Bitya Rozen-Goldberg had no idea she wanted to be a rabbi when she immigrated to Israel from France 11 years ago. In the years since settling in Jerusalem, the 33-year-old tour guide studied Talmud in numerous female settings.
But as “female rabbi” has long been an oxymoron in the Orthodox world, she never thought she would be able to earn the ultimate religious title.
Growing up in a “very religious family,” Rozen-Goldberg was envious of her younger brother, as their father taught him to read from the Torah for his bar mitzvah. She asked him to teach her how to chant a less central text, the haftara, the section from the Prophets’ writings read in synagogue following the Torah portion.
Years later, she would join the partnership congregation Hakhel in her neighborhood of Baka, where for the first time she would lead Friday night services as a cantor. Three years ago, she and her study partner Shoshana Cohen decided to study Jewish law in earnest, to “not only practice Torah, but also speak it.”
“I was raised Jewish and have acted Jewish my entire life, but never asked the deep questions pertaining to my practice,” said Rozen-Goldberg, the granddaughter of a well-known pulpit rabbi. “It’s not just that I wasn’t taught; I had been reared in a reality of exclusion. I was really scared of stepping forward.”
A month ago, she took that step, receiving Orthodox rabbinic ordination in a ceremony in South Jerusalem. At the Modern Orthodox Kehilat Yedidya synagogue there, hundreds gathered in June around Rozen-Goldberg and 20 other newly ordained rabbis.
The young rabbis, including eight women, were all students of Rabbi Daniel Landes, former director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, which describes itself as a “coed and nondenominational Jewish learning community.”
The rabbis, dressed up for the occasion, sat in a row at the front of the synagogue, where the partition normally separating men from women was removed. At the start of the ceremony, they all stood up and faced the audience, which applauded excitedly. Landes remarked on the unique personal qualities of each of his students before calling them onstage and handing them the rolled-up ordination certificate, scribed in thick black ink on a piece of parchment.
Emotional wives cried as they embraced their newly ordained husbands, and husbands photographed their rabbi wives; toddlers ran back and forth beneath the ark holding the Torah. The speeches of guest rabbis and Jewish educators described the event as a revolution in the making.
According to Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem, a “feminist revolution” is dividing Orthodoxy today in a way that once distinguished Orthodox and Conservative Judaism.
A survey conducted by JPPI in June among 1,000 Israeli Jews found that 4% define themselves as “liberal religious” as opposed to just “religious.” Rosner said that group of Israelis might be open to relatively radical moves like Landes’s ceremony.
True, female ordination is not new to the Modern Orthodox world. Rabbi Avi Weiss has been ordaining women since 2009, first privately and then through Yeshivat Maharat, in the Bronx, where he bestows upon women the title of not rabbi, but manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit Toranit (Hebrew for a halachic, or legal, spiritual religious leader).
Indeed, the rabbis currently ordaining women in Israel were raised and trained in the United States.
“The cutting edge is always in America, and things move out from there,” Rosner said.
Indeed, Israel now provides more routes for coed ordination. The ceremony at Yedidya was not the first coed ordination in Jerusalem. One year ago, two men and two women received Orthodox ordination from Rabbis Herzl Hefter and Daniel Sperber of the Har’el Beit Midrash, which has now begun training rabbis on an expansive curriculum of creative writing, comparative religion and business ethics, alongside classic Jewish texts.
In his Efrat congregation, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has, like Weiss, appointed a woman a “spiritual adviser.” Hefter, who insists on training his students in Hebrew and shuns denominational definitions, said that American factionalism and communitarian politics make coed programs like his more possible in Israel than in the United States.
“Here we are free of the obsessive fear that characterizes much of North American Modern Orthodoxy. In Israel, no one will call you out for being ‘non-religious’ in doing this. We are much less boundaries-obsessed,” said the New York native, who moved to Israel in 1980 after studying under rabbis Yerucham Gorelick and Yosef Dov Soloveichik at Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution, Yeshiva University, and receiving rabbinic ordination in Israel. “The ball is rolling,” he added.
Landes, who studied with several renowned rabbis, including Zvi Yehudah Kook, Chief Rabbi R. Avrum Shapiro and Joseph B. Soloveitchik, is a case in point. When he first entered the study hall of Pardes 20 years ago and saw men and women learning Torah together, Landes turned around and ran out of the room. As an Orthodox pulpit rabbi in Los Angeles he had previously taught Talmud to learned women, but the actual experience of a coed beit midrash, or study hall, was initially too much to take in.
“I was head of the institution,” he said, laughing. “Kind of crazy, right?”
While personal growth and self-discovery were key in the decision of some newly ordained rabbis like Rozen-Goldberg, others reached the decision as a deliberate act of religious feminism. Na’ama Levitz Applbaum, an informal educator and longstanding leader at the egalitarian Jerusalem prayer community Sod Siach, said she came to Landes’s class determined to graduate with the title “rabbi.”
“After years of studying and teaching, it was important for me to show my young sons that women can become religious leaders,” she said. Observant women rabbis, Levitz-Applbaum added, must sit at the table with male rabbis and rule on issues like marriage, conversion, ritual bathing and kashrut.
“Our society needs women in all walks of religious life: as religious arbiters, as spiritual counselors, as community leaders. Visibility is key,” she noted.
But the public limelight, regarded as essential by Landes’s student Levitz-Applbaum, worried Landes when he embarked on his ordination experiment. He’s actually been training male and female students to become rabbis for the past five years, but only recently has he agreed to the entire group going public. “I didn’t want it to become a political situation,” he said. “I wanted to create facts on the ground.”
Formerly an opponent of female ordination, Landes began the process of breaking with tradition on the question of female ordination when even as a pulpit rabbi in Los Angeles, he realized that the Jewish value of kavod habriyot, roughly translated as “human dignity,” trumped the legal prohibition of nominating women to positions of power, referred to as srara.
“I asked myself two questions: Firstly, what is my obligation to my students, and secondly, is this good for Yiddishkeit [Judaism]? My obligation is obviously to help my female students reach the highest level possible, and it’s also great for Yiddishkeit! I haven’t lost any sleep over this during the past five years.”
Landes has reported a number of “very upset phone calls” from colleagues in the Orthodox rabbinic world, reacting to his dramatic move. “Almost every argument they make is sociological,” he noted. “They’ll say: ‘This is not the time; there will be a terrible backlash; you’re making it worse.’” Unlike his fellow rabbis, Landes is optimistic.
“The logic of Judaism has always been meritocratic. There have always been women scholars in all Jewish communities, east and west, even if just a few. The rising level of [female] scholarship will lead to a sea change. It’s inevitable.” he said.
Meanwhile, Rozen-Goldberg is debating how to put her ordination to good use.
“I don’t want to create and lead a new community. I like the congregation I already belong to,” she said. “I would like to teach, but I could have done that before, too. Perhaps it’s simply a license to speak up about things that have been brewing in me for many years.”
Elhanan Miller is a Jerusalem-based journalist specializing in the Arab world. Follow him on Twitter, @elhananmiller