Why Orthodox women deserve the title ‘Rabbi’

I spent six months in a Modern Orthodox seminary in Israel after finishing my undergrad degree at 21. As someone who was mostly self-taught in all things Jewish Studies (at least since the end of my pre-bat mitzvah education), the luxury of immersing myself in Torah in the holy city was an immense gift. I am forever indebted to the school and its faculty and am still in touch with many of the participants, some of whom are still very close friends.

At the time, I did not know as much about Modern Orthodox feminist politics as I do now. As a woman who comes from a small European community, I mostly observed and gleaned concepts and new ideas from my chosen environment in Israel. It became clear to me that Modern Orthodoxy, at this time, faces many struggles in the realm of women’s issues. Right now, there is a push to change the halachic system in favor of women’s rights, for example in the heartbreaking case of the agunah, i.e., a woman whose husband refuses to give her a bill of divorce and consequently keeps the woman enslaved in her marriage. There is the fight to maintain visibility of women in the face of increasingly having their presence erased from children’s books, furniture catalogs, and city ads.

Conversely, the last decade has also been one of new leadership possibilities for Orthodox women, who can now serve as halachic advisers to women and even pursue smicha (rabbinic ordination) through Yeshivat Maharat in New York as well as Beit Midrash Har’el in Jerusalem.  In Josefin Dolstein’s op-ed on Maharat’s 10-year female ordination program anniversary, Sara Hurwitz, who was ordained by Rabbi Avi Weiss as the first female Orthodox rabbi in 2009, reflects on what was not only a change in models of Jewish leadership but a psychological change for women as well:  “I never thought being a rabbi was an option,” Hurwitz said. “It just wasn’t imaginable.” Inasmuch as this female smicha breakthrough is deeply meaningful on the formal level, I find that the actual attitude towards Orthodox Jewish women in power still leaves much to be desired.

Although my own background and trajectory is very different from Hurwitz’s, her reflection that she could never have envisioned herself as a rabbi strikes a deep chord within me. Growing up in a strongly Orthodox-affiliated family (I had never visited the local Conservative shul before I was in my teens), it was crystal-clear to me that women are not rabbis. I never heard women give a dvar Torah for the entire community save from one or perhaps two informal occasions. In my community, women dancing with a Torah scroll on Simchat Torah is largely seen as subversive, if not outright un-Orthodox. My childhood shul’s rabbi ultimately permitted it to occur in a separate room, removed from the sight of all men, even though covering the holes in the mechitza would have similarly guarded us from the male gaze. Having become both more religious and more progressive in university, I was hoping that I would see more of Jewish women’s leadership in action when I went to Israel for seminary after finishing my undergrad. Ultimately, I did, and I didn’t. 

Even at a time when there are numerous leadership for women in Halacha, the backlash against, or at least the discomfort with, women rabbis is baffling. I am happy that women can advise other women on women’s issues, i.e., the intricacies of Niddah, but why aren’t women seen as just as capable of advising on other areas within Halacha? In other words, why, in mainstream Orthodox Jewish life, can’t women be rabbis? Stepping aside from the halachic issues of kol isha, hearing a woman’s singing voice, or the issue of women not counting in a minyan, I simply do not see any reason as to why a woman cannot be as much of a rabbi, a community leader and adviser, as a man.

During one of our Q&A sessions in seminary, one of the rabbis protested against women taking the Chief Rabbinate’s smicha (rabbinic ordination) exam in Israel. He dismissed the importance of the currently non-existing option for women to obtain nationally recognized smicha by using the common rhetoric that “leadership”, or competence, is not only reflected by “the title” of the leader. A “title,” argued the rabbi (whom we all called “Rabbi,” as it happens, and not “Firstname,” like the female members of faculty), is secondary to the person’s knowledge and capability. I find this argument deeply insufficient in the modern world. Our world, Jewish or not, is one in which titles affect the way that a person is treated or respected on the job. Not having the same title as someone else, even if you both hypothetically received the same level of education, affects the way that others see and judge your capabilities in all professional fields. If A. graduates from med school, completes his residency, and finally collects his MD degree after almost a decade of incredibly hard work to get there, I would bet that you would consult A. on your medical problems and not B., the other medical student who followed the same program, but ultimately did not receive the MD title. The opposite is also true here. That is, women should not have to need around five letters behind their name to prove that they are equally knowledgeable and competent as the man who has no qualms about calling himself “rabbi.” 

To maintain the predominantly male position that “it isn’t about the title” in the world in which we live is not only ludicrous, but also sexist, no matter how enlightened you consider yourself otherwise. Deriding a woman’s insistence on being called “rabbi” on the basis that she wants “attention,” i.e., recognition, for her hard work (don’t we all?) is sexist. Pursuing smicha for women in 2020 is still considered provocative, but it should not have to be. Women deserve the same recognition of their knowledge and leadership capabilities as men, and titles are important vehicles to get women there. To paraphrase the Bard: “A rabbi by any other name is not as sweet.”

About the Author
Rivka Hellendall is a graduate student of English Literature and Jewish Studies at the University of Amsterdam and a freelance journalist for the Dutch Jewish Weekly news magazine. She enjoys great cappuccinos, reading, traveling to Israel, and creating community. Her Dutch Ashkenazi heritage allows her to relish the custom of having a dairy dessert only one hour after a meat meal.
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