This June, Yeshivat Maharat will graduate it’s first class of female Orthodox religious leaders. A recent article in The Times of Israel profiles this all women’s yeshiva in New York’s upper west side. There will be three women in the graduating class, and one of them, Rachel Kohl Finegold, has already been hired at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal as a new member of its pastoral staff. There are currently about fifteen students studying in the yeshiva.
The Times article goes on to explain that Maharat was founded in 2009 by Sara Hurwitz, who …”made a name for herself with her groundbreaking and controversial ordination by Hebrew Institute of Riverdale’s rabbi, Avi Weiss. She was ordained under the title “rabba,” the feminine declension of the Hebrew “rabbi.” Hurwitz started the school to pave the way for other women to become spiritual leaders, but this time, the students will be given the title “maharat,” which stands for “manhiga hilchatit ruchanit toranit” or halachic/spiritual leader.”
There is interest from many Modern Orthodox shuls across North America to hire these women to be part of heretofore male-only teams of spiritual synagogue leadership. The women in Yeshivat Maharat all identify themselves as Orthodox Jews. They do not expect to be counted as part of a minyan, act as a witness in a beit din, or receive an aliyah on the Torah. They do expect to provide spiritual guidance to congregants, teach religious classes, give dvar torahs (public speeches about the bible) during services, and act as halachic authorities to women on the laws of taharas hamishpacha (family purity). Many of the students are themselves married women with children.
I personally think that it’s a wonderful concept and I admire these women who have the dedication, knowledge, and fortitude to pursue a profession that is both emtionally and intellectually demanding, as well as controversial. Bringing women into synagogue leadership roles within the framework of halacha, can only strengthen the participation and support of ritual life among women in the community. It’s also my opinion that female congregants would be much more likely to ask more questions pertaining to niddah if they could speak to a woman rather than a male rabbi.
In general, I think that many women would find it easier to approach a female maharat about personal issues than they would a rabbi. A rabbi’s role often calls for him to be a counselor on life’s problems beyond questions of, “Is this chicken kosher?” While many men feel a close kesher (connection) with their rabbi and feel comfortable enough to pop in or call at all times, many women wind up speaking to the rabbi mainly through their husbands. I think that having a direct relationship with a female halachic authority would improve the frequency and dynamic of how women ask shailahs (religious questions).
Of course, the swish of skirts is getting close enough that the male halachically ordained keepers of the faith are feeling a chilly breeze. The all male orthodox rabbinical leadership from most sectors are not going to accept nor respect women in pulpit or religious leadership roles. A Moment Magazine article quotes two major orthodox religious councils as being staunchly opposed to Yeshivat Maharat and it’s would-be rabbas:
“Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox,” proclaimed the 10-member Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel of America—deemed American ultra-Orthodoxy’s most authoritative rabbinic body—in a February public statement. Its director of public policy, Avi Shafran, was outraged: “Tznius [modesty] isn’t a mode of dress,” he said. “It includes the idea that women are demeaned and not honored when they’re put in the public eye and put on a pedestal. The position he [Weiss] has created violated the concept.” Whether or not the ordination violates a specific halacha [Jewish religious law] is unimportant, Shafran explained. “There is nothing in the Shulhan Aruch about keeping a cat in the aron kodesh [the holy ark in the synagogue]. It’s technically permitted, but it’s wrong to do.”
……..more centrist Orthodox voices were equally unforgiving. “The ordination of women as rabbis represents a serious and inappropriate breach with our sacred tradition and is beyond the pale of Orthodox Judaism,” said Steven Pruzansky, vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), a 1,000-member group that claims to be “the largest Orthodox rabbinic organization in the world,” and rabbi of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey. He went even further on his blog, writing that the role of female clergy “not only mimics Reform, but in fact is a throwback to pagan ideologies.”
This controversy reminds me of a shiur I attended a few months ago that talked about the progression of women’s religious education in Judaism. The speaker referred to the origination of the Bais Yaakov educational movement for girls. To very briefly summarize the shiur, the Bais Yaakov system was a necessary evil, created in 1917 Poland, to prevent observant Jewish girls from being lured away by the wide availability of secular education for women. Previously, it was thought a dangerous and wasted effort to educate women beyond what they needed to know as Jewish wives and mothers. However, with so many emerging opportunities available to them, the Jewish community risked losing their daughters to the secular world if they didn’t compromise in a revolutionary way. Thus the Bais Yaakov movement was born.
I would suggest that we are in a time where a similar revolutionary compromise must be reached in the realm of halachic leadership and ritual participation. We have the framework of halacha in which a compromise can surely be found. I believe that girls and women growing up and living in Jewish Orthodox communities are at risk for assimilation if they are not given a voice. If women are not engaged in public spiritual life in a meaningful way, if they are not even the keepers of their own mitzvot, there is a threat to the very existence of klal yisrael. Judaism cannot exist without women, for we are the matriarchs and ultimate keepers of the faith.