I see the rabbi is still wearing her jeans” my grandma says. We both laugh, but her quip aptly captures the seeming paradox of my life.
I am halfway through a four-year training programme to become an orthodox rabbi. I’m the rabbi-in-training at a community in Borehamwood. I’m a woman. And I’m a product of a modern world, a regular British Jewish 30-something working mum.
In the coming months, this column will be become my diary of what it’s like to study for semicha (ordination) and work in a rabbinic role in a UK orthodox community setting, of the journey that my fellow students at Yeshivat Maharat – a global hybrid Yeshiva based in New York – are taking, of why I choose to remain orthodox, of the highs and lows of my work, and of my hopes for the future.
Still puzzling over the ‘female orthodox rabbi’ part? Let’s go there. Yes, women can be orthodox rabbis. There is no compelling halachic (Jewish legal) reason against it. Granted, it’s an innovation in a tradition of male-only religious leadership, but orthodoxy has seen plenty of innovation over the years, particularly when a time calls for change.
And everything I’ve seen points towards this being an overdue change. In a world where women join their male counterparts at the top of every field, it is incongruous to go to shul and sit as a spectator, listening to men lead services and to men give the sermon. If orthodox Judaism is to remain relevant, it needs women to be rabbis.
If I think back, I’ve wanted to be a rabbi before I even knew it was a possibility. As a teenager filling in an automated careers questionnaire, I remember laughing about the outcome: ‘Consider a career as a priest.’ The idea of being a Jewish religious leader felt so ridiculous and foreign to my orthodox upbringing. Objectively, though, it made sense then and it does now. It brings together my love of Judaism, learning Torah, spirituality, teaching, being with people at their happy and challenging moments, public speaking, programme design and community organising.
Over several years, I’ve watched the first wave of women study for semicha at Yeshivat Maharat in NYC with a heart-thumping excitement for the future. I’ve cheered as first Dina Brawer and then Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz from the UK took the plunge. Two American graduates of the yeshiva live in the UK and are doing brilliant work. Luz Toff is a fellow student set to graduate a year after me. Change, which can feel creepingly slow, is happening thick and fast.
Over several years, I’ve watched the first wave of women study for semicha at Yeshivat Maharat in NYC with a heart-thumping excitement for the future.
Working up the guts to take this step wasn’t simple. I’m not fearless or thick-skinned and had months of coaching to find the confidence to do something so different. Nor was my Anglo-Jewish cheder education a great help in being able to learn Talmud in Aramaic and Rashi in Rashi script, from minuscule writing in a massive tome. The learning curve, academic and emotional, has been steep and is far from over. But I’m on the journey and loving it.
And, astonishingly to me, since choosing this path I’ve been overwhelmed by positivity, even from traditionalists. Demand for teaching batmitzvah students and engaged couples is hard to keep up with. And a few months ago I was thrilled to take up a new role as rabbi in training for Kehillat Nashira in Borehamwood. I don’t know where our orthodox establishments will go in terms of women in rabbinic roles, but from where I am, the support is there.
So, grandma, I’m still in my jeans, being me, the same girl you saw grow up, but also more connected to our Jewish tradition than ever. And it’s the novel dissonance of these two things, a mother learning gemara at night; a woman in jeans answering halachic questions; a Borehamwood girl doing chaplaincy training; a woman standing up in shul to teach the congregation – that’s the new face of the rabbinate.
Grandma, can I get you a pair of jeans?