The Dirty Truth About Orthodox Women Rabbis
04/28/2010 - 18:20
Jonathan Mark

The rejection of women rabbis and "rabbas" by the Rabbinical Council of America is "chilling," feminists tell us.

Really? In what way? What exactly can't Modern Orthodox women do, according to the new understanding, that has anyone chilled?

Can Orthodox women publish books, essay and spiritual insights on religious life, and be a leader in that way? Yes.

Can they do pastoral work, visiting hospitals, teaching bat mitzvahs, and counseling anyone? Yes.

Can they be the centerpiece of Jewish life in places like the Congo, El Paso and Mumbai, as are Chabad shluchos (the rebbe's women emissaries)? Yes, except that no Modern Orthodox woman aspiring to the rabbinate has shown any inclination to go and get jobs where Chabad shluchos go, unless we're talking upscale neighborhoods and suburbs.

Can a women non-rabbi organize holiday services in the Plaza Hotel, fill Madison Square Garden, and have a cable TV show like Rebbetzin Jungreis, thereby teaching Torah and giving sermons to more people than she ever could in a synagogue? Yes, there's nothing stopping any Orthodox woman from doing what Rebbetzin Jungreis does. Her empire is bigger than any shul.

Can women non-rabbis develop better schools and be leaders in Jewish education? Yes.

Can her Torah commentaries be as sophisticated and as quoted as those of Nechama Leibowitz or Aviva Zorenberg, without a title? Yes.

Can she write books, lecture, organize, inspire and become as well-known and beloved as Blu Greenberg is? Yes.

If you're really special, your first name itself will be used more than any title. As in "Yitz." "Shlomo." "Blu." Even "Avi." Better than any title is to be on a first-name basis with the Jewish people. It doesn't get any holier than that.

Could a Jewish woman weave enchanting tales about mystics and Biblical characters and messengers of God, as does Elie Wiesel, who has no title? Yes.

Can she open a home adjacent to a college campus, serving as defacto family and spiritual leader for the campus, as do Chabad shluchos (who are considered totally equal to their rabbi husbands, the shluchim)? Yes.

Can she serve on a Bet Din rabbinical court? No, and even Avi Weiss, the most radical Modern Orthodox advocate for women rabbis, admits that his rabba couldn't halachically serve on a Bet Din anyway, so even a pro-Avi RCA would not have changed that one iota.

And there are halachic limitations on what a rabbi who's a Kohen can do, even if he's a man.

So what is the one big thing an Orthodox woman can't do as a result of the RCA ruling and Orthodox tradition? One thing and one thing alone -- be official synagogue clergy. I appreciate anyone's ambition, and women surely have that right, but if women clergy would be anything like most of the clergy we already have, then why should anyone be particularly excited? If women who want to be rabbis aren't excited about the RCA as it is now, what about women rabbis would be any different?

The first half-century of the Young Israel movement were some of the most glorious years in the history of shuls. Those were the years when all Young Israelis were led by The People, educated laity, with no rabbis leading any congregation.

Then Young Israel started hiring rabbis and the Young Israel shuls, for the most part, went from being the Young Israel of Bedford Falls to the Young Israel of Pottersville.

If that's all that is "chilling," well, any woman who has something to contribute to the Jewish community can still do it every which way that 99 percent of Jewish men can, even if these women won't get that lifetime contract.

Some rabbis I love, of course -- in my time, I'd have taken a bullet for Shlomo Carlebach, Yitz Greenberg, and Menachem Mendel Schneerson. I can name 150 more that I enjoy and greatly admire. But many male rabbis, while sincere and hard-working, have not been consequential and their title didn't do anything to change that. Any male rabbi who had anything to say could have said just as much if his title was nothing but mister. The great Simcha Bunim of Pishishka went by no title at all. Another great chasidic leader had no title but was just known as "the Yid."

Be someone special and the people will figure out what to call you.

Titles are a non-spiritual conceit. Yes, you need a title on a diploma for certain secular jobs. Professors need a doctorate. City College wouldn't hire Pete Hamill to run their journalism school because Pete didn't have a degree. Who looks like the idiot, the doctorates running City College or Pete without the degree?

The only thing that is holding Modern Orthodox women back as spiritual leaders is their Modern Orthodox leadership track which is dry and academic, dedicated not to the development of real spiritual leaders but to producing "scholars." It would be as if someone wanted to master the American spiritual experience but instead of studying "To Kill A Mockingbird," Whitman, Kerouac and Bill Monroe's "High Lonesome" sound, all they studied was Supreme Court decisions. OK, someone has to. And it's interesting. But it's not what creates a spiritual leader.

That dull, limited vision -- void of any poetry, void of any adventure -- is the way Modern Orthodox Jewish women are studying on their rabbi track, trying to mimic old-time yeshiva bochurs in the worst way. And that's the way things are going for these women -- the worst way.

The only thing that's "chilling" is their ice-cold curriculums.

With rare exceptions, the only spiritual leaders that Modern Orthodox feminists are producing are parodies of a certain kind of male rabbi, the Gemara-kup, the kind of student that tests well, the kind that never excited that many people in the first place, even if we need a few of them.

