Orthodox, female and running their own shuls just dont call them rabbis – Haaretz

Posted By on July 13, 2021

For Orthodox Jewish feminists in Israel and abroad, the past few months have been something of a roller-coaster ride.

They cheered in April when Rabbanit Shira Marili Mirvis became the first Israeli woman to be appointed spiritual leader of an Orthodox congregation for all intents and purposes, the senior rabbi at her shul.

But they suffered a devastating blow two months later when freshly ordained Rabba Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz was sacked from her teaching position at the London School of Jewish Studies. Her decision to pursue smicha (rabbinical ordination), the popular instructor was told, went against the established position of mainstream Orthodoxy across the world, as well as that of Britains Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who oversees the school.

Neither the institution nor the chief rabbi could have foreseen the backlash that would ensue. Bowing to pressure from the Orthodox community, LSJS announced last week that it had decided to reinstate Taylor-Guthartz, who had taught there for 17 years before acquiring smicha. In an official statement, LSJS noted that it had not changed its position on female ordination. Rather, it had reached the conclusion that since Taylor-Guthartzs appointment was academic rather than religious, there was no reason to let her go. Orthodox feminists declared victory once again.

If I look back at the past 50 years of feminist revolution in Orthodoxy, I would say that its always been two steps forward and one step back, reflects author Blu Greenberg, widely hailed as the founding mother of Orthodox feminism in the United States. Thats a very healthy evolutionary process. Maybe now with Rabba Lindsey, weve gone three steps forward.

'Final frontier'

Founded in 2009, Yeshivat Maharat in New York was the first institution to ordain Orthodox women and remains the only such institution in North America. It has since granted smicha to 49 women. Maharat the Hebrew acronym for "female, spiritual, halakhic and Torah leader" was co-founded by Rabba Sara Hurwitz, often described as the world's first Orthodox female rabbi, and Rabbi Avi Weiss, who ordained her. The institution is affiliated with the Open Orthodox movement, which has its roots in Modern Orthodoxy but is more liberal.

Indeed, the Rabbinical Council of America, the main professional association of Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States, does not recognize Maharat and continues to prohibit both the ordination of women and the hiring of women to fill rabbinic positions in Orthodox institutions.

About half-a-dozen Orthodox institutions in Israel, known as midrashot, have in recent years started certifying women as leaders and advisers of halakha (traditional Jewish law). Although participants in these programs do not receive ordination upon graduation, their curriculum is very similar to that of male rabbinical students. To date, about 25 women have graduated from such programs.

In addition to these formal frameworks, a handful of rabbis in Israel and the United States, affiliated with the more progressive streams of Orthodoxy, are known to ordain women privately.

Taylor-Guthartz, 61, a member of the most recent graduating class of Maharat, calls smicha the final frontier for Orthodox women. Weve seen this enormous burst of talmudic learning for women, particularly in Israel, over the last two decades, and the question is where do women go after that, she says, in a phone conversation from her home in London. If they were men, the obvious place would be smicha because thats what you do when you get to that level of education.

It was never her lifes dream to become a congregational rabbi, Taylor-Guthartz admits. What prompted her, rather, was a desire to gain an insiders view of the religious establishment so that she could be of greater assistance to others.

I wanted to learn more about how the halakhic system works in practice, because that is information that is very hard for women to obtain, she says. I figured that even if I didnt turn out to be an amazing and incredible rabbi, I would at least have a much better working knowledge of how halakha functions.

Mirvis, 41, is scheduled to complete a five-year program at Jerusalem-based Midreshet Lindenbaum at the end of this month, when she will officially be certified as a halakhic leader. The product of a traditional Orthodox upbringing, she says, she never even considered becoming a congregational leader an option. But after years of studying Talmud, she says, she felt a yearning to delve into halakha in an organized fashion and, therefore, enrolled in the Lindenbaum program one of the first in Israel to offer women the equivalent of rabbinical training.

Mirvis and her family were among the founding members of Shirat Hatamar, an Orthodox congregation established three years ago in the West Bank settlement of Efrat.

People there knew that I was studying at Lindenbaum, and so they would often come to me with halakhic questions. Eventually, I found myself delivering the weekly dvar Torah [thoughts about the weekly Torah portion] at the synagogue and holding classes for the congregants. Basically, I was filling the role of a rabbi, she says.

A few months ago, she relays, Shlomo Riskin, the American-born founding rabbi of Efrat, approached her with a proposition. He said he knew that in practice I was the spiritual leader of the congregation, and he thought it would be a good idea to make it official, says the mother of five.

No shared spotlight

Mirvis, who is married to the nephew of Britains chief rabbi, is not the first Orthodox Israeli woman to hold the title of spiritual leader. Five years ago, Carmit Feintuch was appointed to a similar position at the renowned Ramban synagogue in Jerusalem. The difference is that Feintuch (who has since moved on) was appointed to serve alongside Rabbi Benny Lau, then senior rabbi at Ramban, whereas Mirvis does not share the spotlight with anyone.

