A Crack In The Wall: For the first time, Orthodox women come forward to
discuss their private, rabbinic ordinations. The jury is out on the impact.
On a weekday afternoon in October, Eveline Goodman-Thau stepped into a
small sukkah on a quiet
of canvas, wood and hanging paper decorations. It was a shadowy world that
is deeply familiar to an Orthodox woman like Goodman-Thau, who every year
celebrates the eight-day harvest festival of Sukkot by taking all meals in
the tent-like structure of the sukkah, where at night if you're lucky you
can see the stars through slits in the roof while savoring a hot dinner.
But this meeting was not for a meal. About a half hour after entering the
sukkah of Rabbi Jonathan (Yehonatan) Chipman, Goodman-Thau, who is 66,
emerged into a world of a different kind, a world virtually unknown to
Orthodox women. In the sukkah, Rabbi Chipman, who is also Orthodox, did
what no Orthodox seminary considers within the remote realm of possibility:
He gave smicha, or rabbinical ordination, to Goodman-Thau, a woman.
"Sometimes there are situations in life in which something needs to be done
but everyone's afraid to do it," says Rabbi Chipman, a
was ordained by the renowned scholar Rav Yehuda Gershuni.
"It's a fact that there's a large population of highly learned Jewish women
who qualify for leadership. ... I think this is a decision that sooner or
later needed to be made."
The event was not publicized, and even in the liberal circles of
Orthodox community many stop short of hailing it as a major breakthrough or
pivotal moment. Some go so far as to call it a setback. Rabbi Chipman,
while a respected translator of Jewish texts and other scholarly works, is
not an esteemed leader whose actions and opinions are closely followed. In
fact, this was the first time he ordained anyone, male or female.
Even more unsettling to some Orthodox Jews, Goodman-Thau, whose family fled
leader of a Liberal congregation in
Others, however, see the development as adding another brush stroke to a
larger portrait, a picture of Orthodox Jewry that is increasingly vibrant
in its roles for women. Along with the tremendous strides in access to
education, in the last decade women have begun serving as toanot, or
advocates in Israel's religious courts; as halachic advisers trained to
answer questions on Jewish law pertaining to the sensitive topics of
menstruation and egg donation; as congregational interns in two New York
synagogues, taking on some traditionally rabbinic responsibilities; and as
a certified medical chaplain in a hospital here.
Throw rabbinic ordination into the mix and the writer Blu Greenberg,
president of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, starts revising
upwards predictions on the date when mainstream Orthodox rabbinic
seminaries will open doors to women.
"Here we are in the year 2000 and we see how every spoke of the wheel fits
with every other," says Greenberg, listing the advancements. "The wheel is
rolling a lot faster than we expected."
The Goodman-Thau ordination takes on larger significance in that it does
not mark the first time an Orthodox rabbi has worked with an Orthodox woman
toward private smicha.
At 31, Haviva Ner-David, who grew up in a Modern Orthodox home in suburban
Westchester, is studying with Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky at Pardes in
the Fringes" (JFL Books). In an e-mail, she says she expects smicha in
about two years.
Then there's the case of Mimi Feigelson, a 37-year-old teacher based in
around the world. Feigelson formally studied with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach
for two years, and previously tucked away her smicha for personal
reflection, keeping the 1994 milestone a secret even from friends. Recently
she has started going public with her full identity.
"I feel it's a crucial element of who I am in the world. I felt the price
of self-denial was too great," says Feigelson.
There have been murmurings, too, from the Bridges listserv of Jewish
feminists, where Goodman-Thau's news was first posted. Two participants
e-mailed reports on the ordinations of other Orthodox women quietly seeking
out rabbinic titles.
Observers of such developments sometimes borrow from the lingo of the
settlements built on disputed territory. These women, they like to say, are
creating "facts on the ground."
GOODMAN-THAU: `Time Has Come'
For years people have approached Eveline Goodman-Thau believing she could
be doing more, should be doing more with her talents, suggesting steps to
advance her career before she herself considers the possibility.
In the 1970s, while just a student in Jewish studies classes for adults in
early '90s, while a visiting scholar in
while lecturing at the annual conference of the European Liberal Jewish
community (a counterpart to the American Reform movement), the Viennese
branch asked her to serve as its rabbi.
