fact, I happen to be a big fan of gradational roles for men and women. However, God did not ordain these roles — history and cultural bias did. When electricity was harnessed in creating the lightbulb, no one cried out, “We should not use lights because God did not put them in the Torah!” So, too, as history and culture have moved forward, the needs of men and women have changed and there is nothing about those shifts that is antithetical to the word of God nor our love for God and the Torah.
The God I believe in cares about the oppressed, the orphan and the widow. The God of Judaism seeks for us to make relationships with a Divine Being so that we can care for the oppressed, the orphan and the widow. Does this God draw the line for compassion and care at gender equality? No, only humans can do that.
The people most in touch with the Torah and Judaism are made to be leaders. Period. If Judaism is a religion of ethics and justice, our commitment to tradition and to authentic Judaism should not preclude a fierce commitment to ethics and to justice in our leadership and in our communities.
The RCA seems particularly upset about what we call these women leaders. Are they Rabbis? Are they clergy? Are they Rebs or Rabbas, titles derived from the more familiar “rabbi” or “rav,” or – as one local Maharat-trained leader is known – are they Morateinus (meaning “our teacher”) or…? There is a tradition that Moses granted semicha (a conferring of leadership) from Sinai down to the Rabbis of the mishnah (the first part of the Talmud), but that semicha was lost. The title “rabbi’ isn’t even Biblical, and it isn’t God-given. In modern times, a rabbi derives authority not from the heavens, but from the people who recognize what a great master of Torah, spirituality and morality he is. That’s why Jews often call great rabbis “rav,” which is the word for master, or teacher.
A Jewish leader is someone we learn from. In the 21st century, why can’t we honor a woman who is a master by calling her a master? If she is a teacher, do we not call her a teacher? A rose by any other name would indeed smell just as sweet. The RCA’s fixation with nomenclature is a distraction tactic. (To learn more about the issue of naming Orthodox women leaders, see this article from the Jewish Journal.)
As it says in Psalms (19:8): The Torah of the Lord is perfect, satisfying to the soul; the Testament of the Lord is trustworthy, enlightening the simpleminded.
Men and women alike can enlighten us as masters of the Torah. Let them.
Seriously? I guess if this is what we are focusing on and spending our time and energy on, it must mean that we have successfully eliminated all suffering, immorality, injustice and hypocrisy in Judaism and in the world. It must mean that we have all of this time and energy to spend on dissecting what a group of learned women want to call themselves, and if they have a right to lead that is equal to the right that men have to lead? We are picking on women who are so in love with Judaism and Orthodoxy that they are enrolling in seminaries in order to become learned teachers, and we are spending our time placing them under a microscope and we are examining why they are thus devoted.
In Numbers 11:16-29, when Moses asked God for help bearing the weight of the fledgling Jews, 70 elders are made into prophets to help him. Moses’ second-in-line, Joshua, finds that two more than the 70 are prophesying and Joshua asked Moses to imprison them. Do you know what Moses says? “Would that all of God’s people be prophets, and that His spirit rest upon all of them.” Exactly.
Judaism is losing members in great numbers, assimilation is freaking everyone out because the number of Jews in the world is declining left, right and center, and the RCA is upset that there are women this devoted and committed to Judaism that they are devoting their lives to it?
The threat of punishing synagogues who hire these women is absurd, and it’s divisive, and it alone will be the thing that causes the splitting off from Jewish denominations, not hiring competent, learned, God-fearing observant women into our clergy offices.
This conversation also hits me on a personal level. I have already written about the recent hiring by the first Orthodox synagogue in Los Angeles of a female leader named Alissa Thomas-Newborn to serve our community as a religious leader and expert of Jewish law and policy. I wrote about how, as a woman devoted to Torah living going through a divorce, I craved the guidance of a woman who was both able to understand me in a way all the male rabbis I spoke to could not, and able to understand Torah and the questions I had about Jewish tradition and how it would affect my life as a divorcee.
What’s more true for me than that is that I have wanted to be a rabbi since I was 15 years old. I told my rabbi in front of the ark at my Reform synagogue as he blessed me on the night of my Confirmation. We were both startled, and he reminds me of it whenever I see him. More than anything else, my desire to serve my people as a leader is the thing that has been consistently true about me since I was 15. I began learning more and more about Judaism from an Orthodox perspective when I was in college, and I have not stopped. My life path took me to marriage and a PhD in the years that – had my life path been slightly different – I might have been one of the women of Yeshivat Maharat who are blessed to spend their lives devoted to studying to become Jewish leaders. I am now a PhD-holding divorced woman and a mother of two sons. I support myself and my children by being a full-time actor. My chance to be a rabbi is gone; my life is meant for something different. But I still remember, understand and feel the desire to lead. That’s why this issue hits so close to home.
I don’t want to be a Jewish leader because I am a woman. I want to be a Jewish leader because I am a Jew who has a deep and abiding faith in the Maker of this Universe, and I know for certain that the fire I have in me for Torah was meant for leadership somehow.
This fire is the fire God puts in people who are meant to touch others through God’s Torah.
And my fire is not the only one. That fire dates back thousands of years to the beginning of creation.
It is in the hearts and the souls of every woman who gives her life to study Torah. This fire is in the hand that held Adam’s as we were sent out of the garden of Eden, and it is in the cries of the women in Egypt we helped as they gave birth to the sons and daughters of the next generation. It is in the songs we have sung since we crossed the Sea of Reeds and it is in the reflections in the mirrors we made out of our jewelry, so we could look attractive to our men to encourage love, when we were slaves and we had nearly given up hope. It is in the judgments of Deborah and the tent-pin Yael used to slay an enemy general. It is in the sacrifice we make on Day 8 and it is in the immersion we make on Day 12*. It is in me and it is on me like black fire on white fire.
It is that it is.
We all believe in the same God. We revere the same Torah. We want a cohesive Jewish community. Let’s build that based on God and Torah, men and women alike. Let’s show the world that we are ready to enter a new time where the cultural customs of the past of keeping women in back rooms is not what we stand for.
One step at a time, gently, so gently, we can do this together. We – all of us – can lead.
*”Day 8” refers to the day on which ritual circumcision (a bris) is performed. In the laws of family purity, a woman is permitted to immerse in the ritual bath (mikvah) on the 12th day of her cycle, as a step toward resuming sexual relations with her husband.
Grok With Us:
- Does your religious faith permit both men and women to lead?
- Do you feel more connected to men or women as spiritual leaders?
- What do women bring to religious leadership that men do not? How have – or would – women leaders made an impact on you?
- 5 Clarifying Comments on the Ordination of Orthodox Women (Jewish Journal)
- My Maharat Life (Redefining Rebbetzin blog)
- Orthodox Spiritual Leadership is Gender Blind (The Jewish Journal)
- “Do You Want Me to Leave?” An open letter to the RCA from a 17-year-old girl (The Forward)