Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Ordaining Orthodox women

In 2013 I wrote about the founding of Yeshivat Maharat in New York City as an Orthodox women’s rabbinical school, and its ordination of three women. What was most striking at the time was the acceptance of two of the women ordinees by very prominent Orthodox congregations. (The third, married to the senior rabbi of one of those congregations, did not seek a position.)
Four fresh rabbis ordained by Har'el Beit Midrash. From left: Rabbis Rahel Berkovits, Meesh Hammer-Kossoy, Lev Eliezer Israel, and Ariel Evan Mayse. (Sigal Krimolovski/Times of Israel)
Yeshivat Maharat took its name from the title that it conferred: maharat is a Hebrew acronym for “[female] leader of Jewish law, spirituality, and Torah.” Although its founder had previously ordained Sara Hurwitz as a rabbi, they chose to create a new title for subsequent ordinees, probably to sidestep one possible controversy.

This year, the Har ’El Beit Midrash in Israel ordained two women and two men, all as Orthodox rabbis. Although what to call a woman rabbi seems still to be problematic (rabba, which some ordained women use, is the exact feminine equivalent of rav, the ordinary Hebrew word for rabbi), it was  not an issue at Har ’El. In one sense, it was even more remarkable that the women and men studied together, which is all but unknown in Orthodox institutions.


In the early 1990s, both women had studied at Midreshet Lindenbaum, an institution for advanced study by women. When they wanted to study in the classes that an eminent rabbi, considered liberal in the Orthodox community, gave for men, they could only do so by sitting in total silence behind a curtain.


Neither Rabba Hurwitz nor the first three maharot can be counted as the first women to receive Orthodox ordination. Rabbi Mimi Feigelson received private—then secret—ordination in 1994; she is open about it now, but teaches at a Conservative institution, the American Jewish University. A few  women have also received private, but not secret, Orthodox ordination since 2000.


While some Orthodox communities are expanding the roles of women, others are resisting. In June, the Belz Hasidim in London, on the advice of their leader in Israel, prohibited driving by women. “Modesty” was the basis for the prohibition, but usually this (tzniut in Hebrew) means covering parts of a woman’s body that might be too appealing to men, including the elbow.


The Belz movement operates two primary schools in London, and they announced that children driven to school by their mothers would not be allowed to attend. This brought swift reactions from the mothers themselves, the children’s teachers, the United Synagogue of Great Britain (Orthodox but not Hasidic), and the British government. 


The Belz leaders in England have since announced that children driven to school from their mothers will not be expelled, although it still opposes driving by women. To most of us, this probably sounds like Saudi Arabia, which prohibits women from driving.


The contrast between the Har ’El beit midrash and the Belz Hasidim illustrates the range of opinions in Jewish society today. Some feel that certain changes are long overdue; others resist; and a few attempt to move in the opposite direction.