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The New Critical Mass of Orthodox Women Rabbis

The past two weeks have been historic for Jewish women. Orthodox women in both and New York were ordained as clergy – although with a variety of titles from Maharat to Rabba to Rabbi, but effectively all as rabbis. While Yeshivat Maharat is now the veteran institution with five years of experience at this, Yeshivat Har’el appears more liberal in calling women “rabbi” or “rabba.” Israeli Orthodoxy thus effectively caught up with and then surpassed American Orthodoxy, creating a bizarre and beautiful historic twist in which organizations seem to racing against one another to demonstrate the greatest commitment to women’s advancement in religious Judaism.

The advancement of Orthodox women is part of a historical narrative around women’s leadership in the Jewish world. All the denominations have roots in the conception of Jewish leadership as exclusive men’s clubs. The fight for women’s inclusion in the rabbinate began in earnest with the feminist movement of the 1960s – although in reality it began much earlier. The first Reform woman rabbi, Sally Preisand, was ordained in 1972. The first woman Reconstructionist rabbi, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, was ordained in 1974. The first Conservative woman rabbi, Amy Ellberg, was ordained in 1985. The first woman rabbi in Israel, Naamah Kelman, was ordained in 1992. Three women received private ordination from Orthodox rabbis before Yeshivat Maharat opened: Mimi Feigelson in 1994, Evelyn Goodman-Tau in 2000 and Haviva Ner-David in 2004.

The ascent of women has been slow but gradual – and nevertheless invigorating. There are few areas of the Jewish feminist movement that can show such clear markers of impact as the struggle for women’s rabbinic leadership. Even if the struggle is far from over – with high-status positions still male-dominated, and issues of equal pay, work-life balance, LGBT inclusion, and others still painfully unresolved – the fact that women have gained titles is extremely significant. Titles are a vital step to being seen, heard and respected, which are vital for women to be included as leaders.

Actually, though, the story of women’s rabbinic leadership begins earlier than third wave feminism. The very first woman rabbi, Regina Jonas, was ordained in Germany in 1935. And the truth is, Jewish history is replete with women who served as rabbis – informally and without being ordained – before denominational divides had fully taken over Jewish life. Chana Rochel Wernermacher became “rebbe” of Ludmir (1805-1888). Pearl Shapiro, the daughter of the Maggid of Koznitz, prayed with tallit and tefillin, and held court like any other rebbe (1768-1848). Merish daughter of Eliezer of Lizhensk, served as a rebbe in her community, as did Freida and Devora Leah, the daughters of Rabbi Shneir Zalman Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement. Gershon Winkler’s beautiful book, “They Called her Rebbe: The Maiden of Ludomir,” has an extensive compilation of women in the shtetls of Europe who served as rabbis. Women have often served as leaders, just without recognition and without systematic impact on women’s lives.

Remembering the history of women’s struggles for inclusion is really important at times like this. The current achievements are only possible thanks to the hard work of the women who fought beforehand. Everyone wants to be able to be the “first” and be mentioned in the history books. And certainly these events warrant remembrance. But the women on whose shoulders they stand today also deserve to be acknowledged.

As Rabbi Haviva Ner-David said to me, “It is about time people stop acting out of fear and stand up for what they believe in and stop worrying what others might say or whether or not they will be accepted. Orthodox women rabbis are only one step along the way.”

From a historical perspective, then, Modern Orthodoxy has become the latest group to join the party, the most recent denomination to adapt to the notion that women can and should be rabbinical leaders. Clearly this issue has nothing to do with halakha and everything to do with entrenched ideas about gender, power and assumed social hierarchies. One day, years from now, Orthodox leaders are going to have to answer to their descendants and offspring about why they were so resistant to that radical notion that women are people. It would be nice to see more men in positions of power take that kind of long view of history.

It is worth pointing out that Orthodox male rabbis are not alone in attaching themselves to persistent notions of Jewish leadership as a male domain. All around the Jewish world, organizations continue to create all-male panels, as if men are the only ones with interesting things to say, and the only ones worth paying. Similarly, Jewish federation leadership remains aggravatingly male-dominated, and salaries in Jewish communal life reflect this tenacious bias. The Jewish community has many generations of socialization to undo in order to fully be rid of the deeply entrenched notion that “leader” means “man.”

Meanwhile, ironically, women’s inclusion sometimes breeds new forms of sexism. There is a new trope that men have been retreating from synagogue because it has become “feminized”. Let us recognize this refusal to be led by women for what it is: misogyny. The refusal of men to be led by women has existed for thousands of years, from the time of Deborah the Judge, who, according to Judges chapter 4, was implored by her second in command, General Barak to lead the war against the army of Sisera. She responded by saying, “But then, people will say that Sisera fell to a woman.” Barak, perhaps the first recorded feminist man, was unmoved. He had no problem being led by a woman – and in fact, under Deborah’s leadership, the Israelites won and had peace for forty years.

We need to fill the community with men like Barak, who fully understand the power of being led by spectacular women.


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