Orthodox women are making history in front of our eyes. On June 16, three women will be ordained to serve, in effect, as Orthodox rabbis, given the title of Maharat (an acronym for the Hebrew words meaning leader in legal, spiritual and Torah matters).
They will graduate from Yeshivat Maharat in New York City, the first and thus far only women to receive institutional ordination as religious and spiritual leaders in the Orthodox world.
To a certain degree, this is not really news. Women have been working in Orthodox clergy position for years. And a handful of women have been privately ordained by Orthodox rabbis over the years. But next month’s graduation will mark the first time Orthodox women will be formally and publicly ordained with institutional recognition for the profound role women rabbis can play in Orthodox communities.
Maharat women will perform virtually all the same pastoral and spiritual functions as men, plus a few. Orthodox women are often more comfortable approaching women about personal, intimate issues than they are approaching men. Maharat women will deal with those issues and have the potential to re-engage women in communal life — women who until now have felt that they have no leaders. As one young Orthodox woman recently told us, “When my husband doesn’t come to synagogue, the rabbi asks about it. But when I don’t come, he doesn’t even notice. I need a woman rabbi who I can connect to, who can take an interest in my spiritual life.”
Still, despite this demonstrated need and desire for women leaders, the Orthodox rabbinical seminaries have been intensely reluctant to ordain women. Indeed, the Rabbinical Council of America recently came out with a statement condemning the Maharat graduates: “The RCA views this event as a violation of our mesorah (tradition) and regrets that the leadership of the school has chosen a path that contradicts the norms of our community.”
This position is intriguing for its sad admission that the RCA’s opposition to women’s ordination is based on “norms of the community” rather than actual halacha (Jewish law). This reliance on the arguments of tradition, norms and impact on men’s dignity rather than on halacha, reinforces the fact that opponents of women’s leadership are less concerned with Jewish law and women’s needs than they are about their own comfort.
The position of the RCA is likely to have the opposite impact that its writers intended. Rather than give the RCA power to stop women’s advancement, the statement is likely to reduce the RCA’s influence, as its constituents realize that their rabbis are out of touch with the world around them.
This is the reality: Women are becoming religious leaders, women are entering every area of Jewish life, and the community is better for it. These women bring extraordinary talents that will enrich the communities who are smart and forward thinking enough to hire them.
Those who block women’s advancement, who try to prevent half of the population from teaching, preaching, counseling and making halachic decisions, ultimately do a disservice not only to the women but also to their entire communities.
Meanwhile, the International Rabbinic Fellowship — the Orthodox rabbinic institution that provides an alternative to the RCA — has offered a very different statement: “We express our support for the sincere desire of the graduates of these learning programs to contribute their spiritual talents to the Jewish people as teachers, spiritual guides and mentors. We also affirm the dedication and sacrifice of so many women in our community, and their desire to serve their congregations and their people in formal leadership capacities, while affirming the specific areas that halacha delimits.”
This support is not only encouraging for the future of women’s ordination, but is also a sign that there are powerful voices of wisdom and sanity gaining strength in the Orthodox community.
Let Orthodox male rabbis decry what they see as a subversion of halacha; let communities bemoan what they view as the erosion of Orthodox life. It will have no effect on a movement that will not be stopped.
We wish the graduates of Yeshivat Maharat a hearty Mazal Tov.
Zelda R. Stern is a feminist donor-activist and founding board Member of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). Elana Maryles Sztokman is the executive director of JOFA.