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Orthodox Women Reach A Milestone
Maharot will perform virtually all the same pastoral and spiritual functions as male rabbis, plus some.
Mon, 05/27/2013 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Zelda R. Stern and Elana Maryles Sztokman.
Zelda R. Stern and Elana Maryles Sztokman.

Orthodox women are making history in front of our eyes. On June 16, three women will be ordained to serve, in effect, as Orthodox rabbis, given the title of Maharat (an acronym for the Hebrew words meaning leader in legal, spiritual and Torah matters).

They will graduate from Yeshivat Maharat in New York City, the first and thus far only women to receive institutional ordination as religious and spiritual leaders in the Orthodox world.

To a certain degree, this is not really news. Women have been working in Orthodox clergy position for years. And a handful of women have been privately ordained by Orthodox rabbis over the years. But next month’s graduation will mark the first time Orthodox women will be formally and publicly ordained with institutional recognition for the profound role women rabbis can play in Orthodox communities.

Maharat women will perform virtually all the same pastoral and spiritual functions as men, plus a few. Orthodox women are often more comfortable approaching women about personal, intimate issues than they are approaching men. Maharat women will deal with those issues and have the potential to re-engage women in communal life — women who until now have felt that they have no leaders. As one young Orthodox woman recently told us, “When my husband doesn’t come to synagogue, the rabbi asks about it. But when I don’t come, he doesn’t even notice. I need a woman rabbi who I can connect to, who can take an interest in my spiritual life.”

Still, despite this demonstrated need and desire for women leaders, the Orthodox rabbinical seminaries have been intensely reluctant to ordain women. Indeed, the Rabbinical Council of America recently came out with a statement condemning the Maharat graduates: “The RCA views this event as a violation of our mesorah (tradition) and regrets that the leadership of the school has chosen a path that contradicts the norms of our community.”

This position is intriguing for its sad admission that the RCA’s opposition to women’s ordination is based on “norms of the community” rather than actual halacha (Jewish law). This reliance on the arguments of tradition, norms and impact on men’s dignity rather than on halacha, reinforces the fact that opponents of women’s leadership are less concerned with Jewish law and women’s needs than they are about their own comfort.

The position of the RCA is likely to have the opposite impact that its writers intended. Rather than give the RCA power to stop women’s advancement, the statement is likely to reduce the RCA’s influence, as its constituents realize that their rabbis are out of touch with the world around them.

This is the reality: Women are becoming religious leaders, women are entering every area of Jewish life, and the community is better for it. These women bring extraordinary talents that will enrich the communities who are smart and forward thinking enough to hire them.

Those who block women’s advancement, who try to prevent half of the population from teaching, preaching, counseling and making halachic decisions, ultimately do a disservice not only to the women but also to their entire communities.

Meanwhile, the International Rabbinic Fellowship — the Orthodox rabbinic institution that provides an alternative to the RCA — has offered a very different statement: “We express our support for the sincere desire of the graduates of these learning programs to contribute their spiritual talents to the Jewish people as teachers, spiritual guides and mentors. We also affirm the dedication and sacrifice of so many women in our community, and their desire to serve their congregations and their people in formal leadership capacities, while affirming the specific areas that halacha delimits.”

This support is not only encouraging for the future of women’s ordination, but is also a sign that there are powerful voices of wisdom and sanity gaining strength in the Orthodox community.

Let Orthodox male rabbis decry what they see as a subversion of halacha; let communities bemoan what they view as the erosion of Orthodox life. It will have no effect on a movement that will not be stopped.

We wish the graduates of Yeshivat Maharat a hearty Mazal Tov.

Zelda R. Stern is a feminist donor-activist and founding board Member of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). Elana Maryles Sztokman is the executive director of JOFA.

Orthodox women, Rabbinical Council of America

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you say,

"Maharat women will perform virtually all the same pastoral and spiritual functions as men, plus a few"

Virtually all? Are there any area's in which men function that Maharat women will not?

It is laughable that they call themselves Orthodox, as they are anything but Orthodox. The foundation of Orthodoxy and all of Judiasm is based on tradition, the mesorah, and the minute you diverge from the tradition, everything falls away. In fact things that have become tradition actually becomes Jewish law as the rabbis have said "Minhag Yisroel Din" the tradition of Israel is the law. The "argument" that they claim that there is "no halachic problem" with having women rabbis is first and foremost wrong, but also irrelevant. Women are not meant to hold public roles and they are not and have never been the torch bearers of the tradition, and it is improper for them to start now. If you would look at history, you will see that this is no different from how the reform movement started in Europe. It didn't start with people blatantly disregarding the law, but rather ignoring or dismissing important aspects of the tradition, and look at where they are now, dwindling, not because they have become Orthodox, but rather because they have unfortunately intermarried and left the fold completely. So I ask you, why is this different? The answer is that it isn't and that is why they are not orthodox and 1000% wrong and they are causing a tremendous breach in Judaism.

The fact that they would publicly attack and impugn the motives of a rabbinic organization (attacking rabbis in public!) already tells us a great deal about these people and their organization. Think about it.

Go to any JOFA or similar conference and note the very high percentage of married women with uncovered heads and women in general who are not dressed in accordance with halachik dictates. If they are not embarrased to deny halachik requirements in public, one wonders what other more private halachot are skipped by these women. I am all for learned women. However, when the most vocal and public leaders of Jewish "movements" are people who pick and choose which halachot they like to keep and which they don't, you know the gro0 has already slipped far on the slippery slope - just because they insist on calling themselves orthodox does not make it so.

If only it were so simple that one could glance at another person's headcover (or lack thereof), and be able to correctly infer the level of their mitzvah observance. Unfortunately, we have all seen men wearing large, black hats and sporting tzitzit being hauled away by the police for charges ranging from fraud, money laundering and child molestation. And yet, they call themselves orthodox and once they are incarcarated they demand glatt kosher food. And, just out of curiosity, how many JOFA conferences have you attended that you feel so confident to make statements about their headcovering?

Mazel Tov to these women! Breaking new ground, especially publically, is never easy.

May they find joy in their new responsibilities and comfort when it is needed!


Rabbi Saul Lieberman, Rosh Yeshiva or Dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary for over 40 years, was displeased with women participation in synagogue services. In 1979, he ruled against ordination of women rabbis at JTS and the seminary respected his wishes until his death in 1983.
His responsum regarding women rabbis concludes with:

“The end of the matter is that it is clear from the sources that being called by the title Rabbi reflects on the fitness to issue legal decisions and to judge, and we should not empty the title " Rabbi of its meaning from the way it has been understood by the Jewish people throughout the generations. Since a woman is not fit to judge, and she cannot become qualified for this, she cannot be ordained by this title (even if we see it as a mere expression, refer to the Tosafot, Avodah Zarah 5a, paragraph heading "Ella").
Let us not make ourselves objects of derision and jest.
Saul Lieberman

I guess that Rabbi Lieberman forgot about Deborah the Judge. Or Miriam. Or the three female judges on the United States Supreme Court, two of whom are Jewish. The end of the matter is that those who think that women are unfit to judge are making themselves objects of derision and jest.

What does the existence and growth JOFA say about the Conservative Movement. Why is it no longer attracting people who are disillusioned with Orthodoxy?

Once the Conservative movement accepted gay marriage, they crossed a red line and can no longer be considered as an alternative to Orthodox Judaism. Besides, these Maharot don't want to leave Orthodoxy, they simply want a greater role within it. What is so awful about that?

Strange that in all the comments vilifying these women, there isn't one single acknowledgement of their accomplishments. They have spent years of their lives studying Torah and its applications, they are committed to serving Am Israel, no one is forced to turn to them with advice if they do not feel comfortable doing so. So why all this hate directed to these women?

So, the concept of Maharat is not to everyone's liking. The opportunity for a smart, observant woman to commit herself to a course of study that hones and develops her understanding of halakhah is also not for everyone. Any woman (or man) with kavanah, ability, koach & courage who is willing to learn and share her/his knowledge benefits all Jews (female or male). May we welcome these new leaders/teachers!

