Why an Orthodox institute's decision to ordain female rabbis isn't as revolutionary as it sounds.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Jan. 23 2008 1:06 PM

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.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Last week, the Jerusalem Post ran an article announcing that for the first time, an Orthodox institution, the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, would begin ordaining women rabbis. Predictably, the decision was both lauded as a historical moment and instantly denounced as evidence that the institute's founder, Rabbi David Hartman, isn't really Orthodox, anyway—though he was ordained at the modern Orthodox flagship, Yeshiva University, and his institute runs two Orthodox schools in Jerusalem.

As someone who eagerly, perhaps a little tragically, scans the radar screen of orthodoxy looking for feminist blips, it's hard for me to know whether to be encouraged by or cynical about this most recent piece of news.

Giving learned female teachers the title of rabbi is a big deal—it may grant them better pay and more respect at the schools they work in. But as for whether this will herald the beginning of an era of Orthodox women rabbis, it's not so clear that the title will be recognized within the Orthodox world. In the Jerusalem Post article, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a prominent modern Orthodox rabbi, devalued the move at Hartman for a few reasons, including that the Hartman Institute also gives ordination to men and women from other streams of Judaism, such as Reform or Conservative. These days, many Orthodox leaders have supplanted the traditional invocations for achudus ha'am—unity of Jewish people—and ahavas yisrael—loving all the people Israel—with a rule of their own invention: Do not mix with, appear to be like, or in any way seem to support the vast swathes of Jews who identify as Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist. So, rabbinic ordination that happens in conjunction with other Jews is immediately suspect.

This isn't, strictly speaking, the first time an Orthodox woman has been ordained. Since Orthodox semicha, or ordination, can be granted by an individual rabbi instead of an institution, there have already been cases of women receiving semicha from Orthodox rabbis. Mimi Feigleson received semicha from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and Havivah Ner-David received semicha from a Jerusalem-based rabbi named Aryeh Strikovsky (who was also my teacher). But what does this title actually confer to women in the Orthodox world? Feigelson has a distinguished position—but at a Conservative seminary. The title rabbi does not mean that these women can go to any Orthodox synagogue and have an equal chance—or any chance—of being hired as a rabbi. In fact, at those synagogues, the title is likely to be held against them.

Although a woman taking the title of rabbi is frowned upon in most Orthodox circles, there has been a remarkable development in the Orthodox world in the last 25 years of women learning Talmud and other texts traditionally forbidden to them. At Nishmat in Jerusalem and the Drisha Institute in New York City (where I have taken classes), women study Torah seriously in a traditional yeshiva environment. The Drisha Scholar's Circle program is a three-year study course that closely follows the typical training Orthodox rabbis get, although it confers no formal title on graduates. Graduates of these programs have quietly acquired some aspects of rabbinic responsibility without the title. High-level students at Nishmat are trained to answer questions relating to the laws around marital sex, which is one of the roles a rabbi would traditionally have. However, Nishmat is careful to emphasize that the women are "halachic advisers" who regularly consult with and, it is implied, defer to rabbis.

Recently, graduates of Nishmat and Drisha, as well as the women's Talmud program at Yeshiva University, have been awarded a slew of nonrabbi rabbi jobs  at Orthodox synagogues. Sara Hurwitz is the "madricha ruchanit," or religious mentor, at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale; Lynn Kaye is the "Director of Jewish Life and Learning" at Shearith Israel, also in New York. Rachel Kohl Finegold is the "programming and ritual director" at Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel Congregation in Chicago. And the Jewish Center in Manhattan recently hired Elana Stein Hain to serve as scholar in residence. These women are very learned and perform many of the tasks you might expect a young associate rabbi to do: giving sermons on Shabbat, answering questions about Jewish law, and, in Hurwitz's case, co-officiating at a wedding.

These strides are significant, but there's a question of the trajectory of these quasi-rabbinic roles. A man in any of these women's positions could expect after a few years of service to be promoted to main rabbi. It's fairly unlikely, however, that these women's careers will advance much further. Without an accepted orthodox rabbinic ordination, there is nowhere to be promoted to.

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.