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When receiving semikha becomes ritual

As recently as 7 years ago, the landscape for female Jewish leaders was lonely; no more, thanks to Yeshivat Maharat

Much has changed since Erica Brown began her journey towards communal leadership and scholarship.

This month, three more Orthodox women received semikha (ordination), crossing a threshold to declare: “With this semikha, I will…”  Although this was Yeshivat Maharat’s fourth semikha ceremony, I couldn’t help my goosebumps. The emotion in the room was palpable — parents, friends and spectators were crying, both because of the enormity of the moment, and the normalcy of it all.

As I was giving a charge to the three new musmachot (graduates) who will join me as rabbinic leaders, I looked out at the faces of the crowd — our graduates already in the field, our 24 enrolled students, high school and college young women who traveled from New Jersey, Chicago, Maryland and Baltimore, and more than 250 people in the audience, and it occurred to me that giving semikha to women has become a ritual.

In Judaism, ritual is usually characterized by traditionalism, sacred symbols, and organized performance around life cycle events and holidays. From the wedding ceremony to the symbols of the Passover seder, ritual not only connects us to the past, but ensures that the practice will be timeless, marked, and performed in perpetuity. We embed deeper meaning into the acts and symbols that are part of a ritual, and the ritual thus becomes representative of something larger than itself.

This is exactly what happened this month — the Orthodox community has created a ritual for the ordination of women. Historically, semikha was transmitted from God to Moses, to Joshua and then to the seventy elders through a “laying of the hands” ritual (Numbers 27:15-23). This tradition of designating leaders broke more than 1,500 years ago. From then on, individuals or institutions granted semikha to men, allowing them to serve as a halakhic decisors, teachers, and spiritual guides. This type of semikha is accessible to woman.  Indeed, the degree of semikha provides communities with a clarity of the skills and services that women can offer (see Rema Yoreh Deah 242:14).

Just as men are ordained in public ritualized ceremonies, women receiving semikha has become a ritual, a timeless event, that will sustain and enhance our community forever. Although one may argue that all of Judaism’s rituals were rooted in Sinai, all ritual at one point or another, was new. “But the fact is,” says Vanessa L. Ochs, “all of our rituals were at one point created. They were new and then, because they were embraced, they became real.” Like any traditional ritual, women in spiritual leadership can find its precedent with women who historically assumed clergy-like positions, like Devorah the Prophetess or Marat Osnat, the first religious head of the yeshiva from Kurdistan in the 16th century. The symbols that we have created will sustain the institution of women and semikha in perpetuity.

In 2013, at Yeshivat Maharat’s first semikha ceremony, where we graduated the first three students, we created a renewed ritual. Each graduate would ascend the stage, with the blessing of אֲחֹתֵנוּ, אַתְּ הֲיִי לְאַלְפֵי רְבָבָה (“Our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of ten thousands…”).This verse, taken from the Book of Genesis (24:60), has become a prayer that there will be a proliferation of Orthodox women in the rabbinate. Grounding the ritual in a Torah verse, which in context blesses our foremother Rebecca with a myriad of offspring, invokes the dream that the institution of women’s ordination will also continue to thrive.

After receiving their klaf (parchment) from respected and beloved rabbinic teachers and leaders, with a public conferring of the degree of “toreh, toreh,” (decisors of Jewish law) each woman walks under a banner with those same words from Bereishit sewn on — אֲחֹתֵנוּ, אַתְּ הֲיִי לְאַלְפֵי רְבָבָה — as if they are walking through a parted sea, ready to teach and serve. At the moment that they cross over the threshold, they join other graduates already in the field. The banner is designed to look like a wave, symbolizing a continuous and consistent motion forward. This ritual, repeated for every graduate, has become an established rite of passage thereby solidifying their place in the Jewish community.

Semikha as ritual picture
Semikha as ritual (Courtesy).

Each year, as the number of graduates from Yeshivat Maharat has increased to 14, as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Rabbi Danny Landes, and Rabbi Herzl Hefter have added to that number in recent months, Orthodox women receiving semikha is a reality. Although the ceremony may vary from semikha program to semikha program, the ritual of women and ordination has become an established and incontrovertible fact.

It was not so long ago, just seven years ago, when I received my semikha parchment. With pride and joy and sense of achievement, I also couldn’t help feeling an acute sense of loneliness. Like Erica, I dreamed of explaining my career path in one word, rather than with a lengthy job description. But, the landscape was such that Orthodox women had to carve out their own path towards spiritual leadership. Until Yeshivat Maharat was created, there was no clear, credentialed pathway that would lead to semikha. While it is true, that over the past few decades, Orthodox women have witnessed an incredible flourishing of women’s learning, with access to Torah text at the highest levels in batei midrash (study halls) across the world, being an Orthodox female spiritual leader was itself a lonely place to be. As I look at the landscape today, I believe that the path towards female Jewish leadership is no longer lonely.

Today, there are 30 plus communities — shuls, schools, major organizations and Hillels — that have hired women in clergy positions as graduates or interns. Women are serving communities in America, Australia, London, and Israel. Being a woman in spiritual leadership is no longer a lonely phenomenon.

In just seven years, women getting semikha has reached a tipping point, as Malcolm Gladwell explains — that magic moment when an idea crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads, a critical point that is irreversible, a place where the unexpected becomes expected, where radical change is more than possibility. It is, contrary to all our expectations, a certainty.

Women receiving semikha is now a ritual, and is indeed a certainty. If the litmus test to success is whether women are being hired in clergy positions, then we have succeeded. If the litmus test is attracting and identifying high level students to learn and lead, then we have succeeded. If the litmus test is the number of people students and interns have inspired and helped community members, across the globe, then we have succeeded.

Our work is not yet done; but at least I now know that women in clergy has become integral to the fabric of our community. I, for one, look forward to next year’s graduation ritual, where five more women from Yeshivat Maharat will cross the threshold, and become ordained, joined by the new influx of female spiritual leaders, both in Israel and in North America.  אֲחֹתֵנוּ, אַתְּ הֲיִי לְאַלְפֵי רְבָבָה — “Our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of ten thousands…” — Orthodox women receiving semikha is indeed flourishing and will continue to enhance the organized Jewish community.

About the Author
Rabba Sara Hurwitz is dean and co-founder of Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox yeshiva to ordain women as clergy. She also serves on the rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Rabba Sara graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University and completed Drisha’s three-year Scholars Circle Program. She was ordained in 2009 by Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Daniel Sperber.
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