Pamela S. Nadell
Almost two decades ago, I ended my book Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women’s Ordination, 1889-1985 with a question: “Will there be Orthodox women rabbis?” At the start of 2016, media headlines blared: “Breaking News: New Jersey Synagogue Reveals It Hired First ‘Orthodox’ Woman ‘Rabbi’.”
Lila Kagedan, the New Jersey Synagogue’s new hire, was ordained last summer at New York City’s Yeshivat Maharat, a seminary that describes itself as offering women “an official path for gaining the skills, training, and certification they need to become spiritual leaders within the Modern Orthodox community.” While there, Kagedan broke another barrier: She became its first graduate to take the title rabbi.
But Kagedan is by no means the first Orthodox woman rabbi. For some time now, in the United States and in Israel, Orthodox women who have completed rigorous programs of Jewish legal textual study, just like men preparing for the rabbinate, have been ordained with a variety of titles— rabba, maharat, rabbanit, even rabbi.
In Orthodoxy each accommodation to modernity is weighed against Jewish law. Though no statement in Jewish law prohibits women from becoming rabbis, tradition assumes the weight of law. Between 1972 and 1983, American Judaism’s Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements ended a century-long debate over women’s right to be rabbis by acquiescing to female ordination. The decisions by other movements in American Judaism to ordain women has highlighted their separation from Orthodoxy.
But the Orthodox found the prospect anathema, and it remains so in most sectors of Orthodoxy today. In October 2015, the Rabbinical Council of America, comprised mostly of alumni from New York’s Yeshiva University, the flagship seminary of what was once called modern Orthodoxy, reiterated its opposition to ordaining “women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used.”
Yet, developments in Orthodoxy around women’s issues, especially among those Orthodox Jews committed to living in a modern world—think of Senator Joseph Lieberman—have propelled the question of female religious leadership to the fore.
A revolution in Orthodox Jewish women’s education has opened up Torah and text study to its girls and women. No longer are advanced Jewish texts the exclusive province of Jewish men. From there the leap to demanding the right to be recognized for having mastered them with the title rabbi was but a small step.
As early as the 1990s, Haviva Krasner-Davidson applied for admission to Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school. Rejected for her gender, Haviva Ner-David, the name she took after emigrating to Israel, was “privately ordained” in 2006 by an Orthodox rabbi, Aryeh Strikovsky, after a decade of study. Although Ner-David called herself rabbi, Strikovsky, who signed her ordination, deliberately avoided the term.
But even Ner-David was not the first. Mimi Feigelson, known as Reb Mimi, was ordained in 1994 by disciples of the charismatic rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and, since then, has called herself an Israeli Orthodox woman rabbi.
Then there is also Rabba Sara Hurwitz. In 2009, after years of study with the maverick New York Rabbi Avi Weiss, he ordained her, inventing the title “maharat,” an acronym of the Hebrew for female leader of Jewish law, spirituality, and Torah. At the time, the event scarcely made the news. After all, by then, in Israel, women who had mastered Jewish legal texts had been accepted as advocates for women appearing before rabbinical courts and as advisors to women on legal matters pertaining especially to female sexuality (yoetzet halachah).
But, a few months later, when Weiss decided to clarify for his congregants Hurwitz’s position as she visited the sick and conducted funerals, he gave her the title rabba. In Hebrew, a language that has no neuter gender, rabba is one way of rendering the feminine of rabbi, which is the title, from the Hebrew word rav, meaning master, conferred upon men at ordination.
However, calling Hurwitz “rabba” unleashed a firestorm. In its wake, Weiss promised his Orthodox colleagues that future graduates of Yeshivat Maharat would not take that title. They did anyway. Yeshivat Maharat permits its ordainees to choose their honorific. Last June some took the title rabba; Kagedan took the title rabbi.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, the same month, two Orthodox women were ordained at the coeducational Har’el Beit Midrash. In Israel some learned women, with or without ordination, prefer the title rabbanit, another way to render rabbi in the feminine, but one that historically has designated the wife of a rabbi. However, these women proudly use this honorific to show that they are masters of Jewish law.
So where does this leave us? In 2016, there are Orthodox women rabbis. In less than two decades since I published Women Who Would Be Rabbis, a sea change has occurred. No matter the title— rabba, maharat, rabbanit, rabbi—the first generation of women Orthodox rabbis now preach and teach.
JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency). “Breaking News: New Jersey Synagogue Reveals It Hired First ‘Orthodox’ Woman ‘Rabbi’.” Forward, January 12, 2016.
Rabbinical Council of America. “2015 Resolution RCA Policy Concerning Women Rabbis.” October 31, 2015.
“Sara Hurwitz, First Orthodox Female Rabba.” Makers: The Largest Video Collection of Women’s Stories.
Sztokman, Elana. "The New Critical Mass of Orthodox Women Rabbis." Forward, June 18, 2015, Maharat.
Borschel-Dan, Amanda. “At Orthodox women’s ordination, preaching a halacha of compassion.” Times of Israel, June 11, 2015.
Image: U.S. Air Force Rabbi (Reform Judaism), Chaplain, Captain Sarah D. Schechter and trainees sanctify Shabbat on Sept. 4, 2009 at Lackland Air Force Base's Airmen Memorial Chapel. Chaplain, Captain Schechter is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran. She is the first woman rabbi in the U.S. Air Force. Credit: Lance Cheung / U.S. Air Force photo.
Author, Pamela S. Nadell, (Ph.D., Ohio State University) is Patrick Clendenen Chair in Women's and Gender History at American University. A specialist in American Jewish history and women's history, she is the recipient of the American Jewish Historical Society's Lee Max Friedman Award for distinguished service. Her books include Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women's Ordination, 1889-1985 (Beacon Press, 1998), and, co-edited with Kate Haulman, Making Women's Histories: Beyond National Perspectives (NYU Press, 2013).
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