Kate, which specific mitzvah of the 613 do you think is being violated by these women?

"This reliance on the arguments of tradition, norms and impact on men’s dignity rather than on halacha"..

Way to set up a straw man! The RCA, as should be obvious, never invoked "men's dignity"; that's the author's own ridiculous projection. In any event, it's obvious that the authors are upset with Orthodox Judaism itself, not with the RCA. They are shooting the messenger. I was particularly struck by the angry and militant tone of this piece of polemic. It will only make people take it less seriously. This article is just red meat for those who are already convinced, and irrelevant posturing to those who are not.

Marco, you were struck by the "angry and militant tone of this polemic". Me, too! By contrast, the responses to "this polemic" from people like you, have been calm, measured, thoughtful and, most of all, open minded to hear and understand other people's perspectives. One small question, please. If the "polemic" is such irrelevant posturing to folks like you, why then such an avalanche of responses. I would have thought that if something is truly irrelevant, then you'd simply turn the page. Just wondering...

The question is, when this left wing of modern orthodoxy breaks away, what will its new name be? Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist are all taken.

If the Maharat women wanted to be ordained within the denominations that you mentioned, they easily could have done so without having to deal with the kind of communal oposition that one reads in these harsh, dare one say, vitriolic letters to the editor. Instead, they want to stay within the modern orthodox umbrella and are not seeking to break away. More power to them.

Sad that the authors had to make up a reason for the RCA's opposition. It is as though they realize that by acknowledging that tradition is the basis of Judaism and has nothing to do with male comfort, they would undermine their whole argument.

You make a fair point. The Jewish Week should have given equal space in its paper to the RCA to state its position and not have the authors' description of the RCA position be a surrogate to hearing directly from the source. I suspect that the RCA will have a letter in next week's Jewish Week, but, if they don't submit one, the JW should actively seek one.

Is there a reason the names were not mentioned of the women being ordained? I am happy to protect their privacy if that is what they want, but at the same time, it gives an impression that they are somehow personally unmentionable.

Tamar, if this had been a news story, then your criticism would have been well founded. But it wasn't. It was an opinion piece. The point of the story is that here are three women who dedicated years of their lives to study Torah and how they can serve the Jewish community in a way that traditionally has only been served by men. Frankly, their names are not critical to the article; their accomplishments and what they mean for the future of Orthodoxy are what is important.

Not sure how you can vouchsafe to protect their privacy once the JW published their names. Besides, once they are officially ordained, their names will be in the public domain and, sadly, this is when they are going to be subjected to infinite personal attacks as you can see from some of the postings on this site.

The Jewish tradition IS Halacha, Jewish Law. Please don’t misrepresent words of truth.

These people, the “maharats” and their supporters, are pathetic modern day charlatans trying to convince innocent, unlearned Jewish people that what the Holy Torah says is rejected, G-d forbid! What a dreadful shame! Avoid them! If you know anyone who is connected with them in any way, try to convince them to make a getaway, to not ruin their lives. The proof of this is right here on these pages in the following statement regarding still another “maharat” by the journalist Adam Dickter :

““She’ll be teaching and guiding and working with people of all ages, helping our congregation become closer to Hashem,” Rabbi Hertzfeld told The Jewish Week. “Everything will be in accordance with interpretation of Halacha.””
The Rabbi Hertzfeld who was just mentioned believes toeva (homosexuality) is O.K.!!! But the Torah says NO. By the way, don’t call him a rabbi either. Is that the way to “get closer to Hashem”? Through toeva, homosexuality? Of course not. Do not believe anything he says. He, his “shule” and and their supporters ALSO support wpw, women of the wall!, has v sholom! They have a bet on deviation. They think “maybe we can win on this one ”, has v sholom. They claim to be Orthodox Jewish, what a BIG untruth!

The “women rabbi-maharat” “thing” is a attempt at arrogance even if they give a pretty smile for a photograph. Pirke Avos Chapter 1 “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgment. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.”

