High School Tefillin Debate Just Tip of Iceberg for Orthodox Jewish Women

News Analysis

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By Uriel Heilman

Published January 23, 2014.
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In 2009, Weiss pushed the envelope even further by ordaining Sara Hurwitz, later conferring on her the title of “rabba,” a feminized version of rabbi. The move was condemned immediately — not just by the haredi Orthodox, but by leaders of the centrist Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America.

“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 Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, a rabbi in Teaneck, N.J., who was vice president of the RCA at the time.

For a long time, it had been unusual for one sector of American Orthodoxy to condemn another, despite differences in practice and even ideology. Many families span the various kinds of Orthodoxy, no one’s quite sure of what the contours of modern Orthodox are, and it’s not unusual to find haredi Orthodox Jews worshiping in modern Orthodox shuls and vice versa.

(Neither consider it acceptable to worship in Conservative or Reform synagogues.)

But as liberal Orthodox Jews support new roles for women, particularly in the synagogue, it’s looking increasingly like Orthodoxy is undergoing a schism.

The more traditionalist elements of the Orthodox community view the reforms as beyond the pale, a threat to the integrity of their halachic community. This is why Weiss and the yeshivas he has established, including the liberal Orthodox rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, have faced so much Orthodox opposition — from the RCA, which does not recognize Chovevei ordination, to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which recently questioned Weiss’ Orthodox credentials.

Incidentally, SAR is not the first Orthodox school to allow girls to lay tefillin; the Ramaz School in Manhattan made such an allowance as far back as the early 1990s, though it made no public announcement about it until SAR did this week. And eight centuries ago, the daughters of Rashi, the medieval French rabbi, famously were said to have worn tefillin.

While the more public battles have been over women being ordained, laying tefillin or reading from the Torah, there are innumerable issues related to women both large and small with which Orthodoxy is grappling. It’s not just about clergy but also women serving as synagogue presidents, making the blessing over bread or wine on Shabbat, or dancing with Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah. While initially considered aberrant, some of these practices have gradually gained acceptance in mainstream Orthodox circles.

Will the changes considered controversial today gradually gain mainstream acceptance, too, or are they fated to remain a fringe Orthodox phenomenon?

In an elastic movement with no central governing authority or membership structure, it’s hard to say. Clearly the haredi Orthodox will stand against change. The question is which way the modern Orthodox and the institutions associated with them — the RCA, Yeshiva University, the Orthodox Union and the National Council of Young Israel, to name a few — will swing.

There is, perhaps, one factor that may play an outsize role in determining this: leadership. If the change agents within Orthodoxy become educators, role models and leaders of the next generation of modern Orthodox Jews, successfully pass on their commitment to both halachah and egalitarianism, and continue to live a life committed to Jewish law, they could transform the face of modern Orthodoxy.

But if they fail, then those who have been arguing all along that these changes have no place in Orthodoxy will see vindication in that failure.


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