Orthodox Schism Over Role of Women Widens After Graduation of Maharats

Despite Enthusiasm, Opposition Remains Unyielding

Gang of Four: New graduates from the groundbreaking Yeshivat Maharat join Rabba Sara Hurwitz, whose 2009 ordination helped blaze a trail for the women who are now joining the ranks of Orthodox religious leaders.
robert kalfus
Gang of Four: New graduates from the groundbreaking Yeshivat Maharat join Rabba Sara Hurwitz, whose 2009 ordination helped blaze a trail for the women who are now joining the ranks of Orthodox religious leaders.

By Anne Cohen

Published June 20, 2013, issue of June 28, 2013.
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The dust has settled after the June 16 graduation of the first class of female maharats from a groundbreaking Orthodox rabbinical school.

But controversy over the role that the newly minted religious leaders from Yeshivat Maharat will play in Orthodoxy — along with 14 more students in future classes — appears to be just getting started.

The graduation of Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rachel Kohl Finegold and Abby Brown Scheier certainly marks a milestone for women in the Orthodox movement. The maharats received enthusiastic support from more liberal Orthodox groups, and strong backing from leaders of other mainstream Jewish denominations, which already accept women clerics.

During the graduation ceremony, Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of the controversial Bronx rabbinic school, stressed the will for female leadership in the Orthodox community.

“Clearly, we’ve identified a need,” he told the crowd, adding that congregations have come “seeking the voices of women in religious leadership.”

Still, the joy on graduation day could not paper over the strong and united opposition to the move by mainstream Orthodox Jewry. With no obvious way to bridge the differences between those who want institutional change and those who resist it, the dispute over women clerical leaders threatens to open a painful rift within the Orthodox world.

“We cannot accept the ordination of women as members of the Orthodox clergy,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the Rabbinical Council of America. “We do not accept the ordination of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of title.”

For some, the change is welcome and practically important. All three women maharats have secured jobs at synagogues, as has a fourth woman, Rori Picker Neiss, who is still in her third year at the seminary now located in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.

Friedman, 28, will be taking her place at Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue, in Washington, while Kohl Finegold and Brown Scheier, 35, will both be heading to Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, in Montreal. Brown Scheier, married to Shaar Hashomayim’s Rabbi Adam Scheier, will continue in her role as educator in Jewish after-school programs, as well as within the congregation. Kohl Finegold, 32, will be starting in August as director of education and spiritual enrichment.

The graduates aren’t the first women to take up the mantle of religious leadership within the Orthodox world. But they are the first to do it with a defined set of professional skills, and within an institutional setting.

Kohl Finegold said the graduation of the maharats is part of a natural process of reform that has been going on within Orthodoxy for decades.

“This is one more step along that continuum,” Kohl Finegold said. “In the ’70s and ’80s, women were opening Gemaras, for the first time and learning. And there have been women in religious leadership roles without a degree. This is formalizing what has existed in other congregations. In some ways, this is a watershed moment, and in other ways, it’s just one more step.”

Rabba Sara Hurwitz played a big role in the process of opening up Orthodoxy to women leaders. Her 2009 ordination as the first Orthodox rabba inspired Weiss to found Yeshivat Maharat. But it was much more private, because she was the only person graduating.

The graduation at Yeshivat Maharat, on the other hand, marked a new beginning, she said.

“This is now an institution that was started with the entire mission of graduating Orthodox women leaders,” Hurwitz said.

Rabbi Adam Scheier of the Shaar Hashomayim stressed the importance of this newly defined role as the reason for his community’s interest in the maharats.

“This is not something we’re allowing or tolerating, but this is something we believe in,” he said. “We’re going to make it a priority as part of our religious community.”

“People have been so supportive of me and have been responsive and positive,” Brown Scheier added to her husband’s statement.

Although some are excited at the thought of welcoming the maharats, Orthodoxy as a whole does not share their enthusiasm.

Goldin said that the RCA believes women should be limited to specific roles within the faith and cannot be full-fledged religious leaders.

“We encourage their participation as educators [and] women who [are] specifically learned in the areas of marriage and family purity,” he said.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs at the Haredi umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America, also rejected the ordination. He was particularly scathing about calling the women maharats, which supporters see as a semantic olive branch to traditionalists.

“The formal designation of a woman as a quasi-rabbi is something that is considered inappropriate,” Shafran wrote in an email. “So the enterprise of such ‘ordination’ itself is improper.”

Echoing Goldin, Shafran encouraged Orthodox women to stick to the “same leadership roles they have traditionally played.”

“There are certainly leadership roles that Orthodox women should be playing,” Shafran wrote in the email. “Namely (among other things) teaching other women or girls, counseling them and setting the proper example for other Jews, men and women alike.”

Goldin pointedly dismissed support for the maharats from more progressive Orthodox institutions, like the progressive Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the International Rabbinic Fellowship, which both sent representatives to the graduation.

“That’s not how Halacha works,” Goldin said. “There’s consensus that’s required, [and] there’s recognition of past practice that’s required.”

Goldin darkly warned that change without support of Halacha would only lead to “schisms within the Orthodox community.”

Another establishment Orthodox group to oppose ordination of women is Yeshiva University, the pre-eminent institution of Modern Orthodoxy.

Despite the opposition, the maharats and their supporters are optimistic that attitudes are changing, even slowly.

“The pushback is very different than when I was ordained four years ago,” Hurwitz said. “Now the Orthodox community is coming to expect that women have a voice.”

Hurwitz said that progressive voices within Orthodoxy are looking to push for change in issues like conversion, the decentralization of authority and, of course, women’s rights. “I think it’s those issues that are going to force a conversation about how we are working together,” she said. “It’s not going to be the women’s issues alone. “

Kohl Finegold’s hope is that as women start to enter Orthodox synagogues and communities as religious figures, they will be appreciated not just as women, but also as leaders.

“Some are excited because I’m a woman, and that’s great,” she said. “But I’m bringing so many aspects of myself. [My gender] is not indicative of all the work that I’m going to be doing. I’m not going to be standing there saying, ‘I’m female, love me!’”

In any case, the maharats insist they are here to stay, controversial or not. As they look to the future, the three graduates are only hopeful.

“My hope for the future is that this becomes something normal,” Kohl Finegold said. “This may sound weird, but I want people to say that the graduating class of maharats isn’t a big event.”

Speaking of her four daughters, Brown Scheier said they should know they can be any kind of Jewish leader they want to be.

“I feel like they’re going to grow up in a world where this is possible,” she said. “What’s better than seeing it firsthand?”

Contact Anne Cohen at cohen@forward.com


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