The tide has turned 

Rabba Dr. Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz.  Photo Credit: Alex Taibel
Rabba Dr. Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz. (Alex Taibel)

I am used to being dismissed. As a pioneer forging my way in the Orthodox community, my own ordination in 2009 became the center of a communal and media firestorm. A few examples: in 2008, about a year before I would get semikha (rabbinic ordination) from Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber, I was asked to leave the beit midrash where my chavrutah and I had been studying. In 2010, soon after I received semikha, I was invited and then disinvited to teach Torah in an Orthodox synagogue. In 2010, after teaching in another community, a neighboring rabbi decried my visit, lamenting that “we will have something else to cry about on this Tisha B’Av.” There are many more instances that can fill a book.

These memories flooded back to me as I followed my student, Rabba Dr. Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz’s dismissal and then reinstatement to the London School of Jewish Studies in the UK. After graduating from Maharat with semikha, Rabba Dr. Taylor-Guthartz’s was asked to leave LJSJ, where she had been a beloved teacher for more than 16 years. But unlike the exile I experienced over a decade ago, Rabba Dr. Taylor-Gutharz’s was short-lived: after an outcry following her dismissal, she was reinstated to her position and will continue to teach Torah to the many students who look to her as a model of Torah and halakhah. Her experience is a symbol of how much has changed in a few, short years.

As a graduate of Maharat, Rabba Dr. Taylor-Guthartz is committed to halakha and is invested in teaching and spreading Torah. She has no “agenda” except to use her knowledge and magnetic teaching style to deepen the connection of her students – both men and women — to Judaism.

Facts on the ground

Rabba Dr. Taylor-Guthartz is one of the 49 women who have graduated from Maharat, the rabbinic school I founded in 2009 with Rabbi Avi Weiss to ordain Orthodox women. She joins the ranks of those who teach the same Torah that we value and love, to inspire communities in nine countries, including the UK, France, Israel, Australia, Canada and across the United States. As a graduate of Maharat, Rabba Dr. Taylor-Guthartz is committed to halakhah and is invested in teaching and spreading Torah. She has no “agenda” except to use her knowledge and magnetic teaching style to deepen the connection of her students – both men and women — to Judaism.

In addition to our community of graduates, Rabba Dr. Taylor-Guthartz joins a larger movement of Orthodox women who have been ordained in recent years, including women who have received private semikha from rabbis and other institutions in Israel, such as Har’el Beit Midrash, where the curriculum is grounded in emet (truth) and a deep, abiding fidelity to halakhah. Ohr Torah Stone also offers a five-year track to women to receive a heter hora’ah, which credentials women to pasken halakhah. Even Nishmat’s yoetzet halakhah program provides a professional path forward for women to teach and serve their communities — and in a marked change, graduates of that program proudly display the title of “yoetzet halakhah” before their names, no differently than the women who go by Rabba, Rabbanit, Maharat, and Rabbi. Indeed, at this point in our history, Orthodox women are serving as rabbinic leaders to thousands of Jewish people in communities across the world, who are now the beneficiaries of scholarly and passionate male and female leadership, drawing from 100 percent of our population.

The rise of communal advocacy

Although I️ had a close-knit support system when I received semikha (for which I am forever grateful), the community and its leaders largely watched from the sidelines as controversy swirled around me. Support was primarily offered behind closed doors, in whispers, away from public scrutiny. During this time, I was accused of “destroying the Orthodox community” — some more right-wing rabbinic organizations even put me in herem (excommunication) — and it was hard for many to publicly defend what I was doing  But as the idea of women serving in the rabbinate became normalized, and as more and more congregants became the beneficiaries of the wisdom and compassion that female clergy offer, the community at large grew more vocal and began to offer public support. This has led to a sea change in our response to the “controversies” surrounding women’s ordination. So much so, that when our community heard that Rabba Dr. Taylor-Guthartz was asked to leave her position for receiving semikha, our supporters on both sides of the pond jumped into action, without hesitation. Maharat graduates and those far are outside Maharat’s orbit wrote articles in strong support of Rabba Dr. Taylor-Guthartz. Congregants all over the world signed petitions. Funders threatened to rescind their support from the London School of Jewish Studies, and colleagues even resigned in solidarity. In the wake of this tremendous outpouring of support, Rabba Dr. Taylor-Gutharz’s employment was reinstated.

There is more work to do.

If the past 13 years have taught us anything, it is that our Orthodox communities need strong leadership — both male and female — who have a commitment to Torah and scholarship, and the vision to serve 21st century Jewry, with its complexity and diversity. And Orthodox women are central to this vision. Female voices are already woven into the daily lives of the people we serve, and we are already answering halakhic questions, officiating at life-cycle events, celebrating and marking milestones, pastoring to people who are struggling, sitting at the bedsides of those who are ill, and above all, teaching both the young and the older minds who are thirsting for more Torah.

To be sure, there is still work to be done. Though reinstated, Rabba Dr. Taylor-Guthartz is prohibited from using her full title, and a representative of LSJS was quoted as saying that its “academic fellows are not religious appointments — and therefore should be made on the basis of academic merit.” However, Rabba Dr. Taylor-Guthartz’s abrupt dismissal followed by her rapid reinstatement demonstrates that the community values her leadership, and that the idea of women serving in the role of clergy has become more normative and accepted.

At Maharat’s annual semikha ceremony, every graduate walks underneath a banner that reads: אֲחֹתֵנוּ אַתְּ, הֲיִי לְאַלְפֵי רְבָבָה, Our sister — may you grow into a multitude (Bereishit 24:60).  Although every few years might bring challenges to Orthodox women’s ability to lead, when each graduate receives semikha and walks underneath that banner she knows she is not alone. She knows that she is entering a community of female clergy, but also a community that supports female clergy roles that is growing more vocal and confident every year. With Rabba Dr. Taylor-Guthartz’s reinstatement at LSJS, I now see a community that celebrates the multitudes of women are who are inspired to follow in her footsteps.

 

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About the Author
Rabba Sara Hurwitz, Co-Founder and President of Maharat, the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as clergy, also serves on the Rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
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