This past year was a good one for Orthodox Jewish feminists, and the years ahead hold great promise. Last June, Yeshivat Maharat, which ordains women as spiritual leaders and religious authorities, graduated its first three “maharats,” as they are called. (“Maharat” is a Hebrew acronym for “manhiga hilchatit ruchanit toranit,” a female legal, spiritual and Torah leader.) More than 500 people, from all branches of Judaism, turned out for the ceremony in New York. In December, JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) held its eighth international conference, attended by more than 1,000 people in an atmosphere of exuberance and optimism.
The two events have close links. The excitement at the JOFA conference reflects a new boldness among Modern Orthodox women like the three Maharat graduates — and others to come — who are pushing the boundaries of Orthodoxy to give women their rightful places as leaders of that community. The women do not hold the title of rabbi and do not perform some of the functions a rabbi might, but the very fact that they receive semicha, or ordination, from legitimate religious authorities represents a watershed moment in Orthodoxy. There is no turning back now, and the tone and scope of the conference demonstrated that.
In 1998, as a feminist activist in the Conservative community, I was invited along with two other non-Orthodox women to be an “observer” at the second JOFA conference. I don’t remember the details, but I remember my overall impression of the tenuousness of the Orthodox feminist leaders, dipping their feet into the exhilarating but also intimidating waters of religious change. I admired their courage, but wondered how far they could take their cause. Now, 15 years later, this conference was called “Voices of Change,” and from the start it seemed light years away from that early one.
At the opening session, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the first man to speak at a JOFA plenary, emphasized that the role the maharat women played not only affected women’s lives, but also transformed the entire community. Without women in leadership positions, a synagogue will not reach its potential, he said — a powerful endorsement in a denomination so often seen as determinedly male-oriented. Individual sessions dealt with subjects once considered edgy: making Orthodoxy more inclusive of lesbian, gay or transsexual members in one; the struggles of single mothers by choice in another. In a session I attended, women wrestled with how to teach their children gender equality when Orthodox day schools bombard them with a different message. “What if a girl wants to wear tzitzit?” one woman asked. And “Why is God always depicted as male?”
At a panel on the agunah, after feminist pioneer Blu Greenberg introduced plans for an international religious court designed to end the agunah problem, Rabbi Adam Mintz described earlier solutions that failed because they did not have community support. That support is vital now for the success of this innovative court. It is vital, also, for the success of the maharat women and the vast change in Orthodoxy they stand for.
I spoke by phone with two of those women after the conference. Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman, part of the clergy at Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue in Washington, found the support there exceeded her expectations. It feels like a “great, comfortable” position, she said, and that warm acceptance has been especially important to her because it sends a message to young girls that they, too, can be deeply involved in synagogue life. Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold is at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, a large Montreal synagogue. The mother of three daughters — ages 4, 2 and 6 months — she has been grateful for congregational support, and also for a husband who has become the stay-at-home parent. Like any professional young mother, she constantly has to balance work-life issues, and like any young rabbi, she has had to win acceptance by much older congregants. There are also matters women in the clergy face that men don’t. Congregants notice what they wear to a hospital visit or shiva call, for example. Then, too, an Orthodox female cleric doesn’t sit near the rabbi on the podium, which is generally in the men’s section. Where does the maharat sit? Maharat Kohl Finegold has a seat in the first row of the women’s section.
For all its challenges, she finds her work the most “fulfilling” she could have, as does Maharat Balinsky Friedman. Will Orthodox women ever head synagogues themselves? “Definitely,” she says. “Once there are 10 or 20 women out there, it will seem natural for congregations to hire them.” And it doesn’t matter if they are not called “rabbi.” Congregants are already comfortable with the term maharat.
These women are injecting new energy and electricity into the Orthodox community. The entire community needs to rally to their side, and stay there.
Francine Klagsbrun’s “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day” is now an e-book. She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir