A graduate of Hillel Academy and Yitzhak Rabin High School in Ottawa, Rabbi Lila Kagedan is the first Orthodox woman in North America to claim the title of “Rabbi.” She spoke with Ottawa Jewish Bulletin Editor Michael Regenstreif on November 1, while she was in town to participate in Limmud Ottawa.
Rabbi Lila Kagedan has chosen a difficult path for herself as a rabbi in a denomination which (mostly) rejects the concept of women serving as clergy at any level.
That women can serve as rabbis is now taken for granted in the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Jewish Renewal movements. But having women serve as rabbis is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Reform movement in North America ordained its first female rabbi in 1972. The Reconstructionist movement followed in 1974, Jewish Renewal in 1981, and the Conservative movement in 1985.
(The first woman to ever be ordained as a rabbi – as Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton noted in her “From the Pulpit” column in the Bulletin (November 9) – was Rabbi Regina Jonas who was ordained in Germany in 1935. She was murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz during the Holocaust.)
While women in the rabbinate has become common in liberal Jewish denominations, the very idea of female rabbis is taboo or – at the very least – controversial in Orthodox Judaism.
Rabbi Kagedan was ordained in June after graduating from Yeshivat Maharat in New York, the first yeshiva in North America founded to train women for the Orthodox rabbinate.
Yeshivat Maharat was founded in 2009 by Rabbi Avi Weiss, who had also founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an Orthodox rabbinical school for men in 1999.
Prior to founding Yeshivat Maharat, Rabbi Weiss controversially ordained a woman, Sara Hurwitz, who had studied with him for five years. She took the title “Rabba,” a feminized version of the word rabbi. Rabba Hurwitz is now dean of Yeshivat Maharat.
Rabbi Kagedan was one of six women in Yeshivat Maharat’s third graduating class. Other members of the class have taken the title “Maharat” or “Rabba.” All of the members of the first two graduating classes took “Maharat” as their title. The word maharat is an acronym for the Hebrew words manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit Toranit indicating a female leader trained in Halacha (Jewish law), spirituality and Torah.
But, no matter which title each has chosen, all graduates of Yeshivat Maharat have completed studies taught at the same level as at modern Orthodox rabbinic schools for men. To date, there have been 11 graduates of the program, and another 22 women are currently enrolled and scheduled to graduate between 2016 and 2020.
Rabbi Kagedan explained that each graduate of Yeshivat Maharat decides for herself which title to assume. While she respects the choices other graduates have made to be called “Maharat” or “Rabba,” she said she chose to be called “Rabbi” to dispel any confusion about her training and qualifications. She pointed out there is no distinction in the title given to women and men who have graduated from medical school – all are called “Doctor.”
Her rabbinic qualifications are in addition to a variety of degrees and certificates she earned previously at Midreshet Lindenbaum, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the University of Toronto, Harvard University, the Medstar Washington Hospital Center, and Massachusetts General Hospital.
While Rabbi Kagedan said there are many people in the Orthodox world who are willing to accept women in the rabbinate, and who are allies and supporters of the women who have graduated from Yeshivat Maharat, Orthodox Judaism, at the institutional level, is still unwilling to accept female clergy.
On October 30, just two days before Rabbi Kagedan’s appearances at Limmud Ottawa, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the umbrella organization for modern Orthodox rabbis in North America, issued a resolution prohibiting the ordination or hiring of women rabbis.
“RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; or hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution; or allow a title implying rabbinic ordination to be used by a teacher of Limudei Kodesh (religious studies) in an Orthodox institution,” the resolution states.
The Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (Council of Torah Sages) of America, the highest rabbinic authority of Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella group representing haredi Orthodoxy in North America, followed with a blanket condemnation of Open Orthodoxy, a new movement promoting a progressive form of Orthodox Judaism, including the ordination of women. (Agudath Israel Congregation in Ottawa, a Conservative synagogue, is not associated with Agudath Israel of America.)
The two seminaries founded by Rabbi Weiss, as well as the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a group he co-founded as an alternative to the RCA, are at the centre of Open Orthodoxy, and the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah statement on Open Orthodoxy emphatically stated, “any smicha [rabbinic ordination] granted by any of its affiliated entities to their graduates does not confer upon them any rabbinic authority.”
Pointing out that many of the rabbis she has learned from over the years are members of the RCA, Rabbi Kagedan said she has nothing but respect for the rabbis and understands the reluctance of Orthodox institutions to accept women as members of the rabbinate.
While acknowledging that many in the Orthodox world will never accept women in the rabbinate, Rabbi Kagedan said progress is being made and pointed out that graduates of Yeshivat Maharat have been hired at a number of Orthodox congregations and institutions, including at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal where Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold serves as director of education and spiritual enrichment. Shaar Hashomayim, one of the most prominent synagogues in Montreal, is not affiliated with the RCA or Agudath Israel of America.
Rabbi Kagedan’s family moved to Ottawa in time for her to enter Grade 4 at Hillel Academy (now the Ottawa Jewish Community School). She began her high school studies at Machon Sarah High School for Girls while her parents, Ian and Shoshana Kagedan, worked to establish Yitzhak Rabin High School. She was a member of the first graduating class at the Jewish community high school.
She explained that her path to the rabbinate was rooted in the Jewish textual studies she pursued every day with her father, a senior public servant who served as president of Congregation Beth Shalom West (now Congregation Beit Tikvah). Their daily text studies, she said, continued via telephone after she left Ottawa to pursue her studies.
Ian Kagedan, she explained, was always supportive of her interest in advanced Judaic studies and encouraged her to pursue the opportunity to study at Yeshivat Maharat. Sadly, he passed away in 2014 following a battle with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), about 16 months before her ordination.
Rabbi Kagedan maintains an extremely busy professional life. Now based in the Boston area, she teaches bioethics and works in hospitals as a clinical ethicist and chaplain. As well, she is the founder and director of the Sulam School, an intensive Jewish supplementary school for elementary school students in Brookline, Massachusetts, and is also a consultant, lecturer and educator specializing in global health, ethics, religion and education. She frequently serves as a scholar-in-residence.
While Rabbi Kagedan hopes eventually to serve a congregation as well, she acknowledged that it would probably have to be on a part-time basis given her schedule.
Asked at a Limmud session why she did not become a rabbi in one of the denominations that encourages women to become rabbis, Rabbi Kagedan said she was raised in an Orthodox family and she remains committed to Orthodoxy.