Like most Israeli women who have gone through similar religious training, Mirvis uses the title rabbanit. Some might consider it strange given that rabbanit is also the term used in Hebrew for a rebbetzin, or rabbis wife. Taylor-Guthartz, for example, uses rabba, the Hebrew feminine form of rabbi, as do many graduates of Maharat in New York. But Orthodox women in Israel tend to avoid it, Mirvis explains, because it is also the title used in Israel by female rabbis affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements.

I definitely respect these other denominations, but its just not me, she says. And besides, Mirvis insists, nobody who knows her would ever mistake her for a rebbetzin. My husband runs a startup company he is not a rabbi, and thats common knowledge, she says. I know that people once associated the rabbanit with matchmaking and kugel-making, but those days are long gone.

Among Maharat's graduates, some still use the maharat title once bestowed by the institution on its graduates, but growing numbers in recent years have started calling themselves rabbi, plain and simple.

Dasi Fruchter prefers rabbanit. A graduate of Maharat, she is the founder and spiritual leader of the year-and-a-half-old South Philadelphia Shtiebel one of a handful of ordained Orthodox women in the United States who run their own congregations.

She didnt always call herself rabbanit, though. Upon her ordination, Fruchter was hired as an assistant spiritual leader at a large Modern Orthodox synagogue in Potomac, Maryland, where initially she used the title maharat.

About midway into my work there, she recounts, the team decided that shifting the title to rabbanit would get more people to relate to it and use it. It also made me feel more connected to my sisters in Israel, who were using it. What I noticed when I changed the title was a marked increase in people relating to me. Even if they werent sure about how they felt about my position in the community calling me rabbanit seemed to reassure them that they didnt have to decide just yet.

'Doctor' or 'doctoress'?

Rabbi Daniel Landes, the former director of the nondenominational Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, was among the first, if not the first, Orthodox rabbi in Israel to ordain women privately. Since blazing the trail about five years ago, he has given smicha to about a dozen women and has another eight in the pipeline. Most of these women call themselves rabbi, and a few call themselves rabba, but none use the term rabbanit, Landes says. I mean, why demean it? Its an important enough job in its own right, and you dont call a female doctor a doctoress do you?

According to Hurwitz, who serves as president of Maharat, eight graduates of her institution currently serve in congregational roles, mostly in assistant leadership positions. In that sense, Orthodox women in the United States are pretty far ahead of those in Israel, she says, noting that Mirvis appointment was unprecedented. While institutions like Lindenbaum have been educating Orthodox women at high halakhic levels for a good number of years, she says, it took them quite some time to come out publicly and say what they were actually doing, as opposed to Maharat, which was founded specifically for the purpose of ordaining women.

Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the president of the Ohr Torah Stone network of institutions, which includes Lindenbaum, cautions against comparing the United States and Israel in this regard. In Israel, he notes, Orthodoxy is by far the leading denomination very unlike the situation in the United States, where the Reform and Conservative movements predominate. Thats the reason people arent that concerned in Israel about women assuming leadership roles theres not that same fear of the slippery slope, he says.

Or as Rabbanit Devorah Evron, director of Lindenbaums halakhic leadership program, notes: I dont want to sound judgmental, but whats happening here in Israel is happening within mainstream Orthodoxy, and thats not the case in the United States. Our graduates work in regular Orthodox communities, not the type that call themselves egalitarian or inclusive. That could explain why, contrary to whats happening in the United States, this is not something that is tearing the Orthodox community apart. Earlier this year, Evron was appointed spiritual leader of Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan the first woman to hold such a position on an Israeli campus.

Taylor-Guthartz cant say whether Israel is ahead of the United States or vice versa. What she can say is that Britain is trailing behind them both. Indeed, this newly minted rabbi is hard-pressed to name one Orthodox woman in the U.K. who has been ordained and is gainfully employed in an Orthodox congregation.

Were always 10 to 15 years behind Israel and the United States, she says.I mean, this is a country where they still call women ladies.

She adds with a laugh: I cant tell you how many people have told me how wonderful it is that Im a lady rabbi.

In 1984, Blu Greenberg, who is today 85, wrote a seminal essay titled Will There Be Women Rabbis? Her answer to her own question was that there would be in her lifetime. Before submitting the essay for publication (in Judaism, a now-defunct journal), as she often did, she went down to her husbands office and asked him to have a look at it.

Ill never forget his reaction," she says. "He gave me a big kiss and said that if my prediction is correct, wed be living forever.

In that article, I never imagined that women would end up being pulpit rabbis," Greenberg adds, "so this has gone much further than even I anticipated."

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Orthodox, female and running their own shuls just dont call them rabbis - Haaretz

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