I was once speaking to a group of elderly Jews about the advances in women’s Torah study. One woman in the audience eagerly raised her hand. She said that she was born in Krakow, and was the downstairs neighbor of Sarah Shenirer, the founder of the Bais Yaakov schools. “Believe me,” she said, “the rabbis were not happy with her!”
Since those days in the 1920s, the debate about women studying and teaching Torah continued to rage throughout the twentieth century. Nearly a century later, Bais Yaakov schools thrive, and all pockets of the Orthodox community see the value of teaching Torah to women. Indeed, last week’s ruling of the OU rabbinic panel showed unequivocal support of a woman’s right to study and teach Torah at the highest levels.
In the twenty-first century, the debate over women’s learning has evolved into the debate over women’s leadership. It was encouraging to see the OU rabbinic panel endorse women’s religious leadership in schools and even synagogue settings. But I am saddened that the OU has tried to draw a line in the sand, to delineate who is in and who is out.
What’s more, so many of the OU’s assertions rest on amorphous categories related to communal norms and feelings, comfort or discomfort. What they have asserted to be outside of the “halakhic ethos,” others have found to be perfectly within it, and even desirable.
I am familiar with the discomfort felt by the OU’s Rabbinic panel. I have been on the receiving end of it for years. Over the past decade, there have been many people who have been uneasy with my presence at the pulpit. I have been subjected to people (both women and men) who have walked out of the room when I get up to speak, whether on a weekday or on Shabbat. I have encountered those who felt uncertain about seeing me officiate a funeral, and have told me so. I have been the target of jokes and sarcastic comments. I understand that it looks and feels unfamiliar for someone from my side of the mechitzah to take an active and public leadership role as clergy.
But this debate is constantly evolving. Even the IRF (International Rabbinic Fellowship), which proudly includes women in their membership and leadership today, once rejected the possibility of women’s membership. (Rabbi Marc Angel wrote about this here.) Astonishingly, a mere few years later, the conversation has shifted. Those who had voiced discomfort now show their support. Those who were afraid to hire women have now hired them, and have seen the positive impact of these decisions. Despite statement after statement, women’s leadership is being embraced. The ship has sailed.
I have been in the pulpit for ten years – longer than the RCA and the OU have been writing statements about it. I am not alone – I have several female Orthodox colleagues who have been in the field a long time. Despite the OU’s hesitations, I am Orthodox, as are the synagogues where I have served. The OU does not have the power to write me out of the Orthodox community. Women have been learning, and history will show that women will be leading.
Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold is the Director of Education and Spiritual Enrichment at Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal. She previously served as the Education and Ritual Director at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago, where she was named one of JUF’s “36 Under 36”. Rachel is a founding member of the Orthodox Leadership Project, serves on the editorial board of the JOFA Journal, and is a board member of the Bronfman Jewish Education Centre (BJEC). She received her B.A. in Religion from Boston University and completed the Drisha Scholars Circle. Rachel lives in Montreal with her husband, Rabbi Avi Finegold, and their three daughters.
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