Should We Invite Maharats to the Rebbetzins Conference?

Having a woman in partnership with men is becoming a necessary part of Jewish communal life (Rabba Sara Hurwitz)

I have never been big on titles. For years, I always insisted that people call me Batya – honestly, I wasn’t really into the whole rebbetzin appellation. But one day I was talking to an Israeli woman in town and she referred to the female Reform rabbi as ‘rabbanit’. I was taken aback and thought, ‘Hey wait a minute, I’m the rabbanit – the Orthodox rabbi’s wife’. Ever since, in an effort to set things straight, I now call myself Rabbanit (don’t worry, I won’t correct you if you call me Rebbetzin or even Batya for that matter).

A few months ago another title caught my attention, this time in the Jewish Journal of LA, “Orthodox Shul Takes First Step to Hiring Female Clergy” (Sept 11, 2014).  Once again, I felt I had to set the record straight, this time not only in Edmonton, but everywhere.  The article is about how an Orthodox synagogue in LA hired a Maharat.  A new so-called “Open Orthodox” institution “ordains” women as clergy, referring to them as “MAHARAT”, an acronym that stands for manhiga hilchatit ruchanit toranit, which means a female teacher, legal scholar and spiritual leader.  There are currently two Maharats in Canada, both at Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal.

My own professional body where I have attended many conferences, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), issued a clear statement in 2013, stating “we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.”   Now which category do rebbetzins fall under?  Are we not part of the Orthodox rabbinate?  Let’s be honest.   The RCA certainly recognizes the role of rebbetzins.  We are all invited to attend the RCA annual conventions and there are even separate rebbetzins’ sessions.   So how could they issue such a statement?

The Orthodox rabbinate entails a partnership of rabbi and rebbetzin.  There is no successful Orthodox shul today that will hire a single rabbi, i.e. a rabbi without a rebbetzin.  There is an unwritten two-for-one deal; indeed, some shuls even go as far as to place expectations on the rebbetzin in the job description, all the while stating that they are just hiring a rabbi!   So when B’nai-David Judea in LA made news because they were hiring a female clergy member, what do they think happened to the role of the rebbetzin?  In their mind, are we meaningless?  Or worse yet, are we being swept under the rug?   Or maybe I have it all wrong; maybe they have expectations of her husband?  (What do we call him – Mahar?)

The problem, sadly, is that many confuse gender equality with gender homogeneity. Classic feminists want women to do everything exactly like the men. And they are hell-bent on pushing their agenda onto traditional Jewish life. If the men can be rabbis so can the women. But just trying to be one of the guys is not true feminism and is a futile and ridiculous exercise, says Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook: ‘We need our own toilets!’ In Lean In, she writes, “All of us – men and women alike – have to understand and acknowledge how stereotypes and biases cloud our beliefs and perpetuate the status quo. Instead of ignoring our differences, we need to accept and transcend them.”

We need to accept the different roles men and women play in every aspect of our lives – in the workplace, in the home, in the shul, and yes even in the rabbinate. The way to achieve equality is by recognizing that every individual is different. And traditional Judaism has always recognized the different roles that men and women play. To offer a different perspective, think about the way you treat your children: Every child is different and has different needs. Some are artistic, some intellectual and some sporty. Are we failing to offer our children equal love because we don’t treat them all same? A good parent recognizes the needs of each child and tailors their upbringing to each of them. The same is true of gender differences. Females and males are different and have different needs and roles in life.

The rabbinate has always required the dual spiritual leadership of a rabbi and a rebbetzin. So when Sara Hurwitz declares, “Having a woman in partnership with men is becoming a necessary part of Jewish communal life,” I say to her: Of course it is necessary and that’s why it has always existed! We already have a “female leader of Jewish law, spirit and Torah” – she is not called maharat, she is called rebbetzin, or in my case, rabbanit. And just like no two people or leaders are the same, every rebbetzin plays a different role that represents her character type as well as her respective husband’s. Recognizing and embracing the different roles men and women have in the clergy will only contribute to the congregation’s spiritual growth.

Just to be clear, I am not trying to minimize the years of learning and training these wonderful women have invested in their incredible zeal to dedicate their lives to Klal Yisrael. But what maharats need to recognize is that while there might be a place for them in the Orthodox rabbinate, it is definitely not a new place. In your attempt to assert your position, please do not squash or sideline today’s rebbetzins, or the hardworking, volunteer rebbetzins of yesteryear. This new movement unfortunately fails to recognize all the women who have given their hearts and souls to Orthodox Jewish congregations, while having children, careers, and giving up their nights and weekends for communal life, long before these marahats were born! I come from a long line of female Orthodox clergy, who served in Lithuania; actually it goes all the way back to the original “Rabba Sara” – our matriarch who, our Sages tell us, converted the women to monotheism, while Avraham converted the men.

Baruch Hashem, there is a glimmer of hope as attitudes appear to be changing. I want to thank Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future’s (CJF) recognition of our role in the Orthodox rabbinate, hosting an annual rebbetzins’ conference. And a special thank you to Rebbetzin Meira Davis, who organizes and coordinates a superb conference every year. It is amazing to see the array of talent in the room. There is no one specific type of rebbetzin. Each one possesses a unique character that fits with their corresponding rabbi/husband and works well with their congregation and community. Many have their own careers ranging from teachers to occupational therapists to yoga instructors to psychologists to doctors, lawyers and financial analysts!

Secondly, on behalf of all rebbetzins, I want to take this opportunity to wish a hearty mazaltov to Rebbetzin Elana Stein-Hain and say yasher koach to Yair Rosenberg for acknowledging her contributions to Jewish life in his list of 15 American Rabbis You Haven’t Heard Of, But Should. Although she “is not officially a rabbi . . . she is one of an elite group of Orthodox women who have been serving in para-rabbinic capacities across America.” It was a real breath of fresh air to see that all our hard work was not in vain. We rebbetzins are honored to serve in the Orthodox rabbinate and proud to dedicate our lives to Klal Yisrael.

This article is dedicated to my great-grandmothers: Rebbetzins Chaya Mishkinsky and Yocheved Mishkinsky of Sevisluch and Rebbetzins Miriam Faians, Rachel Halperin and Mina Golda Halperin of Bialystok, all devoted leaders of Klal Yisrael.

Rabbanit Batya Friedman, MBA, rebbetzin of Beth Israel Synagogue, Edmonton, Canada, recently attended “The Rebbetzin Esther Rosenblatt Yarchei Kallah for Rebbetzins” hosted by YU Center for the Jewish Future on November 10-11, 2014.

About the Author
Rabbanit Batya Friedman is the senior rebbetzin of Hamsptead Suburb Garden Synagogue in London, UK. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She received her Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Brooklyn College and her MBA from the University of Alberta. She previously served the community in Edmonton, AB Canada.
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