“Will 2016 be the year of the female Orthodox rabbi?” was the headline of a JTA feature about six stories in the Jewish and wider world to watch in 2016 that was posted to our website – www.ottawajewishbulletin.com – on January 5.
The question arose because two Orthodox institutions – Yeshivat Maharat in New York and Yeshivat Har’el in Jerusalem – have been ordaining women as Orthodox clergy, despite the opposition of such groups as the Rabbinical Council of America, the organization representing most modern Orthodox rabbis in North America, and Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella group representing haredi Orthodoxy (not to be confused with Agudath Israel, a Conservative congregation here in Ottawa).
The non-Orthodox Jewish movements in North America began ordaining women in the 1970s and ‘80s, and now the concept of women rabbis is taken for granted in the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal movements.
But, until very recently, the idea that a woman could be an Orthodox rabbi was still unheard of – and remains a taboo in most of the Orthodox world.
However, the concept of Orthodox women clergy in North America has taken hold through a still-developing, and still very small, movement known as “Open Orthodoxy” centred around several institutions associated with Rabbi Avi Weiss, the New York Orthodox rabbi who founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a rabbinical seminary for men, in 1999, and Yeshivat Maharat, an equivalent seminary for women, a decade later.
According to Rabbi Weiss, Open Orthodoxy is about inclusivity: “encouraging women to become more involved in Jewish ritual and Jewish spiritual leadership”; welcoming those in LGBT relationships “as full members in our synagogues”; embracing and giving a forum “to those who struggle with deep religious, theological, and ethical questions”; reaching out “to converts with love and understanding”; decentralizing rabbinic authority to include local rabbis who may be more aware of how Halacha “should apply to their particular communal situations and conditions”; and, being “prepared to engage in dialogue and learn from Jews of other denominations, and, for that matter, people of all faiths.”
The women ordained by Yeshivat Maharat have been free to choose the title they will go by. Most have chosen “Maharat,” an acronym for the Hebrew words manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit Toranit indicating a female leader trained in Halacha, spirituality and Torah. Others have used “Rabba,” a feminized version of Rabbi, or “Morateinu,” Hebrew for our teacher. No matter which title chosen, these women have received the same rigorous level of training and education as their male counterparts in Orthodox rabbinical seminaries.
Lila Kagedan, who grew up in Ottawa and still retains ties to our community, was ordained by Yeshivat Maharat in 2015, and made headlines as the first Yeshivat Maharat graduate to take the title “Rabbi.”
When Rabbi Kagedan was in Ottawa in November, she told me she took the title of “Rabbi” to dispel any confusion about her training and qualifications. But she is well aware of how controversial her role as a rabbi is in the Orthodox world.
Rabbi Kagedan was back in the news this month because an Orthodox synagogue in New Jersey hired her to be part of its spiritual leadership team (see the JTA story at this link).
And that brings us back to the question posed by JTA. “Will 2016 be the year of the female Orthodox rabbi?”
According to Rabbi Weiss, Jewish movements are not “announced” or “proclaimed.” They “evolve” over a period of time. The correct question, I think, is whether we are seeing the beginning of an evolution in Orthodox Judaism? It will be fascinating to see whether Open Orthodoxy becomes a major force in the Orthodox world and whether we’ll ever come to take Orthodox women rabbis for granted as we do in the non-Orthodox denominations.
It’s definitely a story to watch.