The Torah was transmitted from Sinai to Moshe Rabbenu to the members of the great assembly etc to the true authentic Orthodox Rabbis of this time of the present by "smicha" and NOT to their wives and daughters by the method of “smicha” –it is not possible. Women don’t need smicha for women are on a greater spiritual plane then men, generally speaking- but not these “maharat women”- they are on a lower spiritual plane than men, and perform their child-like activism in the public arena- they have no shame and no modesty. “Maharat” is attention seeking and immodest. Subversive, ( pushing ideas against Torah) it is absolutely against Torah, evidenced by a multitude of hangers-on who defy the teachings of Torah whenever it suits them. Just like “the toeva-permitting rabbi” mentioned above.

I have a better idea. Instead of avoiding them, putting them (and their teachers, too!), into cherem, crossing the street to avoid them, why not just burn them at the stake for the witches that they are and be done with it. Bet they will never study a daf of Talmud ever again, nor (rachmana etzlan), teach others. Then, you and your friends can breathe easier.

Cherem is the appropriate response.

Orthodox women are achieving increasingly in the workplace and are highly hamachically capable and educated. To close the door on smart talented women in the orthodox community and tell them that in order to be spiritual they have to blend into the background and quietly be spiritual is giving up a precious resource in our community. I welcome the opportunity for a woman to have a spiritual role and title as a leader in our community. Not just the woman who runs the best bake sale running the sisterhood. Not just marrying a rabbi so you can be in a position to spiritually guide the congregation. Bravo to the graduates who are choosing to apply their wisdom and ambition within the jewish community.

Amen to all your wrote. To put things in perspective, three of the nine Supreme Court justices are women and, yes, women are brain surgeons and rocket scientists, too. To have the Jewish community write off 50% of its Jewish knowledge, learning, leadership and brain power is very wasteful. No one is obliged to accept the psak din of these women, but for those who choose to do so, kol hakavod for the dedication these women have shown in mastering a vast amount of knowledge and, yes, for receiving smicha. May they have the strength to withstand the vile attacks they will unfortunately be subjected to as we see in these very postings. What I hope that these bright and courageous women can keep in mind is that 20, 30, 40 years from now, the trail they are now blazing will be a well paved road and no one (well, almost no one), will think twice about asking a woman a halachic question.

It's very telling that one of the women cited in the article mentioned that her absence was not noticed at synagogue. Shifting the center of Jewish life from the home to the synagogue is creating a break in tradition and leading women to believe that they have to speak publicly in order to be leaders. What a shame. I stand with the RCA and appreciate their preservation of what Judaism has always been. When will so-called feminists realize that imitating men is not empowering for women? Also, if it's any comfort for the aforementioned woman, I did belong to a very Modern Orthodox synagogue with a female leader/director, and not only was I never contacted when I missed shul (including a 4-month prolonged absence due to illness), she was difficult to reach when I did need guidance. Although I don't begrudge her the reason--she is a busy mother, the holiest position a woman can occupy. I hope to establish a MO sisterhood network to provide spiritual support to Orthodox women in a private, nurturing way--and as a counter-movement to this very misdirected attempt to institutionalize female power.

Kate, you do realize that these women and their institution do not require / mandate any other woman from becoming a Mahara any more than very few men become rabbis. All it does is to expand the range of opportunities available to women. No one is compelled to become a Mahara and no one is compelled to seek out a Mahara's opinion. I personally beliweve that Orthodoxy would be better off with these Maharot and that they may lead to breakthroughs in the painful agunah issue and stonger measures to protect our youth from some of the awful and perverse experiences that some of them have endured at the hands of an admitedly very small number of rabbis and the cover up by a much larger number of (male) rabbis.

Having said all this, I am sorry to read of your situation where no one noticed your four month absence from shul, not even the female leader. I wish you hatzlachah with your sisterhood network, just please don't be so harsh on these Maharot. All they want to do is to serve Am Israel through applying Orthodox Torah principles which they have studied for many years.