The Birth of a New Jewish Denomination

It seems that the movement to ordain female rabbis in Orthodoxy is moving ahead full steam. According to an article in JTA, there will be six new female rabbis graduated at Yeshivat Maharat. They are expecting 6 to 8 students next year. While they do not call themselves rabbis, that’s what they are. There is no sense in calling them anything else.

If I were them I would be insulted at not being given the same title their male counterparts are given for completing the same requirements for ordination. These women study the same material as men who study for the rabbinate do and they must pass the same tests. And yet, they are not given the same title.

Why not just go out and say what you are doing? Why dishonor your students be calling them some name you made up?

The answer of course is that they want acceptance by the very same Orthodox establishment that they have always been a part of. They believe that changing the title will give them some sort of legitimacy. But that will never happen. Even leaving aside the Halachicly problematic issue of Serrara (female leadership over men), women are barred by Halacha from doing the most basic functions of a synagogue rabbi .  The people running these institutions know this and so do the women they ordain.

They cannot be counted for a Minyan. They cannot sit in the sanctuary with men during a communal prayer service. They cannot lead the service. Their very presence in the Shul together with men invalidates the Minyan and even the service itself.

To say this kind of leadership is awkward is an understatement. And yet they insist that they should be able to work around it and somehow lead congregational services. The claim is that they can Halachicly do other things in a Shul that a rabbi does. Like counsel, teach, or lecture. This is true. But the idea of a leader not being able to be present in the Minyan is not normal and in my view, something that should not be sought.  Why must the envelope be pushed in such an abnormal way?

That is answered by Anat Sharbat, one of the about to be ordained women:

“The program in Yeshivat Maharat is a responsible program for responsible leadership – halachic but also social and emotional and feminist…” (emphasis mine)

When I hear the word feminist these days it has a lot different meaning to me than it did in the past. In the past it was a movement whose goal was to obtain equal rights for women in the workplace and equal respect with men societally. Both are goals that I support.

But feminism has morphed its goals into an attempt to eliminate all gender differences accept for the obvious physical ones. This is not a Torah viewpoint. The Torah mandates different roles for men and women. The idea that women must somehow equalize with men in all areas of Judaism is anathema to the very idea of male/female roles.  As far as the Orthodox rabbinate goes, it is an elusive goal that can never happen. It is a Halachic impossibility in the realm of the synagogue for men and women to have equal roles.

Feminists will retort that while that may be true, we must still push the envelope as far as far as Halacha will allow. Inserting women wherever possible into the sanctuary. But at what price? Are we going to see female rabbis preaching from behind the Mechitza in service to that ideal? Is it appropriate for the spiritual leader of a Shul to not be visible during services? …sitting behind the Mechitza? Even as men far less educated than them religiously lead the services and fully participate in them?  This is not a normal situation and it is certainly not equality of the sexes. The Conservative movement knows that. That’s why they have fully embraced female rabbis – having long ago completely abandoned the Mechitza and the Halachic requirement that only men can be counted in a Minyan.

This is not to say that women have no role in studying Torah and using their knowledge of it. I am a big supporter of women studying Torah if they chose to do so. And there are plenty of roles these Jewishly educated women can fulfill with the knowledge they obtained. Like pastoral counseling, or becoming educators.  I see nothing wrong with that. But one does not need the title rabbi (or Maharat) in order to do that.

Using a sledgehammer called feminism to insert whatever feminist changes they can into a normal Shul environment will not change the fact that-  bottom line – it falls short of a truly feminist goal as it is understood  today at. It is abnormal. It causes divisiveness. And we may end up with yet another non Orthodox denomination that claims to be Halachic but attentive to the spirit of the times. Just as the Conservative Judaism originally claimed. That is the direction this is all going.

In the meantime some of the more left wing modern Orthodox Shuls are hiring these ordainees:

Of the five women who have been ordained by the yeshiva – three in 2013 and two last year – four are working in synagogues, serving essentially as assistant rabbis. (The fifth is a Jewish educator in Montreal.)


“The rabbi and I have a great relationship; we share a lot of the responsibilities,” said Rori Picker Neiss, a maharat who works at Bais Abraham, a modern Orthodox congregation in St. Louis. “We switch off who gives the drasha [sermon] every week, I teach classes, I’m available for counseling, I coordinate some of the programs. I have not yet done funerals or weddings, but I can. My job description would parallel an assistant rabbi’s position.”

My guess is that these Shuls will be boycotted by the Orthodox mainstream.  Which means that as new graduates increasingly take new positions in the more left wing Shuls, a new denomination is inevitable. Which is sad. My guess, though, is that this new denomination will eventually suffer the same fate the older ones are.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.