Women rabbis

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Rabbi Regina Jonas, the first ordained female rabbi. Ordained in Germany in 1935, she died in Auschwitz in 1944.[1]

With some rare exceptions (see below), women historically have generally not served as rabbis until the 1970s and the influence of second-wave feminism, when the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion first ordained women rabbis. Today, female rabbis are ordained within all branches of Progressive Judaism,[2] while in mainstream Orthodox Judaism, women cannot become rabbis.

While there is no prohibition against women learning halakha that pertains to them, nor is it any more problematic for a woman to rule on such issues than it is for any lay person to do so,[3] the issue lies in the rabbi's position of communal authority. Following the ruling of the Talmud, the decisors of Jewish law held that women were not allowed to serve in positions of authority over a community, such as judges or kings.[4][5] The position of official rabbi of a community, mara de'atra ("master of the place"), has generally been treated in the responsa as such a position. This ruling is still followed in traditional and orthodox circles but has been relaxed in branches like Conservative and Reform Judaism that are less strict in their adherence to traditional Jewish law.

History[edit]

Asenath Barzani of Iraq is considered the first female rabbi of Jewish history by some scholars; additionally, she is the oldest recorded female Kurdish leader in history.[6] Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, also known as the Maiden of Ludmir, was a 19th-century Hasidic rebbe, the only female rebbe in the history of Hasidism.[7]

The first formally ordained female rabbi was Regina Jonas, ordained in Germany in 1935.[1] Since 1972, when Sally Priesand became the first female rabbi in Reform Judaism,[8] Reform Judaism's Hebrew Union College has ordained 552 women rabbis (as of 2008).[9]

Sandy Eisenberg Sasso became the first female rabbi in Reconstructionist Judaism in 1974[10] (one of 110 by 2006); and Amy Eilberg became the first female rabbi in Conservative Judaism in 1985[11] (one of 177 by 2006). Lynn Gottlieb became the first female rabbi in Jewish Renewal in 1981,[12] and Tamara Kolton became the very first rabbi (and therefore, since she was female, the first female rabbi) in Humanistic Judaism in 1999.[13] In 2009 Alysa Stanton became the world's first African-American female rabbi.[14]

The Conservative movement appointed a special commission to study the issue of ordaining women as rabbis, The commission met between 1977 and 1978, and consisted of eleven men and three women.[15] In 1983, the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, voted, without accompanying opinion, to ordain women as rabbis and as cantors.

In Europe, Leo Baeck College had ordained 30 female rabbis by 2006 (out of 158 ordinations in total since 1956), starting with Jackie Tabick in 1975.[16]

In Orthodoxy[edit]

The Orthodox Jewish tradition and communal consensus is that the rabbinate is the province of men; the growing calls for Orthodox yeshivas to admit women as rabbinical students have resulted in widespread opposition among the Orthodox rabbinate. Rabbi Norman Lamm, one of the leaders of Modern Orthodoxy and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, opposes giving semicha to women. "It shakes the boundaries of tradition, and I would never allow it." (Helmreich, 1997) Writing in an article in the Jewish Observer, Moshe Y'chiail Friedman states that Orthodox Judaism prohibits women from being given semicha and serving as rabbis. He holds that the trend towards this goal is driven by sociology, and not halakha ("Jewish law"). In his words, the idea is a "quirky fad."[17] No Orthodox rabbinical association (e.g. Agudath Yisrael, Rabbinical Council of America) has allowed women to be ordained using the term rabbi.[citation needed]

However, in the last twenty years Orthodox Judaism has begun to develop roles for women as halakhic court advisors and congregational advisors. Rabbi Aryeh Strikovski (Machanaim Yeshiva and Pardes Institute) worked in the 1990s with Rabbi Avraham Shapira (then a co-Chief rabbi of Israel) to initiate the program for training Orthodox women as halakhic Toanot ("advocates") in rabbinic courts. They have since trained nearly seventy women in Israel. Strikovski states that "The knowledge one requires to become a court advocate is more than a regular ordination, and now to pass certification is much more difficult than to get ordination."[citation needed] In 2012 Ephraim Mirvis appointed Lauren Levin as Britain’s first Orthodox female halakhic adviser, at Finchley Synagogue in London.[18]

Some Orthodox Jewish women now serve in Orthodox Jewish congregations in roles that previously were reserved for males. The grammatically correct Hebrew feminine parallel to the masculine title rabbi is rabbanit (רבנית) sometimes used for women in this role.[19] Sara Hurwitz, considered by some the first Orthodox woman rabbi, following correct Hebrew feminized grammar of rav (רב), has used the title rabba (רבה) since 2010. Some use another variant, rabet, for a female rabbi. Other women in Jewish leadership, like Rachel Kohl Finegold and Lynn Kaye function as de facto assistant rabbis.The newer title of Maharat has been used by those who receive this title at Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox seminary for women to confer an equivalent to rabbinic ordination.[20]

In Israel, the Shalom Hartman Institute, founded by Orthodox Rabbi David Hartman, opened a program in 2009 that will grant semicha to women and men of all Jewish denominations, including Orthodox Judaism, although the students are meant to "assume the role of 'rabbi-educators' – not pulpit rabbis- in North American community day schools.[21][22]