The idea might have seemed blasphemous for an Orthodox woman who is the
poured her deep well of energy into her five children. But instead, the
offer served as a calling.
"The time has come," says Goodman-Thau, who soon afterward contacted Rabbi
Strikovsky, who has been working with Ner-David toward smicha. In turn, he
contacted Rabbi Chipman, who has known Goodman-Thau for many years from
"I have a daughter who is a lawyer," says Goodman-Thau. "I have another
daughter who is a doctor. They're Orthodox and they cannot be rabbis. This
is a ridiculous situation. They can be professionals at the highest level
in secular culture but not in Jewish culture."
In her teaching posts, Goodman-Thau herself attained a high level of
prestige, serving as visiting scholar at
1998-99 school year. But in her heart, she says, she always knew that "the
one profession I would really be good at is a rabbi."
The mission of reviving Jewish life in
Goodman-Thau. As a child her family fled
up without aunts, uncles or cousins. As a professor in
isolation of a Jew in a concentration camp with the grandchildren of the
A slim, wiry grandmother of 14, Goodman-Thau has been found an eccentric
sort by some, but she is also admired for her intellect, the type who "sees
symbolic connections among things," according to Rabbi Chipman.
While many sectors of the observant world have shifted toward conservative
practice in recent decades, Goodman-Thau stays rooted in Modern Orthodox
ideology, wearing slacks to supermarkets and letting her long, brown hair
flow loosely over her shoulders.
As a rabbi, she thinks of herself as trans-denominational, reaching out to
"klal Yisrael," all the Jewish people. "I am an Orthodox woman who is very
open to the different movements," she says. In her congregation she plans
to stress tolerance. "I will say to them, `This is the right way, but it
isn't the only way.'"
Initially, Rabbi Chipman thought, "Why me? Who am I to give smicha to
anybody? How do I really feel about giving smicha to a woman?" Once he made
peace with these questions, he met with Goodman-Thau several times over a
period of months to test her level of knowledge.
In the English translation of the writ of ordination, Rabbi Chipman states
that Goodman-Thau "is knowledgeable in all areas of our Holy Torah --
Bible, Mishna, Jewish law and Rabbinic lore, Talmud, Midrash, Biblical
exegesis, Jewish philosophy and the esoteric realms of the Torah."
In the next few months, the pair hopes two additional rabbis will add their
signatures to the document, further ratifying the ordination and serving as
a kind of bet din, or Jewish court. And soon, Goodman-Thau will probably
take off to
MIMI FEIGELSON: A Secret Smicha
Rabbi Chipman, who plans to write a short responsa on the ordination of
women, was not the first Orthodox rabbi to wrestle with the controversial
issue. Although remembered for his enchanting melodies, mesmerizing
presence and, some say, inappropriate flirtations, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach
is less often cited for the bold act of giving smicha to a handful of women
before his death in 1994.
The women he ordained do not consider themselves Orthodox rabbis, and the
smichas sometimes apply to unusual arenas of expertise, such as in the case
of Mindy Ribner, who in a public ceremony 10 years ago with many rabbis
present, received smicha from Reb Shlomo to teach Jewish meditation.
Neshama Carlebach knows of a homeless woman on the streets of the
But there is also an Orthodox woman who is widely admired for her Jewish
wisdom, who learned by Reb Shlomo's side for 15 years, who is the daughter
of American immigrants, and who until recently closely guarded her smicha
almost as if it were a tainted secret. Mimi Feigelson, a founding member
and teacher in the
center, says her ordination is unique in that she formally studied for two
years in a curriculum of Reb Shlomo's design.
Carlebach believes her father ordained women because "he wanted them to
feel they had a place with God" or "because like Mimi, they were totally
When Feigelson first approached her beloved mentor to ask for his
ordination, Reb Shlomo answered simply, "You have it." Feigelson wasn't
satisfied. True, she had traveled with Reb Shlomo, absorbing his insights,
wisdom and philosophy, but she wanted more education before obtaining this
honor. So for the next two years, she studied from 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m.
with a male chevruta, or study partner, in a program that focused on Gemara
and halacha, and included chasidut. During the first year, she devoted five
days a week to the program. In the second, she studied twice weekly.
