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Advancing New Reasons To Ordain Orthodox Women
Mon, 07/29/2013 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Elli Fischer
Elli Fischer

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.

Ordaining Orthodox Women, Orthodox women, Women rabbis

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First of all, these women are not Orthodox as they claim for their mentors and supporters permit, invite and applaud anti-Toarh ideas and aveoros, while crossing their finger's behind their backs.

The last thing they need is recognition. It is all invalid for numerous reasons.

In other words, unless someone agrees with you 100%, they are by definition, not orthodox, anti-Torah, and committing averot. And silly me thought that there were 70 faces to the Torah. And the part about "eluv'elu divrei Hashem", well, I guess that's bunk, too. Still, would you mind citing one reason why you think that they are violating the halacha other than "it's never been done this way before". What specific halacha do you think they are violating. For extra credit, you can cite a halacha that supports attacking physically and verbally fellow Jews who happen to be women, who seek to daven at the kotel. The part about fingers crossed behind their backs is, I am sure, based upon careful and keen scrutiny and backed by photographic evidence, so I am not going to challenge that.

No. When someone does something against the Torah, it is the Torah that defines it as an aveira. Because I follow Torah you are trying to demean me by saying what you have said about me.

The Torah does not include the reform/conservative/liberal/etc etc as one of the 70 faces of Torah. This is self explanatory. as something contrary to Torah is not included as a halacha that is followed, on the contrary it is a reference to a negative commandment in the Torah- that which we are forbidden to do. Since they "change Torah" they are on Orthodox Jewish.

Sorry to disappoint you, the reform/conservative/liberal etc stc are nowhere in the Torah.
If even one word they say is against the Torah then all they say that comes from their mouths cannot be trusted and is rejected. They studied with teachers and mentors who change the words and meanings of the Torah. Their teachers encourage ideas contrary to Torah. As far as women of the wall, those rebels go, if the Sanhadrin was standing today you would be well advised to ask of the Sanhedrin, however you yourself can imagine the result.
I myself would never attack anyone physically, as this is outside the judgment of a beis din, however if they will come to a din Torah with me, I will prevail, and they will have to concede defeat. Verbal reproof to a person is a measure of ahavas yisroel. The Torah says " your shall reprove your fellow and not bear a sin because of him".

Now,the part about "the fingers crossed" really is a reference to the particular type of idolatry practiced by these type of people. They put themselves higher than the Torah, thinking that somehow they will escape the consequences. The are the "rulers"(in their eyes only).

Elli -
Would you be so kind as to provide one quote, just one, from any of the women recently ordained as maharot which speaks to the issue of parsonage as a reason for their occupational choice? Was the issue of parsonage mentioned by any of the speakers at the recent ordination? Where, how and why did you even come up with this alleged motive for their becoming maharot?
I would really like to read your response.

It's a matter of Jewish honor:
We send girls to day schools; we send them to Jewish high schools; they then go on to schools in Israel or continue their education well into and past the college level.

They become versed in Jewish Law; they understand halacha; they can trace the development of complex legal issues through 1500 years of layers of decisions and interpretations. They master the texts to a degree that their male counterparts can't even conceive of because they've trained themselves to think in Hebrew rather than in "yeshivish". And they write and do original work to a degree at least equal to their male counterparts.

And then, the orthodox community tells them - go to the secular world for recognition - get a PhD or a Doc of Heb Letters; but we - the rabbinic establishment - can do nothing to acknowledge your expertise and accomplishments.

Why? Tradition!!
Yep; your bubba couldn't do it so you can't.

That's the only reason left

Let's get this right. So Rabbi Fischer suggests women should be ordained and recognized as rabbis because the tax code will give us a push to override halakhic objections?

Funny, I thought that Yeshivat Maharat and its students keep on harping about creating leadership positions for women and ordaining them for rabbinic leadership. This has absolutely nothing to do with parsonage and wages; it is all about foisting an egalitarian revolution on a traditional, conservative-with-a-small-c public and pretending therefore to be doing everything within the bounds of halakha.

If parsonage is what you want, give them paraclerical training as teachers and hospital chaplains, and call them reverend or minister, as was common for not fully ordained Jewish clergy in England. This could be given to men, too, by the way.

But we all know that none of this matters, as Yeshivat Maharat is not out to allow day school teachers to earn parsonage, it is rabbihood, rabbinic leadership they are after, and as several YM students and graduates showed in their interviews and writings, they are trying to bring about a revolution, to overthrow a patriarchal rabbinic system. Except...

... except that that kind of attitude towards our mesorah is not Orthodox.

Arie, see Hoffman's comment.

Yep; your bubba couldn't do it so you can't.

The only thing that I could possibly add to his pithy statement is that no one, including you, has given a single halachic reason why these women shouldn't. To fall back on 'our mesorah is not Orthodox" as the one and only "reason" (quotation marks deliberate) tells me that there is no real reason why they can not be maharot. And as far as the whole parsonage business is concerned, that is a complete canard. These women have invested years of their lives in Talmud Torah to serve klal Israel. To say that they are doing it for a tax write off is demeaning to them and insults our intelligence.

Who will watch and supervise young Jewish children when
their mothers are busy Maharat-ing outside of the house?

Will Jewish children of Maharats be raised by Mexican babysitters?

Why limit your comments to the women who want to become maharot???

Why not ask: Who will raise the Jewish children of women who are busy doctor-ing, dentist-ing, lawyer-ing, engineer-ing,teach-ing, surgeon-ing, running business, etc., etc. all outside the house.

Why is the attainment of a doctorate more time consuming than semicha? For those who take their Kollel and semicha learning seriously such a claim is rather offensive. As well, in the more liberal movements ordination is basically the same as a doctorate in Jewish Studies.