At the opening plenary of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) conference in New York last week, a speaker asked any woman holding or studying for Orthodox rabbinic ordination to stand up.
Around 20 women rose to their feet — one rabbi, several “rabbas” and many “Maharats”, which is short for Manhigah Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit, or woman “leader of Jewish law, spirituality and Torah.”
Just half a decade ago, this scene would have been totally inconceivable. The idea of Orthodox women rabbis is still revolutionary.
It was hard not to be moved, and at least a couple of people around me were shedding tears.
As a British Jew in the midst of this very American celebration, my feelings were mixed.
This was a sight that I thought I would never see – and it was uplifting.
These women were breaking a glass ceiling. They were on the way to standing in pulpits as the spiritual leaders of congregations.
Once that happened, the voice of women would, of necessity, be heard louder and clearer in our key communal institution. And our most able, talented and Jewish-conscious young women would no longer have to walk away from an Orthodoxy that denied them expression.
But there was also a rub. Would this rabbinic revolution ever cross the pond, I wondered as I applauded with the rest of the crowd?
While there is no question that the status of British Orthodox women has improved in leaps and bounds in the past few years, with megillah readings, women’s Simchat Torah celebrations, learning opportunities, partnership minyanim and many other important initiatives, will the British Orthodox community ever take the next steps?
I had attended the last JOFA conference in 2013. Then there were seven other British delegates. This time, presumably because the UK now has its own regular JOFA conference, the only Brits were myself, student Luz Toff and Dina Brawer. Dina is herself a student at Yeshivat Maharat, the Orthodox New York yeshiva that ordains women. With us were 1,200 other delegates, including by my estimation around 300 men and a couple of hundred secondary school students, from across America. It was a diverse crowd, ranging from men in black kippot (a handful) and women in sheitls (lots) to women wearing trousers and no head-covering.
I was there because of one of the United Synagogue’s recent moves against leaders of our local partnership minyan. That deeply hurtful action had left me more determined than ever before to fight for change around gender issues in the Orthodox community, and to seek out like-minded people.
The irony was that the UK-American time jet-lag was evident. In 2013, partnership minyanim were central to JOFA. They did not figure at all in this year’s Conference.
“Partnership minyanim are taken for granted. Women rabbis are this year’s hot topic,” a New York friend told me. (By contrast, women rabbis were not on the agenda at all in 2013, although several were already ordained.)
While semichah for men is widely available, the female rabbinic leaders and scholars are the cream of the crop. Because many of them came to rabbinical school later in life, they tend to have solid careers and secular educational and professional qualifications behind them. Many work as assistant rabbis, as well as in schools and on university campuses.
Rabbi Lila Kagedan is leader of her own shul, the 130-year-old Congregation Agudath Shalom in Massachussetts. The product of a Strictly Orthodox, Beis-Yaakov style primary education, she has a Harvard degree and lectures in bioethics at Touro College.
“I’m pleased to report that the state of Orthodox women in the rabbinate is strong,” she told a rapt plenary with a warm smile. Despite “devastating… hate and pushback,” when she alone among the women decided to use the title “rabbi”, she announced: “We aren’t going anywhere.”
How did all this come about?
Thirty-two years ago, Blu Greenberg — the mother of Orthodox feminism in the USA — published an article entitled: “Will There Be Orthodox Women Rabbis?” She predicted that increasing learning opportunities for women would produce “a well-learned and deeply pious woman [and]… there will be a small cluster of rabbis who are willing to ordain her. Similarly, the process of acceptance by community will take place in stages. The first… will not seek a congregational pulpit… the first steps might be as a teacher, or rosh yeshiva, or a rabbi of a women’s tefilah group, or a position in a secular organisational structure. Another milestone will be for a woman to write [halachic rulings]. Perhaps all this would take a generation; perhaps two or three.”
But, when it finally happened, the milestones she predicted were all achieved in less than a decade.
The conference featured that first woman, Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the first graduate of Yeshivat Maharat and now its dean. She chaired a session featuring women writing halachic rulings, and shared a panel with Efrat’s Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, one of the “small cluster” of rabbis ordaining women in Israel.
In a post-convention gathering the next day, she discussed strategies for Maharats to get positions in all the organisations mentioned by Blu Greenberg. (She watched the next session while bouncing a baby on her hip.)
How were the American Orthodox women rabbis able to establish themselves so quickly, despite being inherently controversial? The answer has to be because American Orthodox shuls, schools and rabbis are relatively autonomous. Rabbis can decide to ordain women, and shuls and schools can hire them.
Not so in Britain, where the Orthodox community is highly centralised. No United Synagogue or United Synagogue school can hire a woman rabbi (or equivalent) as long as the Chief Rabbi and the London Beth Din forbid it.
The glass ceiling will not be shattered so easily, or so quickly, on these shores.
But shattered it will be. American and Israeli rabbas and Maharats are already increasingly visible visitors to London, providing the model. There are more learning opportunities for women, and scholars-in-residence. We even have a Maharat-to-be on our doorstep.
Without a great deal of fanfare, the Chief Rabbi himself has launched a programme called Maayan. It is training a talented group of 10 candidates to be “qualified and experienced women in our communities who can guide and teach”. The Chief Rabbi’s website seems to slide from initially restricting their projected role to “women’s issues” to suggesting a broader “adult education” function. Several of them are rebbetzins. Many of them are highly educated and qualified in secular disciplines as well.
This is not ordination. Indeed, it may very well be conceived to pre-empt that. But what did Blu Greenberg predict so many years ago? “Increasing learning opportunities for women would produce a well-learned and deeply pious woman [and eventually] there will be a small cluster of rabbis who are willing to ordain her….”
In America, it took a generation. Here it may take two or three. But the genie is well and truly out of the bottle.