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Is Orthodoxy on Brink of Historic Schism?

In a basement auditorium at a neighborhood synagogue in Jerusalem, rows and rows of densely packed chairs are arranged, along with a podium, a microphone and a table covered with a sheet of cheap paper. This sparse scenery hardly matched the dramatic event taking place – the ordination of two women as Orthodox rabbis (or “rabbas”).

Rabba Rachel Berkowitz, one of the women who received ordination, had a difficult time containing her emotion, saying, “Real rabbis are crying.” “I feel a tremendous privilege, which I probably don’t deserve, of being part of a significant moment in the history of the Jewish people, and I hope that this will influence this ongoing revolutionary process. I am grateful to God for enabling me to reach this moment.” In tears, Berkowitz then recited the Shehecheyanu, a Jewish blessing recited on special occasions: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.”

Several days later, the event was reported in Haaretz, and the story was picked up and analyzed worldwide in Jewish newspapers, on websites and blogs. The women’s ordination was also the subject of a particularly lethal editorial in Yated Ne’eman, the daily newspaper of the Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) ultra-Orthodox community. “We must exterminate the invasion of this trend,” warned Yated Ne’eman.

This ordination is not another chapter in boutique feminist rabbinical ordination, but part of a broader conflict of historic proportions. It provides an opportunity to look at what has been going on for the past several years in Jerusalem, London, New York, Melbourne and the settlement of Efrat. The phenomenon has yet to be named, but it is part and parcel of the Orthodox religious world.

In Israel, approximately since the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip, there has been growing tension between religious liberals and conservatives. However, the internal conflicts within religious Zionism pale in comparison to what is occurring within Orthodox Judaism, the dominant denomination in the past 200 years, where a religious war is taking place.

One need only look at the events of June to witness the intensity of the conflagration: That month included the abovementioned ordination ceremony for Orthodox women, who have decided to call themselves “rabbas,” something that has been taboo until now. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government also encountered its first coalition crisis surrounding the kashrut law demanded by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which is designed to prevent liberal religious Jews from granting alternative kashrut certificates without the approval of the Chief Rabbinate. And the Chief Rabbinical Council threatened to oust Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, because of his liberal opinions and actions, including appointing a woman to a rabbinical position, encouraging girls to enlist in the army and ordaining women in his midrasha (an institute of Jewish studies for women). The council then backtracked.

Meanwhile, the High Court of Justice convened a panel of nine justices to discuss the demand by converts that the state recognize those who have undergone private Orthodox conversions as Jews, which challenges the monopoly of state-sanctioned rabbinical courts. Then, at the end of the month, Rabbi Avi Weiss, one of the leaders of the Open Orthodox movement in the United States, quit the mainstream Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America and published a manifesto in Tablet, in which he declared what seems to be a revolt against the Modern Orthodox establishment.

Much has been written about religious extremism and subject including “Haredization” and religious coercion and the exclusion of women from the public, but that extremism is sometimes a myth: In reality, conservative rabbis are under attack and are desperately watching as religious Jews flock elsewhere. For proof of the devaluation in these rabbis’ status, look no further than Habayit Hayehudi, the national religious party headed by Naftali Bennett, a “dati-lite” Jew who is open to the general cultural milieu and is not strictly observant. This joins an ideological revolt that in recent years has breached the boundaries of Orthodoxy.

On the frontline of the struggle is a group that that can be described as “post-Orthodox,” whose creation is largely a reaction to the increasing conservatism and extremism of Orthodoxy and the rabbinate, particularly when it comes to the status of women in religious life. Equally important is the phenomenon of religious fervor in the lives of many religious men and women, which will be covered in a series of articles beginning with this one.

The first time a woman was ordained as an Orthodox “rabba” was in 2009, in a clandestine ceremony in New York. Afterward several avant-garde rabbis ordained Orthodox female Torah scholars, using circuitous titles and names. However, the ceremony in Israel in June, at the Har’el Beit Midrash in Jerusalem, unleashed what appears to be a storm for religious feminism, one that the most conservative rabbis may realize is unstoppable.

