Clergy Is Not a Hebrew Word

The brouhaha isn't really about women's ordination, it's about the waning influence of Orthodox pulpit rabbis
Yeshivat Maharat graduates at their ordination ceremony at Ramaz High School in New York City, June 16, 2013 (photo credit: Joe Winkler/JTA)
Yeshivat Maharat graduates at their ordination ceremony at Ramaz High School in New York City, June 16, 2013 (photo credit: Joe Winkler/JTA)

The OU’s statement on female clergy was supposed to touch a nerve, one way or another.  I prepared for scandal and mayhem when I heard that the statement was coming.  After plowing through all 15 pages and the lengthy responses, I concluded however, that the lack of authoritative initiative had left me underwhelmed. Understandably, the rabbis did not presume to have the answers. There is clearly a tension in our community over how to address the issue of female leadership, and nobody has come up with a solution that satisfies the needs of some without infringing on the needs of others. While the OU statement did demonstrate an impressive level of empathy (something that they were not given credit for), it failed to resolve and actually managed to exacerbate a few contentious issues, namely professional titles for women of Torah stature, women’s smicha, and the exploration of women serving in congregational clerical roles. I propose that a reasonable and achievable solution is in plain sight, and somehow has been overlooked in all of the controversy.

The statement and responses acknowledge that “steps should be taken to properly recognize women who dedicate their lives and their abilities to serving and educating our community, including the attribution of fitting titles that convey the significance of these roles.” It is not uncommon in the yeshivish world to refer to a woman of stature as rebbetzin, even if the particular woman does not happen to be married to a rabbi.  As Laura Shaw Frank points out in her brilliant analysis of the Portland rebbetzins and other instances of female leadership, clergy is a secular construct simply and efficiently utilized by women in the yeshivish communities when beneficial. Naturally, the roles for men and women are defined differently, but, as the OU statement also acknowledges, titles matter. (For a compelling anecdotal study of this, read the  ‘comments’ section of under  “becoming a rebbetzin”) We could seamlessly adopt this practice and confer the titles of rebbetzin and rabbanit on our female leaders.

While the yeshivish world pragmatically views the clergy construct as secular, the OU statement implies that Modern Orthodoxy, like Conservative and Reform Judaism, views the idea of clergy as being something sacred. The term ‘clergy’ and what we actually mean by smicha must be more carefully explored.

“This restriction applies both to the designation of a title [implying smicha] well as to the appointment of women to perform clergy functions….reserved for a synagogue rabbi..ruling on halachic matters, officiating at…life-cycle events…regular[ly delivering] sermons…presiding over or “leading services” at a minyan, [serving as primary] teacher, and spiritual guide.“ 

The exclusion of women from clerical roles serves as the centerpiece of the OU statement and responses. Yet when my husband meets with families to prepare for lifecycle events he likes to tell them, “The word ‘rabbi’ does not appear in the Torah. You don’t need a rabbi at a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, a bris, a funeral or even a wedding.”  He wants them to know that there is no power vested in him to pronounce them husband and wife. The power is with them. The handing over of the bar mitzvah certificate is not what turns a Jewish boy into a man.  Have we not all heard the urban legend of the girl who was halachically married in middle school when she accepted a scrunchie from a boy after he said “harei at mekudeshet li (behold you are betrothed to me)?”  The way that the story is told, the poor 13-year-old newlyweds required a full fledged get.  Additionally, the two 13-year old-boys witnessing that ridiculous scenario are the ones who made that wedding a halachic reality. Our mesorah does not require “clergy” for these clerical performances, it strongly encourages the supervision of learned people.

The reality is that many women, in seeking access to smicha, do so in the hopes of securing a career as synagogue clergy. Smicha however means different things to different people. Rarely are we talking about smicha as permission to rule on halachic matters or even to lead a congregation. The overwhelming majority of YU smicha recipients, do not become pulpit rabbis, do not consider themselves to be halachic authorities and are not recognized as such by others. Smicha is really an acknowledgement that the person has dedicated many years to serious Torah study. Is there a way to offer all of this to women without requiring this elusive and controversial female smicha? We have just established that we do in fact have a mesorah for this. We have the rebbetzinate, and, truth be told, its popularity is waning as a volunteer position reserved only for wives of pulpit rabbis. I propose that we reframe the discussion of female clergy and smicha as an exploration of the changing role of the congregational rebbetzin. The reality is that many women who happen to be married to rabbis don’t feel called to serve as rebbetzin in their congregations; they have careers, other interests or simply choose to volunteer elsewhere. Many learned and gifted women, are eager to heed that same calling right now as professional clergy in ours shuls, and we can’t justify refraining from giving these women titles that “acknowledg[e]…their achievement and status.”

In our debate over female clergy, titles and smicha, if we delve into the resistance, surprisingly what emerges is that this whole debate is really less controversial and more of a red herring that distracts us from addressing other fears, namely the waning influence of the institution of the Local Orthodox Rabbi and the shuls that employ them. As increasing numbers of people seek halachic guidance on the internet,  google is a much more serious threat to this system than female clergy. This concern is communicated only in passing, found buried on page 16 of the OU statement’s responses: “While the traditional synagogue experience continues to offer religious fulfillment to many women in our communities, some women — and men for that matter — feel disengaged from their shuls and uninspired in the synagogue” (all emphasis my own).

In that sentence, the OU candidly shares with us its deepest fear for our community, losing women and men alike.  Perhaps its attempt to revive the stature held by rabbis of generations past is really their attempt to bring the community back to an imagined “good old days.” In many ways we all share that passionate nostalgia. We have a mesorah that reinforces our community against the tides of destructive change. That mesorah is also resilient and built to last, in part because it is capable of adapting. Most women who are committed to the Orthodox community would allow this process to take it’s time to unfold organically, if it were not for some very negative stereotypes that our community has fostered about women who want to expand their role in Jewish life and Torah learning. The motivations of our girls and women are constantly put into question by rabbis, teachers and parents. Many of them feel that they are perceived to be somehow less feminine for being intellectually curious or too passionate of a personality. Every seminary girl who has asked, has been told that of course they can study any part of the Torah — only after they have memorized all of Tanach and the accompanying commentary.  We don’t want to place these barriers and stigmas between women and Torah. For our female lawyers, doctors and professionals, practical and complex Torah study represents an essential key in maintaining the relevance of our mesorah and the personal investment of every Jew.

To the credit of the OU, this concern was in fact addressed with determination“…we must ensure that the community does not inappropriately disparage the sincere quest of many women for growth in limmud Torah, or in communal participation, as being improperly motivated.

This alone is a serious game-changer. The OU now officially acknowledges and honors that a woman’s quest for greater involvement in Torah is sincere. This is a huge step and it is long overdue. This empowering  gesture of empathy can inspire us as women to begin thoroughly examining our own goals and methods with honesty and humility. We have a responsibility to explore more flexible bottom lines, and to become more open to creative solutions without scoffing at the validity of slow and steady change. As we make powerful moves to gain access to more knowledge, independence in Halacha and leadership positions, we have a responsibility to define this process in a way that truly honors our mesorah and contributes to the well-being of both the women and men of our community.

About the Author
Rebbetzin Miriam Gross has been a Jewish educator for over 15 years and holds a Masters degree in Jewish Education. She was ordained by Hebrew college as a Jewish Educator in 2008, ordained as a Rebbetzin in 2009 by marrying a pulpit Rabbi. And today, she is the most politically conservative student at Yeshivat Maharat where she studies Halacha and Gemarah with love and will be ordained as a Rebbetzin in her own right in 2019 with Gds help.
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