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There’s no stopping women’s spiritual leadership

The Orthodox Union's statement against female spiritual leaders is an expression of weakness and fear
Maharat Ruth delivered the sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah just one month into her new job. (photo credit: Ben Zehavi)
Maharat Ruth delivered the sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah just one month into her new job. (photo credit: Ben Zehavi)

On an ordinary Shabbat, you will find me at the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem, where I serve as rabbi. This past Shabbat, however, I was the scholar-in-residence at the Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac, Maryland.

My trip was planned months ago. What I had not anticipated, though, was that just before Shabbat, the Orthodox Union (OU) — an umbrella organization of Orthodox Jewish congregations in the United States — would release a lengthy document devoted to its policy on the integration of women in the religious leadership of its member congregations.

The congregation that I was visiting is a member of the Orthodox Union. Last year, the community added Maharat Hadas (Dasi) Fruchter, a graduate of Yeshivat Maharat, to its spiritual leadership. (“Maharat” is a Hebrew acronym that is used to refer to female spiritual leaders in Modern Orthodox communities in the United States; in my Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem, the term we use for such spiritual leaders is “Rabbanit.”)

Maharat Fruchter works alongside Rabbi Nissan Antine; she serves as the Assistant Spiritual Leader of the community, while he has been the Senior Rabbi of the congregation for more than a decade.

The decision issued by the OU undermines Maharat Fruchter’s very appointment. For according to the organization’s Rabbinic Panel, while women may serve in roles such as educators and scholars within communal and synagogue structures, and while women should be encouraged to share their Torah knowledge, enthusiasm, and wisdom with the broader community, women serving in clergy roles or holding clergy titles is at odds with Jewish law and Jewish tradition.

During my time at the congregation, I witnessed Rabbanit Fruchter’s work. I saw how she greeted congregants, both men and women, as they entered the synagogue. During the service, she helped women in the women’s section say Kaddish and find their way around the prayer book, actively assisting them throughout the prayer service and Torah reading. I saw her teach a class on Shabbat afternoon and talk to congregants during the communal Shabbat meals. What I saw was a young woman full of goodwill and a desire to help people come closer to Jewish life and to the service of God.

Then I read the document issued by the OU, which bans its synagogues from hiring women clergy. This decision set out to light the way for Modern Orthodox synagogues in the United States. But instead, the document is an expression of weakness and fear. Every one of its 17 pages reveals considerable concern about the entry of women into spiritual leadership roles in Jewish communities. It is as if there is a competition for hegemony and control. Instead of favorably viewing women who wish to shoulder communal responsibility and devote themselves to the spiritual work of the synagogue, the dominant hegemony sees these women as a threat to the established order.

The train of women’s integration into the spiritual leadership of Orthodox Jewish communities has already left the station. It is not waiting for statements by organizations that will either approve or reject its journey. The question for organizations such as the OU is whether they will find themselves relevant to the next generation or whether they will find themselves abandoned at the side of the tracks, at a station that is old and forgotten.

The answer, I think, is clear.

Translated by Shira Pasternak Be’eri.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Benjamin “Benny” Lau is the Director of the 929 Tanakh B'Yachad daily Bible study initiative.
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