In Israel a growing number of Orthodox women are being trained as yoatzot halakhah (halakhic advisers).[23]

…Strikovski and his colleagues aren't willing to confer a title commensurate with experience. Clarifying his position, he laughs, "If a man passed such a test [on Halakha] we would call him a rabbi – but who cares what you call it?" he says. "Rav Soloveitchik, my teacher, always used to say: 'If you know [Jewish law], then you don't need ordination; and if you don't know, then ordination won't make a difference.'" Further, the title of rabbi only had meaning during the time of the Sanhedrin, he argues. "Later titles were modified from generation to generation and community to community, and now the important thing is not the title but that there is a revolution where women can and do study the oral law." + – :(Feldinger, 2005)

In June 2009, Avi Weiss ordained Sara Hurwitz with the title "maharat" (an acronym of manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit Toranit[24]) rather than "Rabbi".[25][26] In February 2010, Weiss announced that he was changing Maharat to a more familiar-sounding title "Rabba".[27] The goal of this shift was to clarify Hurwitz's position as a full member of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale rabbinic staff. The change was criticised by both Agudath Yisrael and the Rabbinical Council of America, who called the move "beyond the pale of Orthodox Judaism".[28] Weiss announced amidst criticism that the term "Rabba" would not be used anymore for his future students. Also in 2009, Weiss founded Yeshivat Maharat, a school which "is dedicated to giving Orthodox women proficiency in learning and teaching Talmud, understanding Jewish law and its application to everyday life as well as the other tools necessary to be Jewish communal leaders." In 2015 Yaffa Epstein was ordained as Rabba by the Yeshivat Maharat.[29] Also in 2015, Lila Kagedan was ordained as Rabbi by that same organization, making her their first graduate to take the title Rabbi.[30] Hurwitz continues to use the title Rabba and is considered by some to be the first female Orthodox rabbi.[31][32][33][34] However, in the fall of 2015 Rabbinical Council of America passed a resolution which states, "RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; or hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution; or allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a teacher of Limudei Kodesh in an Orthodox institution."[35] Similarly in the fall of 2015 Agudath Israel of America denounced moves to ordain women, and went even further, declaring Yeshivat Maharat, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Open Orthodoxy, and other affiliated entities to be similar to other dissident movements throughout Jewish history in having rejected basic tenets of Judaism.[36][37][38] in June 2015, Lila Kagedan was ordained by Yeshivat Maharat and in keeping with newer policies, was given the freedom to choose her own title, and she chose to be addressed as "Rabbi".[39] In 2018, Dina Brawer, born in Italy but living in Britain, was ordained by Yeshivat Maharat; she chose the title Rabba.[40][41]

On March 22, 2009, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox Synagogue,[42] held a formal ceremony officially giving Sara Hurwitz the title MaharatManhigah Halakhtit Ruchanit Toranit.[43] However, some Orthodox leaders, such as the Rabbinical Council of America and the Agudath Israel of America, opposed this move and said it was not in keeping with Orthodoxy; in any case, Hurwitz was not given the title "rabbi". However, she is considered by some the first Orthodox woman rabbi. In February 2010, Avi Weiss announced that he was changing her title of Maharat to a more familiar-sounding title "Rabba".[27] The goal of this shift was to clarify Hurwitz's position as a full member of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale rabbinic staff. The change was criticised by both Agudath Yisrael and the Rabbinical Council of America, who called the move "beyond the pale of Orthodox Judaism".[28] Indeed, women's ordination has come to be a focal point of division between YCT and the rest of the spectrum of Orthodoxy,[44] as most of Orthodoxy does not view YCT as normative Orthodoxy.[45] Weiss announced amidst criticism that the term "Rabba" would not be used anymore for his future students. However, in June 2015, Lila Kagedan was ordained by Yeshivat Maharat and in keeping with newer policies, was given the freedom to choose her own title, and she chose to be addressed as "Rabbi".[39] In 2018, Dina Brawer, born in Italy but living in Britain, was ordained by Yeshivat Maharat; she chose the title Rabba.[40][41]

In 2017 the Orthodox Union adopted a policy banning women from serving as clergy, from holding titles such as "rabbi", or from doing common clergy functions even without a title, in its congregations in the United States.[46]

In 2013, the first class of female halachic advisers trained to practice in the US graduated; they graduated from the North American branch of Nishmat’s yoetzet halacha program in a ceremony at Congregation Sheartith Israel, Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Manhattan.[47]

The use of Toanot is not restricted to any one segment of Orthodoxy; In Israel they have worked with Haredi and Modern Orthodox Jews. Orthodox women may study the laws of family purity at the same level of detail that Orthodox males do at Nishmat, the Jerusalem Center for Advanced Jewish Study for Women. The purpose is for them to be able to act as halakhic advisors for other women, a role that traditionally was limited to male rabbis. This course of study is overseen by Rabbi Yaakov Varhaftig.[48]

Modern Orthodox trends[edit]

