Will women take on a more formal role?

Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

A Female Rabbi? Just Don't Call Her That

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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Is what you tell the rabbi’s wife a secret that she can’t be required to reveal in court? The Haredi Jewish newspaper Yated Ne’eman has reported on a fascinating decision by a judge in Portland, Oregon, holding that the answer is yes.

The twist is that the women who successfully asserted the privilege were members of a branch of Orthodox Judaism known as “yeshivish,” which staunchly denies that women can be rabbis or even rabbinic advisers. Their argument was that the rabbi’s wife is, practically speaking, a kind of adjunct clergywoman in whom female members of the community confide in the expectation of privacy.

The judge’s decision required weighing informal norms against official doctrine. It raises many questions, including whether, very much against the intentions of these rabbis’ wives, the decision might mark a step toward the eventual acceptance of female rabbis within orthodoxy.

The issue arose in the course of a divorce proceeding. The husband subpoenaed the testimony of two women, each of whom was married to a rabbi. Their husbands weren’t ordinary congregational rabbis employed by a synagogue to teach and perform pastoral work. They were employees of the Portland Kollel, an organization funded by national donors in which rabbis teach and study Torah as a form of educational and social outreach.

The kollel phenomenon is itself part of the changing face of American Judaism, especially orthodoxy. For most of the 20th century, religiously observant Jews in America, like other affiliated Jews, organized their religious lives around synagogues and sometimes children’s schools. Over the last several decades, however, an increasingly large number of Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, Jews have formed their affiliations around yeshivas, the traditional Talmudic academies where adults study classical Jewish legal sources. The phenomenon has given rise to a new term, yeshivish, which describes a class of Orthodox Jews who see the yeshiva and the full-time study of Torah as the center of their spirituality.

The Portland Kollel, like others around the country, is an outpost of yeshivish Judaism. Its rabbis study on their own, but they also intend to attract unaffiliated or non-Orthodox Jews to their way of life. In this explicit goal, the kollels owe much to the outreach of Chabad Hasidism, as pioneered by the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

The sociological details help explain why the rabbis’ wives in Portland identified themselves as “rebbetzins,” the Yiddish word for a communal rabbi’s wife, not simply as women who happened to be married to men who happened to be qualified as rabbis. In the kollel, as in Chabad missions, the rabbi’s wife often serves as the outreach point for women -- a logical model in a community that insists on separation of the sexes.

Given this context, the judge was probably right to treat the rebbetzins as clergy for purposes of the privilege against testifying. They would certainly have provided counseling and advice in much the same way their husbands might have done for men -- indeed it’s possible they did more counseling than the rabbis, who tend to focus on teaching.

When the women asserted the privilege of clergy, they were apparently unworried about validating the ideal of female rabbis, which yeshivish Jews unqualifiedly reject. From their perspective, the role of a rebbetzin was clearly not that of a rabbi, and the state of Oregon’s clergy protection has no implications for their religious beliefs.

Yet in the world beyond the yeshivish, the question of female rabbis within orthodoxy is hotly contested. Yeshivat Maharat in New York recently became the first self-described Orthodox yeshiva ordaining women to the serve as clergy. To avoid violating Orthodox sensibilities, the yeshiva doesn’t calls its graduates rabbis, but it trains them in the same way Orthodox rabbis are trained at peer institutions that describe themselves as “open Orthodox.”

Unsurprisingly, more religiously conservative authorities have condemned Yeshivat Maharat, as indeed they’ve condemned open Orthodoxy. But more liberally minded Orthodox congregations and schools have employed its students and graduates. The struggle over women as clergy is thus on the way to becoming a definitional one within American Jewish orthodoxy.

Will the Oregon court’s decision affect that struggle? It won’t change the minds of yeshivish Jews. But the decision will be used by advocates of Orthodox Jewish female clergy to support the argument that contemporary Judaism demands that women play a significant, visible, formalized role in the Orthodox community.

The Portland rebbetzins do in fact show that women play a central part in contemporary yeshivish Judaism, especially when the goal is outreach to the broader Jewish world. In practice, the women are acting as clergy of a sort.

What divides the yeshivish community from open Orthodoxy is the latter’s willingness to formalize women’s leadership roles within the framework provided by traditional Jewish law. The goal of formalized equality is identifiably contemporary and American. The more the yeshivish world reaches out to contemporary American Jews, the more it will encounter the imperative to formalize. This is a new challenge for the movement -- but as perhaps the fastest growing strand of American Judaism, it has the resources to address it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net