Several days after that ceremony, another one in New York saw six women ordained at a yeshiva for women called Maharat. Midreshet Lindenbaum, in Jerusalem, headed by Rabbi Riskin of Efrat, is expected to grant another two women a “heter hora’a,” or authorization to hand down halakhic rulings regarding Jewish religious law.

In study institutes for women they are saying – perhaps in jest, perhaps not – that, for the first time this year, more women will be ordained as Orthodox rabbis than Conservative ones.

Dr. Anat Sharbat, an Israeli woman who recently graduated from Maharat in New York, went to study there at a time when ordaining women was still quite subversive, but today Israeli women have graduated from programs that confer various titles: rabba, halakhic teacher, halakhic adviser, Torah scholar and marata d’atra (local rabbinical authority). In the not-too-distant future perhaps they will also be dayanot (rabbinical judges). “It’s amazing – all the programs that used to be secret are suddenly in the open,” says Sharbat. “Every self-respecting midrasha today offers a program for ordaining women.”

Egalitarian Orthodox minyanim (prayer quorums), in which women also act as shlihot tzibbur, or prayer leaders, began to crop up more than a decade ago, but until recently the phenomenon existed mainly in the liberal Orthodox Jerusalem bubble, in Washington, D.C. and New York City. New “egalitarian minyanim” have been established in London, New York, and the Israeli cities of Shoham, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and Petah Tikva, in the past year; they describe themselves as “Orthodox-halakhic,” and allow women to take the reins as prayer leaders and Torah readers.

However, these new minyanim have not always been warmly welcomed. In Shoham, for example, tempers flared after the establishment of the egalitarian Nachat Ruach minyan, which was created despite opposition from Rabbi David Stav. The rabbi, who has always boasted that there were no Reform Jews in his community because of his policy of outreach, encountered homegrown neo-Reformists. During a special sermon he gave one Shabbat for worshipers of all the synagogues within the local council’s jurisdiction, he expressed empathy for women’s dissatisfaction with traditional prayer services, but his bottom line was unequivocal: The men and women participating in the new minyan are acting contrary to halakha and rabbinical tradition.

While hardline rabbis totally reject egalitarian prayers, the “Modern Open Orthodox” Chovevei Torah yeshiva in New York decided to compose a detailed halakhic response on the matter.

In Israel, Rabbi Stav had already rejected allowing egalitarian minyans, as did most of the rabbis of the moderate Beit Hillel organization, who are willing to allow women to dance with the Torah scroll on Simhat Torah, but most of whom object to allowing women to read from the Torah in front of men.

In Israel, as opposed to the United States, worshipers don’t wait for the rabbis to allow them to pray under equal conditions. In light of the attempts to stop them, Prof. Tamar Ross, a professor of Jewish philosophy at Bar-Ilan University and one of the pioneers of the religious feminist wave, recently said: “The train has left the station; the rabbis can throw stones at the windows and shout ‘Shabbes, Shabbes.’”

National religious but not observant

The traditionalist camp is not keeping quiet. In fact, recent years have seen the rise of numerous rabbinical organizations such as Liba, the Orthodox Forum, Derech Emunah, the Movement for a Jewish State, all of which are trying to stop the erosion using legislation and by aiming to narrow the gaps between the status of men and women.

Rabbi Baruch Efrati, chairman of Derech Emunah, stood up at a convention of the religious Zionist weekly Besheva and called on liberal religious Jews to leave Orthodoxy alone: “When I was invited here I had trouble deciding whether to come, because some of the feminist organizations, some of which are participating as well, are funded by the New Israel Fund, and this funding represents the introduction of a force that is external to religious Zionism. These are Western ideas, which are designed to change my wife and me. I call on you here: Stop trying to change us. We’re happy the way we are in religious Zionism.”

Efrati and other guardians of Orthodoxy must face the fact that, according to a comprehensive study by the Israel Democracy Institute, 33 percent of those who identify as “national religious” opposed the statement that “the halakhic status of women must remain unchanged.”

