One Step Back for Women in Judaism

Orthodox groups worried about an upstart movement ban female rabbis.

Unwelcome in Orthodoxy.

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Can a woman be a rabbi? For many American Jews, the issue is long settled: The Reform movement first ordained a woman in 1972; the Reconstructionist movement in 1974; and the Conservative movement in 1985. Regina Jonas, usually considered the first female rabbi, was ordained in Germany in 1935, and died at Auschwitz after serving as a rabbi in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

For Orthodox Judaism, however, the issue has been more complicated. In the past week, the two major Orthodox rabbinical associations in the U.S., the Rabbinical Council of America, which is roughly modern Orthodox, and the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America, roughly ultra-Orthodox, issued public statements condemning in definitive terms the possibility of Orthodox women being ordained as clergy. Their target is the emerging movement known as “open Orthodoxy,” associated with two rabbinical colleges in New York, one for men and one for women.

The open-Orthodox approach to the ordination of women is fascinating -- and so is the structure of the response, which has long-term consequences for the definition of Jewish Orthodoxy in the U.S. and worldwide.

The open-Orthodox women’s institution, Yeshivat Maharat, has cautiously tried to straddle the divide between equality for women and the traditional religious objection to ordaining them as rabbis. The yeshiva trains women pretty much identically to the way its brother yeshiva trains men, with rigorous and intensive skills in Talmud and religious law. In essence, the curriculum is interchangeable with that of a modern Orthodox rabbinical college. The graduates know as much as their male counterparts, and pass tests to prove it.

The institution’s website says that by attending, “for the first time women have an official path for gaining the skills, training, and certification they need to become spiritual leaders within the Modern Orthodox community.” Note the caution: the word rabbi isn’t used. “Maharat” in the school’s name is a neologism, an acronym of Hebrew letters standing for “a halakhic, spiritual, and Torah leader.” The word is a kind of euphemism for female rabbi, intended to placate the objections of those who say that although a woman could possess all the same knowledge as a man, the word “rabbi” ought to be reserved for men.

The two public statements rejecting the possibility of female rabbis are rhetorically very different, reflecting the different sociological positions of the two mainstream Orthodox rabbinical associations. The more modern RCA is highly apologetic. Its statement begins by saying it’s being issued only after “much deliberation and discussion among its membership and after consultation with” rabbinic authorities. It then spends two and a half paragraphs praising Torah study by Orthodox Jewish women before introducing its position in a clause that reads “however, we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.”

Finally it instructs RCA members not to ordain or hire women “regardless of the title used” or “allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a teacher … in an Orthodox institution.”

The RCA knows that some moderate or liberal Orthodox institutions have been hiring women to give sermons, provide rabbinic legal advice and teach students. The goal of its resolution is to try to reverse or hold back this process of gradual normalization.

The ultra-Orthodox rabbinical association issued its statement a few days after its more modern counterpart, and probably at least partly in response to it. Its statement has a very different tenor. It declares that the members of the open-Orthodox movement have “demonstrated innumerable times that they deny the fundamentals of the religion and the faith, particularly in regard to ordination.” The statement then declares that the open-Orthodox movement is not part of Orthodox Judaism and that the title “rabbi” given by its institutions -- including the men’s rabbinical college -- has no force.

The more right-wing rabbinical association isn’t worried about its members hiring women in quasi-rabbinic positions. Its goal is to stake out the borders of what counts as Orthodoxy. By refusing to recognize the rabbinic authority even of traditionally trained male rabbis who are in association with the training of clergywomen, the ultra-Orthodox association is trying to force open Orthodoxy to become a separate and distinct movement within Judaism, not a wing of Orthodoxy.

The sociological consequences of this move matter. The goal of open Orthodoxy is precisely to find space in the limited pluralism of Orthodox belief and practice -- to achieve a state of play where Orthodox Jews could self-define as ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox or open Orthodox. Open Orthodoxy self-consciously wants to avoid becoming a separate movement, the better to achieve incremental change toward equality for women.

The efforts at line-drawing show that the other branches of Orthodoxy are worried. The modern Orthodox, in particular, find themselves caught between the egalitarianism and feminism that are distinctly modern, and the unapologetic position of ultra-Orthodoxy, with its clearly separate spheres for men and women.

The upshot is that the Orthodox rejection of female rabbis is about the sociology of defining Orthodoxy much more than it’s about technical requirements of Jewish law. Whether open Orthodoxy will manage to shift the situation remains uncertain -- but it’s noteworthy that all the players understand the nature of the game.

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

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    Noah Feldman at

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