Damned if She Does, Damned if She Doesn't
Why an Orthodox institute's decision to ordain female rabbis isn't as revolutionary as it sounds.
Dina Najman, a graduate of Nishmat and Drisha, did make it to the top position of a small, unaffiliated Orthodox prayer group called KOE (which I sometimes attend). Her title of rosh kehila (head of the congregation) grants her the same power and authority as her male predecessor—to make halachic decisions for the community, answer questions, teach Talmud, and give sermons. (Services at the congregation are led by members.) As soon as Najman was appointed, various Orthodox leaders denounced KOE as non-Orthodox—just as some commentators are now claiming about the Hartman Institute.
I met my fiance for the first time at a lunch where Dina Najman spoke, and when we got engaged, we decided to have her perform our wedding ceremony this March. We will be the first couple she marries. We didn't care about having someone with a title marry us—we just wanted someone with charisma, experience, and knowledge of Jewish law (and, of course, we were partial to her because she was the reason we met). But the state of Massachusetts, where our wedding will take place, did care about titles. The civil part of our ceremony requires an ordained member of the clergy—and we will be able to have Najman marry us only through a loophole that allows a "layperson" to perform one marriage a year in that state.
Initially, I felt great optimism about the existence of learned, devout Orthodox women in positions of power, and I felt their title was unimportant. But after learning from several of these women at various points in my life and fumbling with what to call them, or whether to stand for them as one does for a rabbi, my optimism has been tempered. It now seems a little sad to me that women devote their intellect, time, and passion to Torah and to the system of Jewish law without being formally recognized by that system, and often being seen as a threat to it.
Women who believe so passionately in the divinity of the Torah and its laws that they want to remain in the Orthodox community have to do a difficult dance. If they get rabbinic ordination through Hartman or other institutions, they are likely to move themselves outside of the norms of their communities and not really be able to influence them as a rabbi would—and if they don't, well, they're still not rabbis.
Samantha M. Shapiro is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.