Latest update: July 11th, 2013
When I was a young man around the time I was studying for semicha at the Hebrew Theological College, I had written article in a now defunct local Jewish magazine, the Sentinel. It was in response to a scathing attack against the idea of ordaining women by a prominent rosh yeshiva (yeshiva dean).
I explained that the title rabbi stems from the word “rebbe” which literally means teacher. As such there was nothing wrong with calling a woman educated to teach Judaism with that title. That was over 40 years ago. Some would say that I was ahead of my time.
But I was wrong and regret writing it. I was wrong because in my impetuous youth I did not understand what I understand today, that something which is not a black and white issur (prohibition) does not necessarily make it a good idea to pursue. Nor did I understand that breaking with tradition can open a Pandora’s box that will be counter-productive to our future.
The truth is that there are Halachic issues with female rabbis. I’ve discussed them before in essays where I argued against the ordination of women. It is not that I am a misogynist. I personally have no problem with female rabbis. But I would not have any problem counting women into Minyan either. Except that Halacha does not allow me to do that. There are Halachic issues with respect to female rabbis too. Like serara. While I have no personal problem with it, I have a Halachic problem with it. Women are forbidden by Halacha to take positions of leadership in certain Jewish areas. Like Shuls.
I had also argued in the past that even though women can serve in other areas the way rabbis do (e.g., teachers) the primary and historic function of a rabbi has always been in a shul as a pulpit rabbi. Leaving aside the issue of serara it is highly impractical and awkward for a woman to be the rabbi of a shul.
The primary function of a shul is prayer – doing so with a minyan. A woman may not be counted into a minyan and may not be present in the actual sanctuary of a shul with the men unless she is separated by a mechitza (partition). While a rabbi can have a position outside of the actual area of prayer – like in a classroom or as a principal or a pastoral marriage counselor, that has always been a secondary role. Even though there are ways where a woman can technically lead from ‘behind the mechitza’ and address the members with a D’var Torah from a podium after the service… I think it is safe to say that this is a highly impractical way for a spiritual leader of a shul to function.
There are also perception issues. When an Orthodox Shul lists a woman as a rabbi a public unfamiliar with the nuances of Halacha on this issue can make the mistaken assumption that the Shul has broken with Halacha.
So while there may be ways to skirt the Halacha and technically not violate it – it isn’t pretty… and in my view undermines the spirit if not the letter of the law. What is gained on some sort of equal rights way is lost by the radical departure from normative Orthodoxy.
Which is the reason I agree with the Rabbinical Council of Amercia (RCA) position on the recent graduation of three women clergy from Yeshivat Maharat. They have rejected it. In an article in the Forward RCA President Rabbi Shmuel Goldin explained it as a violation of our Mesorah – tradition:
“We feel extremely strongly that there is certainly room for women leadership within the Orthodox community, both educationally and professionally,” RCA President Rabbi Shmuel Goldin told the Forward. “We do not believe, however, that it is appropriate for women to be ordained as rabbis.”
Goldin added that he did not think the school was defying the Orthodox community but rather was “moving in ways that are removing it from the normative Orthodox community. It’s not a question of defiance, it’s a question of direction.”
I completely agree. Calling a woman a “maharat” instead of rabbi is an irrelevant distinction. A spiritual leader, a maharat, and a rabbi are all the same thing. That Yeshivat Maharat founder Rabbi Avi Weiss gave in to pressure- promising not to call his graduates rabba (his feminization of the word rabbi) is really a meaningless gesture. With apologies to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – a rose by any other name is still a rose.
I have said this in the past and still strongly believe it. People who achieve proficiency in any area of study deserve to be recognized for it. Gender does not matter. Women who for example become experts in the field of theoretical physics via study, examination, and fulfilling all requirements of a Ph.D. are entitled to called Doctor – with all its rights and privileges. This is true of any field of study. Including Jewish study. But the title rabbi is more than about being recognized for that achievement. A woman cannot possibly be entitled to all the rights and privileges that a rabbi gets. Not to mention the Serara issue and the perception issues.
I have always maintained that achievement should be formally recognized. But the title rabbi (or its equivalent) is more than about recognition of achievement. I’m sure that the three graduates of Yeshivat Maharat know more than some of my fellow musmachim (ordained rabbis). But this isn’t about knowledge. It is about breaking with tradition.
Tradition is not the only concern. There are also collateral issues that should not be over-looked. It is a rather well known phenomenon that women have become a dominant factor in Conservative shuls. If I am not mistaken Conservative Judaism’s flagship educational institution, JTS has more women currently studying for the rabbinate than they do men. And Shuls are increasingly being attended by more women than men.
This is not a good result. It’s one thing to want to attract more women to Shul. Even though a Shul is primarily designed for men to pray with a Minyan, there are definitely spiritual benefits for women praying there too. But when equality becomes the goal it seems that there is a natural disinclination for men to be there. That undermines the very equality that is so sought after by feminists.
I don’t know if the proliferation of the maharat will do the same to left wing Orthodoxy, the natural home of the maharat. But it should certainly be a concern.
That said, I definitely think there is a place for Jewish women that are highly educated in Judaism. They can – and already do – serve the Jewish community as teachers, principals, counselors and even as Halachic consultants (yoatzot). The more they know Jewishly, the better. And as I said they deserve recognition for it. But not as rabbi.
Even though I have much admiration for him, I disagree with Rabbi Asher Lopatin who was quoted in the Forward article. He said that a “maharat” is no different than a “rebbetzin” other than the fact that a maharat has more formal and professional training. Yes they have more of that. And they can function in the way a rebbetzin has always functioned. But to grant them the title of rabbi or any other version of that appellation makes it an entirely different enterprise than that of rebbetzin. And in my view opens a Pandora’s box that may never be able to be closed again.
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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at email@example.com.The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.
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