Furthermore, several efforts are underway within Modern Orthodox communities to include qualified women in activities traditionally limited to rabbis:

  • In the United States, Modern Orthodox rabbis Avi Weiss and Saul Berman created an advanced educational institute for women called Torat Miriam. They do not claim that the graduates of this institute are rabbis, but that the long-term goal is to have women "work on a professional level in the synagogue." (Helmreich, 1997)
  • Rabbi Aryeh Strikovski (Mahanayim Yeshiva and Pardes Institute) worked in the 1990s with Rabbi Avraham Shapira (then a co-Chief rabbi of Israel) to initiate the program for training Orthodox women as halakhic Toanot ("advocates") in rabbinic courts. They have since trained nearly seventy women. Strikovski states that "The knowledge one requires to become a court advocate is more than a regular ordination, and now to pass certification is much more difficult than to get ordination." The use of Toanot is not restricted to any one segment of Orthodoxy; in Israel they have worked with Haredi and Modern Orthodox Jews. Furthermore, Rav Strikovsky granted ordination to Haviva Ner-David (who is American) in 2006, although she has not been able to find a job as a rabbi.[49]
  • In Israel and America a growing number of Orthodox women are being trained as yoatzot halacha ("halachic advisors"), who serve many in communities ranging from Haredi to Modern Orthodox. In 2013, the first class of female halachic advisors trained to practice in the US graduated; they graduated from the North American branch of Nishmat’s yoetzet halacha program in a ceremony at Congregation Sheartith Israel, Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Manhattan.[47]
  • At Nishmat, the Jerusalem Center for Advanced Jewish Study for Women, Orthodox women may study the laws of family purity at the same level of detail that Orthodox males do. The purpose is for them to be able to act as halakhic advisors for other women, a role that traditionally was limited to male rabbis. This course of study is overseen by Rabbi Yaakov Varhaftig.
  • Rahel Berkovits, an Orthodox Talmud teacher at Jerusalem's Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, states that as a result of such changes in Haredi and Modern Orthodox Judaism, "Orthodox women have founded and overseen prayer communities, argue cases in rabbinic courts, advise on halachic issues, and dominate in social work activities that are all very associated with the role a rabbi performs, even though these women do not have the official title of rabbi."
  • In 2009, Rabbi Avi Weiss founded Yeshivat Maharat, a school in New York which "is dedicated to giving Orthodox women proficiency in learning and teaching Talmud, understanding Jewish law and its application to everyday life as well as the other tools necessary to be Jewish communal leaders." Those women who graduate from Yeshivat Maharat were given the title of Maharat, which "is an acronym, in Hebrew, for 'manhigot hilkhatiot, rukhaniot vTorahniot', meaning, someone who is a spiritual leader trained in Torah and the intricacies of Jewish law."[50] The first women graduated from Yeshivat Maharat on June 16, 2013.[51][52] In 2015 Yaffa Epstein was ordained as Rabba by the Yeshivat Maharat.[29] Also that year, Lila Kagedan was ordained as Rabbi by the Yeshivat Maharat, making her their first graduate to take the title Rabbi.[30] In 2018, Dina Brawer, born in Italy but living in Britain, was ordained by Yeshivat Maharat; she chose the title Rabba.[40][41]
  • In 2016, it was announced that Ephraim Mirvis created the job of ma’ayan by which women would be advisers on Jewish law in the area of family purity and as adult educators in Orthodox synagogues.[53] This requires a part-time training course for 18 months, which is the first such course in the United Kingdom.[53]

Further reading[edit]

Women in Non-Orthodox Judaism[edit]

  • Nadell, Pamela. Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women's Ordination, 1889–1985, Beacon Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8070-3649-8.

Women in Orthodox Judaism[edit]

  • Debra Nussbau, Cohen, Jewish tradition vs. the modern-day female, March 17, 2000, Jewish Telegraphic Agency
  • Lauren Gelfond Feldinger, The Next Feminist Revolution, The Jerusalem Post, March 17, 2005
  • Moshe Y'chiail Freidman, Women in the Rabbinate, Jewish Observer, 17:8, 1984, 28–29.
  • Laurie Goodstein, Causing a Stir, 2 Synagogues Hire Women to Aid Rabbis, February 6, 1998, New York Times
  • Jeff Helmreich, Orthodox women moving toward religious leadership, Friday June 6, 1997, Long Island Jewish World
  • Marilyn Henry, Orthodox women crossing threshold into synagogue, Jerusalem Post Service, May 15, 1998
  • Jonathan Mark, Women Take Giant Step In Orthodox Community: Prominent Manhattan shul hires ‘congregational intern’ for wide-ranging spiritual duties, The Jewish Week December 19, 1997
  • Emanuel Rackman, (Women as Rabbis) Suggestions for Alternatives, Judaism, Vol.33, No.1, 1990, p. 66–69.
  • Ben Greenberg, Women Orthodox Rabbis: Heresy or Possibility?, First Things, October 2009
  • Gil Student, When Values Collide, First Things, September 2009
  • Mimi Feigelson, Yeshivah Student, Feminine Gender, Eretz Acheret Magazine

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