Orthodox female rabbis deserve more respect

It is perverse to bar women from teaching if they decide to gain better qualifications to teach

June 18, 2021 16:25

According to legend, King Canute sat by the sea, waiting for the tide to come in. As the water rose, the king demanded that the water recede — in vain. Even a monarch could not stop the inevitable.

In future, Anglo-Jewry may recite the legend of its own Rabbi Canute.

Last week, the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS), whose president is Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, told Dr Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz that she could no longer teach there, after 16 years.

Her crime? Learning more Torah and becoming even more qualified to teach.

The problem is that the qualification came from New York’s Yeshivat Maharat, which gives women rabbinic ordination under Orthodox auspices.

For Rabbi Mirvis, this is anathema.

No one expects Rabbi Mirvis to recognise female Orthodox rabbis. It is not his theological bailiwick. And given the influence of the Charedi London Beth Din, it would be impossible anyway.

But he was silly not to have taken up the extremely generous offer made by Dr — now ‘Rabba’ — Taylor-Guthartz not to use her rabbinic title at LSJS. He could have turned a blind eye, allowing her to continue in her role without recognising her title. Because whether he likes it or not, Orthodox women rabbis are rapidly becoming a reality. And the moment when they will no longer be controversial amongst the modern constituency the United Synagogue says it represents is inching ever closer.

In Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat — and still one of the most respected modern Orthodox authorities in America — has given the title of “morat hora’ah,” or Jewish legal leader, to Rabbanit Dr Jennie Rosenfeld and appointed her spiritual leader in Efrat. He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency this title bestowed the authority to “direct Jewish law, just like a rabbi.” If there is a difference between this and the Maharat title, it’s hard to see. At least eight others have already reportedly completed his five-year programme, including Rabbanit Shira Mirvis, now the sole leader of an Efrat synagogue. Several other high-profile Israeli educators have been ordained by Beit Midrash Har’el and women are fighting to take the Israeli chief rabbinate’s rabbinical exams.

In America, around 50 women have graduated from Yeshivat Maharat and fulfil prominent communal roles, including in synagogues. Even in the UK, Rabba Taylor-Guthartz is one of several women ordained by Maharat. There are two more Brits currently in the programme.

All this has happened in just one decade — lightning speed by historical standards. Chief Rabbi Mirvis himself has been forced to adjust, launching the Ma’ayan programme, which trains women to become “high-level educators” and advisors on laws of family purity. He might protest that this is nothing like ordination — and he’d be right, it’s a sop — but he is down that slippery slope.

Terminating Rabba Taylor-Guthartz against this background seems petty and regressive.But while many people are angry on her behalf, I don’t detect any anxiety that the cause of Orthodox feminism has been hurt. Orthodox women rabbis are happening, with or without Rabbi Mirvis’s approval. Few of Rabba Dr Taylor-Guthartz’s fans are going to stop learning from her. She’ll find new teaching venues and rise to new heights.

The real loser is LSJS, which has deprived itself of one of its most popular teachers. It will lose others. It’s no coincidence that so many of the women seeking ordination have the title “Dr”. This is a path being chosen by the best-educated and those already making their mark as leaders and teachers — those whose natural home should be LSJS.

Perhaps it’s time LSJS removes from its mission statement the line about “Maximising the participation of women as educational leaders,” given that it now punishes those who take it at its word.

LSJS was known as a force for innovation and bold thinking. It has now been identified with reactionary forces and poor behaviour. Its reputation is tainted.

We should be proud there are talented women in our small community lining up for the Maharat qualification. Can the Chief Rabbi really not hear the irony of him condemning women for wanting to deepen their relationship to the Torah, to serve their communities, to teach and to learn? He had a face-saving way to allow his institutions to continue taking advantage of their talents. Instead he’s on the beach, shouting at the waves.

June 18, 2021 16:25

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