Among those who defined themselves as liberal religious Jews, 45 percent were opposed, while 30 percent of those live a national-religious lifestyle objected to that statement. What is particularly interesting is that even among the “Hardali” (Haredi national religious) group, 11 percent reject the notion that the halakhic status of women must remain unchanged.

Studies and surveys in Israel indicate that Israelis prefer middle-of-the-road Judaism, that they are more traditional, less observant. The Israel Democracy Institute study discovered another surprising fact: 22 percent of Israeli Jews identify as national religious, but half of them are not religiously observant at all. The internal division of this group indicates that the majority is seeking the center: They also define themselves according to their lifestyles as national religious (31 percent), traditional religious (24 percent), traditional but not religious (9 percent), modern-liberal Orthodox (12 percent), and even secular (3 percent); only 6 percent of those who identify with the national-religious sector describe themselves as Hardalim and 11 percent as Haredim (ultra-Orthodox).

One of the women who have contributed to this revolt is Prof. Vered Noam of the Hebrew Culture Studies Department at Tel Aviv University. She wrote an influential article in the religious Zionist weekly Makor Rishon, in which she called for a change in attitude toward women in religious life as well. “This article is not a feminist manifesto, and anyone who thinks it’s about arrangements in the synagogue is mistaken,” she wrote.

“The subject is the synagogue as an example and women as an example. The reference is to a society in which the tensions between its declared value system and the reality surrounding it and the world of its members’ natural inclinations, have led it on a difficult path of denial, ignoring and strong repression – of both the external and the internal reality. This repression leads to dichotomy, compartmentalization, fakery, double standards and the construction of wall upon wall and partition upon partition… The first ones to be crushed beneath these walls are the women, who in their very being, to their detriment, represent the fault line between the two worlds.”

It is the women, the leaders of the revolt, who exhibit great pessimism, since the fact that there are brilliant female Torah scholars doesn’t guarantee them positions or recognition of their scholarship in a man’s world. Dr. Tova Ganzel, a halakhic adviser and head of the midrasha for women at Bar-Ilan University, recently wrote an article in the halakhic periodical Techumin about hatzitza (intervening objects) during immersion in the mikveh (ritual bath), but for reasons of modesty her husband’s name was added as a co-author of the article.

Prof. Noam reacted harshly to what she called the “malice” of the editors. “What is the value of halakhic discussions in a periodical that lacks intellectual integrity? And what is the image of a society whose scholarly elite behaves that way? The problem is not with Techumin. The problem is with Techumin as a display window, as an example, because what is revealed here – the pettiness, the denial, the fear and the theft of intellectual property – is the face of an entire society.”

Meanwhile, Malka Piotrokovsky, a halakhic expert, doubts her vision – splitting Orthodoxy into two denominations, one liberal (“connected to reality”) and one conservative – will materialize. “Today those who grew up in Bnei Akiva [a religious Zionist youth group] are divided into three camps: ‘dati-lite,’ those who are committed to halakha but also connected to reality, and Hardali. The middle group, which she says is a non-group, is gaining strength and evolving. “I am no longer asked, ‘How does your husband allow you to be involved with halakha?’” she says, adding that “one of the things that typifies this group is independent thinking and the lack of a herd instinct.”

Every week there is growing evidence that religious women are speaking out in public without asking permission. Piotrokovsky herself has published “Mehalekhet Bedarkah,” a pioneering and controversial book of halakhic rulingsthat can be seen as part of an assault on the positions of religious-rabbinical leadership. While appointing a woman as a dayanit sounds like a fantasy, Piotrokovsky naturally assumes the role of the rabbi who hands down rulings, and in her book teaches the public how to behave according to her halakhic interpretation, on sensitive issues such as planned parenthood, dealing with the terminally ill, women praying with tefillin (phylacteries) and more. Her book has led to scathing articles against her, and a chain of bookstores in the religious sector refuses to sell it.

