A few years ago, I received a call from a Hasidic Rebbe from a small synagogue in Brooklyn. In a mix of Yiddish and Hebrew, the Rebbe asked me, “could you help me write up a semichah [ordination certificate] for a woman?” The question didn’t faze me so much, my only question was “what type of semichah?” He answered “to be a yoetzet halachah”—in other words, a woman who guides other women through matters of Jewish law, particularly laws surrounding ritual purity and mikveh. While I was surprised the term “semichah” was used, the request did not seem particularly radical to me. In this case “semichah” seemed apt, at least in the colloquial sense.
When Donald Trump called Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee Chairwoman, “crazy” and “a highly neurotic woman” it was one more comment in a long list of politically incorrect statements he has made since joining the presidential race. Unfortunately, it is also a characterization frequently made about Jewish women in general.
Ironically, Friday’s announcement banning Orthodox women clergy by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) is an acknowledgement of the reality and impact of Orthodox women clergy. We are facts on the ground. I am the Rabba the RCA is decrying. I received ordination from Yeshivat Maharat in June this year and fully consider myself a member of the clergy. In some ways I’m lucky, as an Australian living in Jerusalem for the last four years, I’ve mostly been removed from the internal dynamics of Orthodox community politics and sectarianism. At the same time, I am willing to open my heart to hear deep concerns that people have, even when their concerns may directly negate me — and my values.
It seems everybody wants to be a celebrity these days. But the men whose names and faces are plastered across Facebook and Twitter, identifying them as husbands who are refusing to grant their wives a Jewish divorce, are surely famous against their will.
Israel’s election feels like a lifetime ago. Those of you with a suitably long memory, however, will recall that one of its defining features was empowerment of the underdog. There was the historic unification of Arab parties and Jewish-Arab party Hadash on one slate. And then there was the small matter of a feminist revolution with U’Bizchutan - Haredi Women Making Change, the first-ever ultra-Orthodox women’s party, joining the fold.