For the Orthodox, tradition is at the heart of who we are

The title 'rabba' is emblematic of a wider issue

June 24, 2021 13:53

Five years ago, the Chief Rabbi asked me to take responsibility for a new ‘portfolio’ in his office — to proactively consider how our Orthodox communities can better provide for women, both spiritually and educationally, in order to deliver a meaningful cultural shift. The role has been both an honour and a challenge.

That challenge has never felt greater than when reading, with a heavy heart, the media coverage about the situation at LSJS and the decision regarding Dr Lindsey Taylor Guthartz’s research fellowship there. It has created such misunderstanding which, on a topic provoking such strong feelings as this, threatens to divide people who in fact are broadly in agreement. As such, I feel a need to try to provide some clarity.

Dr Taylor-Guthartz has worked hard towards a qualification of which she is understandably proud, but which has subsequently meant losing her research fellowship. Is then the Orthodox view that women should not seek advanced qualifications in Torah learning? The number of advanced learning programmes that exist for women, whose graduates hold senior positions within Orthodox communities in the UK and abroad, demonstrates otherwise. Is it that women may not hold leading positions in our communities? On the contrary, it is critical that there are strong, female role models, alongside their male counterparts, in our communities. Indeed, one example of this is the Chief Rabbi’s Ma’ayan Programme, currently training its second cohort, who will be well positioned to take up roles in the leadership teams of communities, serving in both educational and pastoral roles, as the first cohort already does, ensuring that both men and women can seek their guidance.

What then is the problem with the title ‘rabba’? In fact, the title is emblematic of a wider issue.

In Orthodox Judaism, boundaries are established by consensus. Though one can debate the reasons and the implications, the current overwhelming consensus in mainstream Orthodoxy is that both this title and the institution which awarded it lie outside of those boundaries.

For LSJS to permit a current graduate of this institution, whether male or female, to hold a formal position at the college, would have amounted to a public endorsement and would have stepped beyond the consensus – an untenable position for a religious college whose express raison d’etre is teaching based on the principles of traditional Judaism.

To avoid using the title when directly associated with LSJS would not have dealt with the fundamental dissonance created by a formal role at the college.

Importantly, none of this is to say that those with differing views to the mainstream are ‘banned’ from our institutions and communities, as some have claimed. There is great value in hearing from people with whom we might disagree. There are ways to include divergent voices as part of a thoughtful educational programme, such that they do not compromise the Orthodox ethos of the institution or community in question. The longstanding position of the Chief Rabbi is that the challenge of whether and how to do so is left to the discretion of each institution or community and its Rabbinic leadership, with guidance from him if it is sought.

There is no doubt that our communities are stronger when led by both women and men. The progress has been encouraging. Many of our communities now have female Chairs and dedicated Women’s Officers on their executives. In addition to the far better representation in our lay leadership, many Rebbetzens with advanced studies and qualifications are taking formal leadership roles.

There is much work yet to be done. My hope is that the past two weeks do not detract from the sacred work of creating a community that is more inclusive and engaging for women, and I call on all of those who care about this issue to work with us.

Michelle Bauernfreund is Director of Operations at the Office of the Chief Rabbi

June 24, 2021 13:53

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