Still, there are signs of change every day. One of the most powerful took place at the funeral of Naftali Fraenkel, one of three Israeli youths who was murdered in the summer of 2014. At the funeral, his mother, Rachel Fraenkel, recited the Kaddish prayer for the dead aloud in front of a respected row of rabbis, and in doing so signaled a new mourning practice for women. The line she crossed was not labeled an act of incitement, but it was formative particularly because Fraenkel herself is considered a Torah scholar and a halakhic authority. Due to Fraenkel’s recitation of Kaddish, rabbis and members of burial societies across Israel and abroad are encountering women who demand to recite the prayer aloud, something that is still considered unacceptable.

As a leading scholar of Orthodoxy and a religiously observant Jew, Dr. Benjamin Brown of the Hebrew Thought Department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem criticizes the winds of this great Jewish revolt. “My prediction is that the most recent liberal trends are about to lead to a split in religious Zionism or Modern Orthodoxy,” he says. “As opposed to the split between religious Zionism and ultra-Orthodoxy, for which there is some practical justification – and I regret that, too – here there is no justification. The liberals should have crossed the lines and switched to the Conservative movement.”

Prof. Ross of Bar-Ilan University believes that what is around the corner is far more than a split in Orthodoxy: “Much of the anger against the new phenomena is that they’re coming from the grass roots, and that’s hard to ignore nowadays. There’s a battle here over the boundaries of authority and control, with the entire religious-establishment hegemony disintegrating. After all, nobody respects the Chief Rabbinate anymore. Today, even in the Haredi world, there are no poskim [halakhic arbiters] whose opinion is accepted without question. There’s a vacuum, and in the absence of a solution, demands from the grass roots are inevitable.”

According to Ross, what is happening today is a direct continuation of the beginning of Talmud studies for religious women in the 1980s. Today there is “a gradual collapse of ideas that I would call modernist. Centers of authority are disintegrating, there is more mobility among communities, there is a questioning of one exclusive and absolute truth, plus additional factors, which are leading to a situation where everything is being disrupted.

“I think that the division into denominations in Judaism, even in Israel, is not as it was in the past. New constellations are being created. On the one hand, there is a blurring of boundaries between Conservative and Modern Orthodox Judaism. On the other hand, although the division in Israel between Modern Orthodox and Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] Judaism is worsening, here too there is overlap on the fringes.”

And in spite of everything, even Ross, as Brown notes, has clung to her Orthodox affiliation, explaining that it is “first of all a matter of identity. People who are leading this revolution feel closely connected to Orthodoxy in every sense – lifestyle, ideology, values system, social ties. It’s part of them. This brand, Orthodoxy, is also associated with authenticity, and people seek authenticity. The non-Orthodox solutions are based on making concessions, while preserving the classical rules of the game is significant to religious life. That’s why when the innovators make an effort to align themselves with the formal demands of halakha they insist on their right to be counted among the faithful followers of that tradition.”

Will the real Orthodoxy please stand up?

Rabbis who are conservative understand the strength of the revolt from two different directions: the first is the “dati-lite” group, whose members, socially, are a part of the religious camp, but don’t live a fully halakhic life and don’t obey the rabbis; the second is the “new Orthodox” group, the religious activists, the feminists, the post-Orthodox, the rebels who have not abandoned their commitment to halakha, but have limited the rabbis’ power and interpret the halakha by themselves. Neither camp is interested in abolishing Orthodox halakha, and both consider it important. Socially and politically, they choose to be part of Orthodoxy.

This insistence on maintaining the Orthodox label rubs liberal Reform Jews and conservative Orthodox Jews the wrong way – they claim it’s just semantics. But for the men and women involved in the revolt, it is an integral part of Jewish history, which is rife with disputes and rifts: 200 years ago Orthodoxy arose as a response to Reform and to the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment, 100 years ago communities in Poland quarreled and split due to the establishment of the Bais Yaakov schools that offered a good education for girls, and 50 years ago Orthodoxy in Israel divided into two ideological and sociological streams – ultra-Orthodox and national religious.

