The recent conferral of the title “maharat,” the equivalent of “rabbi,” to three Orthodox women has rekindled a long-standing debate within the Orthodox community about ordaining women.
Jewish legal and historical precedent certainly comes into play. Halachic arguments for and against women’s semicha, rabbinic ordination, have been made by male rabbinic authorities. However, it seems clear that one’s halachic approach is shaped in large part by one’s interpretation of the present reality. Thus, most of the polemics on either side of the debate have focused on broader policy considerations, often called “meta-halacha.” Indeed, a recent column in this newspaper (“Orthodox Women Reach a Milestone,” Zelda R. Stern and Elana Maryles-Sztokman, May 28) notes that the opposition articulated by the Rabbinical Council of America is predicated on the view that the ordination was “a violation of our mesorah (tradition)” that “contradicts the norms of our community.” Preservation of traditional norms is an important value within Orthodoxy; wariness of change is inherent in any conservative society. Change is possible—the default inertia of tradition can be and has been overcome in every era—and it is virtually always in response to a pressing need.
The crux of the present debate is thus whether the arguments in favor of ordaining women are sufficiently pressing to overcome the weight of traditional norms. That is, the debate is less about whether women may be ordained, and more about whether women should be ordained. It is the proponents of change who are tasked with demonstrating why such change is justified, why a “new path,” as it was called at the graduation ceremony, is needed.
Why, then, do some people think that it is necessary to ordain Orthodox women? The most common refrain among admirers of the newly minted maharats is that the Orthodox world needs women in positions of spiritual leadership, needs to formally train these women to meet the challenges they face when serving as communal leaders and needs these women to be identifiable and recognizable as members of the clergy.
This contention is an important one, but I have doubts about whether it has generated or will generate enough pressure on its own to alter communal norms. To be sure, the existing Israeli positions of “yoetzet halacha” (female halachic consultants on matters of marital law) and “toenet beit din” (female advocates within Israel’s rabbinical courts) were created in response to profound communal need, but each one addresses a specific lacuna. Neither is a catchall title for a Jewish religious authority in the way that “rabbi” is.
Nevertheless, I believe there are other factors that will provide the necessary momentum for ordained clergywomen to be recognized and accepted throughout the Modern Orthodox community, and perhaps even by those further to the right of the traditionalist spectrum. These factors are of the type that historically has exerted the greatest pressure on tradition: economic pressures. In fact, economics have already played a central role in the emergence of recognized Orthodox clergywomen.
First, the fact that until very recently there has been no way to recognize a learned Orthodox woman by title has negatively impacted her earning power. Semicha is recognized as an advanced degree, which means that more jobs are open to rabbis, and at higher starting salaries. Moreover, there are many rabbinic positions available within the broader Jewish community: at Hillels, federations, nonprofits, think tanks, foundations and community learning programs. Qualified Orthodox women are not even considered for such positions because they lack the requisite rabbinic credentials. Assuming that few Orthodox synagogues would have the budget for more than one fulltime clergyperson (and assuming that Orthodox synagogues, like Reform and Conservative synagogues, will overwhelmingly appoint men to senior rabbinic positions), these communal positions could become a fruitful source of employment for ordained Orthodox women and also become a way for Orthodoxy to increase its participation and influence within broader Jewish organizations.
As it stands today, though, the only way for an Orthodox woman to earn a title other than “Ms.” or “Mrs.” is to earn a doctorate (significantly more time-consuming, on balance, than earning semicha) or marry a rabbi to become a “rabbanit” or “rebbetzin.” This places a large number of talented and qualified Orthodox women at a competitive disadvantage that compounds the wage discrimination that women suffer from throughout our society. Formally recognizing qualified Orthodox women at least partially alleviates this problem and, as a bonus, strengthens the voice of Orthodoxy within the broader Jewish community and its institutions.
A second benefit is tied directly to U.S. tax codes. Section 107 of the Internal Revenue Code outlines a tax benefit known as “parsonage,” under which “ministers of the gospel” may exclude housing expenses from taxable income. Male religious instructors in Orthodox schools are almost always called “rabbi” and issued a watered-down semicha certificate even though they are often lacking the qualifications implied by the title (indeed, the entire debate about Orthodox women’s ordination has taken place in a world where it is easier than ever for a man to obtain semicha). Thus, men have long been taking advantage of this benefit.
In recent years, however, an increasing number of Orthodox institutions, primarily day schools, have allowed female religious instructors to structure their salaries in a way that takes advantage of the parsonage allowance. A legal argument has been made for considering these instructors “ministers of the gospel” as defined in various governmental and judicial documents. Even some who disagree with the broad application of the parsonage exemption agree that certain types of certification — a teaching certificate from the Bais Yaakov Teachers’ Seminary, a certificate of achievement from Yeshiva University’s Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmudic Study and certainly a certificate of ordination from Yeshivat Maharat — would allow an Orthodox woman to claim the parsonage exemption. Moreover, certain schools assign female teachers responsibilities in context of communal prayer to dispel any doubt that they indeed serve as members of the clergy.
It is not my contention that recognizing Orthodox women as “ministers of the gospel” for tax purposes is the same as rabbinic ordination. Surely, Agudath Israel of America, a haredi organization, opposes granting semicha to women even as it advises principals and administrators of affiliated schools that it is reasonable for duly commissioned or licensed teachers of religious subjects to receive a parsonage allowance. Rather, I contend that legal recognition of Orthodox clergywomen, even for purely fiscal motives, creates the communal expectation that women not only serve in positions of religious leadership and guidance, but that they are recognized for it by their host institutions and by law.
Of course, these economic considerations are themselves linked to more sublime Jewish values. These considerations ignore questions of feminism and egalitarianism — concepts that are fraught within Orthodox discourse and notoriously hard to pin down within legal debate. They are not about conferring a certain status or creating the female equivalent of a male title. Rather, I contend that a way must be found — whether by means of Yeshivat Maharat or some other way — to recognize formally the credentials and accomplishments of Orthodox women, so that they can have the respect, win the jobs and accrue the benefits that they are fully qualified for and entitled to.
There is no debate that yashrut — integrity and fairness — is a cardinal Jewish value, is there?
Elli Fischer, an Israeli-based writer and translator, is a frequent contributor.
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