Women rabbis? Why ever not?

By Geoffrey Alderman, June 18, 2009

Avraham Weiss is one of the most dynamic Orthodox rabbis to have emerged in the post-Holocaust era. As founder of the Manhattan-based Yeshivat Chovovei Torah, he has been the prime mover in the evolution of “Open Orthodoxy.” Open Orthodoxy seeks a dialogue between the Jew and her or his Maker that falls squarely within the core dogma of Orthodox Judaism, namely belief in Torah min Hashamayim — that the whole of the Torah was revealed by God on Sinai — but, at the same time, holds itself open to a respectful and constructive dialogue with modernity and, in particular, with secular learning and the secular world.

As such, Open Orthodoxy distinguishes itself from, on the one hand, Conservative Judaism — which rejects literal belief in Torah min Hashamayim — and, on the other, from Charedi Judaism — which rejects the secular world, from which it believes nothing whatever can be learned. As Miriam Shaviv intimated in last week’s JC, Charedi Judaism is merely one branch of Orthodoxy, and a recent growth at that. For its part, Open Orthodoxy draws a firm distinction between the Torah mi-Sinai — the laws revealed at Sinai, which are immutable — and laws grounded in or based upon rabbinical interpretation, which, by definition, are not immutable but can change over time.

Orthodox Judaism is, in short, a broad church. Open Orthodoxy resides very comfortably within its time-hallowed walls. Naturally, it has attracted controversy. It has been mercilessly attacked from Charedi circles as a wolf in sheep’s clothing — a Conservative movement masquerading as an Orthodox one. One ground of attack has been its willingness to meet and make friends with avowedly non-Orthodox Judaisms, including the Conservative and Reform movements, in order to pursue matters of common interest and concern. In mounting this attack, spokespersons for the Charedim are fond of citing the opinion of the famous rabbi of late 19th century Frankfurt, SR Hirsch, who urged a complete boycott of the Reformers and all their works. But those who rely on Hirsch conveniently forget that his view was vocally criticised by his rabbinical contemporaries — foremost among them rabbi Bamberger of Würzburg — who argued for a quite different approach.

But nothing that Open Orthodoxy has achieved, or that Rabbi Weiss has done in its name, has brought upon it more opprobrium and (in equal measure) more praise than his recent “ordination” of Sara Hurwitz as the modern world’s first Orthodox female rabbi (though formally her title is “Leader in Jewish Law, Spiritual Matters and Torah”) and his even more recent announcement that he is establishing a yeshiva to train other Orthodox Jewish women to “function as rabbis.”

The Orthodox Jewish Feminist Alliance has naturally welcomed these moves. But here in the UK my old school chum Dayan Ivan Binstock was a tad less enthusiastic: “If you give women the title of clergy, you give the impression that they can have a role in ritual affairs that they cannot carry out, such as officiating at weddings,” he said, adding “I don’t see it happening here.” I wonder.

After all, Ivan, what is a “rabbi?” The word itself simply means “teacher”. When the late Rabbi Mickey Rosen established his Yakar congregation in Hendon, his wife Gila frequently gave excellent, highly authoritative Shabbat-morning shiurim, well attended by women and men alike. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin famously engaged Professor Nehama Leibowitz to teach at his yeshiva in Efrat.

In our kitchen, my wife Marion reigns supreme; she is responsible for its extremely high standard of kashrut. Anyone eating in our house therefore relies on her knowledge and enforcement of halachah in this respect (for instance the ritual immersion of utensils before use, the strict separation of milk and meat, and the examination of various raw foods for signs of impurity). Women do not act as shochetim now, but they once did so, and could again. Indeed, we might note that the present-day Orthodox prohibition on women holding positions of authority derives from a purely Maimonidean view, and that even while he lived Maimonides was widely regarded as a heretic.

Could a woman “officiate” at a wedding? As Orthodoxy stands today, she might not be able to act as a religious witness. But as to reading out the ketubah text, telling the bridegroom what to say, giving a suitable address, and generally acting as mistress-of-ceremonies, why not, Ivan, why not?

Last updated: 10:21am, June 24 2009