If there already are two Orthodox denominations, the difficulty will lie in marking the boundary between them. Several of the pioneers of female scholarship and halakhic rulings – such as Michal Tikochinsky and Rachel Fraenkel – who deal with the most sensitive issue in Orthodoxy, halakha, which has always been considered male territory, live in peace within communities that would be considered Hardali, and have nothing to do with egalitarian minyanim. Even Piotrokovsky, who has already burned quite a few bridges with the rabbinical establishment, in a recent article in Haaretz criticized the ease with which women are ordained as Orthodox rabbis – and these are women who ostensibly consider her a model for emulation.

One question that remains is why is all of this happening now? It may be that these divisions have been bubbling under the surface for some time, but another thing to consider is that the era of the rabbinical giants may have ended, following the deaths of major poskim (halakhic decisors) such as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, which empowered the community and individuals. Additionally, as long as women wanted to study Talmud, the more stringent rabbis could ignore them. Now, when they are demanding a share of the ritual, partly in the synagogue, the demand for equality can no longer be ignored.

Ross, meanwhile, believes that national crises have also played a role in religious leanings: “Disappointment with the disengagement [from Gaza] on the one hand, and with the peace process on the other, has led to an increase in the political power of new entities. It’s also a counter-reaction and despair with the right-wing policy espoused by Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook and his son Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. Classic national-religious ideology spoke of the need to complete the process of redemption, which was slowly but surely being realized, but something has broken and is giving rise to new trends. The old leadership with its certainties is being forced to face a new reality.”

Liberal rabbis are also being forced to face reality. Among them is Rabbi Dr. Seth Farber, who is both the head of the Netivot congregation in Ra’anana and the director of ITIM, an organization that helps men and women in their dealings with the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbinical courts at critical points in their lives. In the life of the religious community today, he says, “There’s a dilemma every second. Many questions arise, all the time: What should be the community’s attitude toward gays, toward those who are unfit for marriage according to halakha, toward feminist leadership. At ITIM, too, every day there is a halakhic question as to how to help people. At least once a day we confront the question of how a person who is a kohen [Jewish priest] can marry his partner who is a divorcee or a convert.”

Farber, who immigrated from the United States 20 years ago, is proud of the fact that two of the newly ordained women from the Maharat program in Manhattan pray at his synagogue in Ra’anana, but he insists that the prayer in his synagogue be conducted according to the custom in most Orthodox synagogues. “I’m aware of the fact that I’m not in the central stream, but I still believe that there isn’t a rosh yeshiva [yeshiva head] in the world who can’t enter my synagogue and feel comfortable. There are people who would prefer not to see any advance in the status of women. I say that it’s part of us, I don’t want to return to the place where the woman is behind the mehitza [the partition separating men and women] and is of no importance. We understand the value of equality, but because I also believe in halakha, I want to operate within its boundaries.”

Due to his stubbornness, in recent years some of the regular congregants absent skip Shabbat services once a month, and gather in another place outside the synagogue to conduct egalitarian prayers. “We aren’t partners to that, but we respect them,” says Farber. “In our congregation, even someone who participates in that is an entirely integral part of the congregation. It’s not a protest, it’s not in the context of the congregation, but the other members have to accept the fact that once a month they don’t come.”

One of the most significant proponents of Open Orthodoxy is Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber, who is involved in ordaining women and is a signatory to the halakhic foundation that makes the egalitarian prayers possible. He, of all people, is calling for a stop to the revolt.

“Slowly but surely, it turns out that the entire status of women in Judaism is changing. Within this process there are several things that seem drastic, quasi-Conservative or neo-Reform. You have to remember: Sometimes it’s enough that the questions arise, and we also have to be aware of the dangers. I spoke in the United States a few weeks ago, and there I said that we’ve reached a point where the boundaries are expanding, and the more you advance the wider the horizons. Until now everything we’ve done was within legitimate halakhic parameters. We have to be careful not to cross the boundary, and the boundary is vague.”

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