That is the biggest and only problem facing Modern Orthodox feminism, not the RCA. Don't bore us with "Aint I Brilliant" talmudists and self-defined "scholars." A great rabbi is also an artist. An artist doesn't need diplomas or titles, just eyes that see in the dark.

Start producing some electric personalities, outlaws, artists, poets and dare-devils, some spiritual heart-breakers, and then see if the RCA can stop you, see if anyone can stop the Jewish people from rushing into your soul.


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I would rather see a formaly ordained female rabbi than a ordinary man who puts on his garb and struts around like he is some great halachic authority. No man should be allowed to start a "shul" in his home and masquarade like a "rabbi" when he is not!!!
Yeah, I know I am very late on commenting, but I just found this article and just found out my "rabbi" is not really a rabbi. Give me a learned female who went through the hoops not some man who is so psychologically needy he must have a title other than tatteh! Passaic is a very strange place and unorthodox in so many ways.

What will break the ice with women becoming orthodox rabbis is when a woman gets ordained by a non orthodox institution, becomes totally observant in the orthodox traditiion, and either gets an orthodox pulpit or converts a non orthodox congregation to orthodoxy and maintains her position there as rabbi. Once that happens, the doors will be blown wide open and you will start seeing formal ordinations of orthodox female rabbis. As an orthodox male, I see no problem with asking a female who is more knowledgeable than I am, any question regarding Jewish law and relying on her answer. Likewise, with the exception of a rabbinic task, which requires singing, I see no problem with a female doing any of the other ceremonial and professional responsibilities taken on by male orthodox synagogue rabbis.

The "Dirty Truth" is actually about the Orthodox Rabbanut Itself. Agreed that to create a "spiritual leader" there is no need beyond Pastoral Care & (God-Given) charisma for "dry academic ice-cold curriculum" even for males. However Orthodox Women titled as Rabbis will be able to participate as "Scholars" in the *Halachic* Discourse. This is a different contribution than the amazing Torah commentaries by Nechama Leibowitz or Aviva Zorenberg or tales by Eli Weisel. The Nishmat "Advisors" (Yoatsot) -just by listening and not even paskening- have made such an impact. Imagine the loss to the Torah & Jewish Community as a whole when 50% of members voices - among them teachers, shul presidents & professional lawyers - aren't heard. Perhaps reflective halachic discussion of kashrut, niddah & shabbos by one who actually cooks meat/dairy, goes to the mikveh and uses baby wipes when changing a diaper may vitalize and address some issues you pointed out. Blu Greenberg herself - whom you cite as a precedent & role model - addressed orthodox woman as rabbis already in the 80's. [Will there be Orthodox women rabbis? Judaism 33,1 - 1984] Rebbetzin Jungreis was precisely "a Rebbetzin", though you suggest honoring her impact individually. Similarly, I don't know of Shelichim functioning as a Centerpiece in exotic Jewish Communities without their "Rebbetzin" license. Does one have to marry a Rabbi to function as a Rebbetzin? Surprise - you need a title on a diploma also for certain religious jobs. Not for ego but for parnossa which even or especially an "Artist" needs.
Wonderful column. There is nothing that Rabba Hurowitz is doing or plans to do that Esther has not done first. And rebbitzens have been answering halachic questions about nidah and mikva since there were rebbitzens. But I think you are wrong about needing a degree for certain Professions. What degree does Eli Weisel have, He teaches at a University in Boston. And Ari Goldman is a professor of Journalism at Columbia. 50% of every profession are incompetent. There are incompetent male rabbis and will be incompetent women Rabbis (whatever they might be called)
As I man, I would not presume to tell a Jewish woman what limits there should be to her knowledge or abilities. The Jewish woman can understand that all of us have certain limits, and decide within her informed knowledge and conscience the limits to respect. As for Route 17, that is a trail that takes one to the ultra's Catskill summer bungalows, right? There, those Jewish woman are required to have as many babies as they are physically capable of producing (no birth control. after all), to care for their children and often to usually absent husband, and to support the family while many a husband is off "studying" and otherwise being economic parasites. And this man is telling all Jewish woman to respect limits?
Isn't it telling that while the Modern Orthodox community struggles with the issue of Rabbahs, their roles, their titles, they don't seem to be struggling quite so publicly with the issue of how their daughters dress and conduct their lives. Coincidence? I think not.
According to the RCA a woman may not give a psak Halacha,which is the role of a rabbi.Why not?
Very compelling piece. At the end of the day, these women want the title. It's all about ego. But hey - that is the rabbinate today.
So what you're saying is that since most Rabbis are mediocre, aspiring to be one shouldn't be what women want. Well, that may be so. But it's up to the individual woman to decide what it is she wants to be, and if it is a Rabbi, then we have to come up with a better objection than "Rabbis suck".
Beth Jacob in Atlanta had a female President, and it is a Orthodox shul to the right of "modern orthodox". The last commenter nailed this - it is about access to jobs, not titles. However, many male rabbi's struggle to get hired for jobs in chinuch -it is very competitive.