Speaking in soft, almost otherworldly tones, Feigelson recalls that the day
of the smicha ceremony was one of the happiest as well as saddest of her
life. Her teacher had passed away before he could complete the ordination.
In his place were three Orthodox rabbis, who want to remain anonymous.
"They were functioning as a sort of conduit for Shlomo Carlebach," says
Rabbi Michael Rosen, Yakar's director and founder, who confirms the
ordination, even though Feigelson declines to share her smicha document
with The Jewish Week.
The ceremony was a small, private one, as Feigelson worried about public
rejection. Even now she refrains from using the title rabbi because she
wants to honor her commitment to Orthodoxy.
"The Orthodox world is at times a very judgmental world" she says. "It's
the last to acknowledge that change is happening. It's always the family
who is the last to know."
MOVEMENT In Transition?
In some respects, Feigelson and Goodman-Thau's experiences bring to mind
earlier periods, before women transformed the image of rabbi in liberal
Jewish communities, gracing the bima with female voices and faces, and
layering Jewish scholarship with new reflections on ancient texts.
"In 1980, before women were accepted as rabbis in the Israeli Reform
movement, I worked as a student rabbi in a small kehillah in Beer Sheva,"
writes Sybil Sheridan, a Liberal British rabbi in an e-mail posted to the
Bridges listserv. "I was given the work on the condition `no one knew about
it.' I would like to think the appointment some years later of the first
women rabbi -- without fuss -- was partly due to the fact that I had
established a precedent."
In the late '30s, the world's first woman rabbi, Regina Jonas, a Berlin
woman who later perished in the Holocaust, was privately ordained after the
Talmud professor responsible for smicha at her seminary, the Academy for
the Science of Judaism, refused to comply.
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, who today serves a Renewal congregation in
would have attended a rabbinical program at the Conservative Jewish
Theological Seminary if it were an option in 1980. Instead, two rabbis
privately ordained her.
"Yes, I do think this kind of ordination hopefully precedes a
transformation in some parts of Orthodoxy," Rabbi Gottlieb says.
In some respects, however, the recent events are less momentous, less
likely to quickly pave the way toward greater opportunities. The rabbi who
ordained Jonas headed the Liberal Rabbis' Association. Rabbi Wolfe Kelman,
then executive vice president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly,
announced to The New York Times that he would ordain Gottlieb privately if
JTS wouldn't do it.
For Rabbi Meir Fund, an Orthodox rabbi of the Flatbush Minyan, the latest
developments do not recall transitional moments in the non-Orthodox world,
but in a sense actually belong to that world.
He calls the ordination of Goodman "a non-event" since she plans to work
outside of the Orthodox community, and women rabbis already exist in the
liberal streams of Judaism. Rabbi Fund -- who describes himself as a strong
supporter of women's learning, but very adamantly does not place himself in
Blu Greenberg's feminist camp -- adds that ordaining women "is not a
question that should be decided by any rabbi. It should be decided by the
leading lights of the generation."
Assuming the intentions of Rabbi Jonathan Chipman and Eveline Goodman Thau
"were totally constructive and for the sake of heaven," says Rabbi Fund,
"it is still hard to reconcile good intentions with renegade behavior."
Without established standards, without institutional backing, without
support from the mainstream world, even some Orthodox feminists -- who seek
to balance their strict, traditional observance with a modern sensibility
toward women's roles -- express discomfort with the private rabbinical
"I say, `Brava, run with it lady,'" says Renee Septimus, a
worker and an observant feminist. "But I don't think it will make a real
Septimus, like many in the nascent movement of Orthodox feminists, would
gladly pay for one of her daughters to attend a respected rabbinical
seminary if it were an option. But, she says, "Certain fringe people
getting smicha from certain fringe rabbis has a chance of setting things
Rabbi Adam Mintz of Lincoln Square Synagogue on the
Modern Orthodox institution typically at the forefront of feminist issues,
echoes Septimus' concern.
Rabbi Mintz knows about controversy and change. Three years ago, he broke
the mold for synagogue roles when he introduced the first congregational
intern, a job for women that included some traditionally rabbinic
responsibilities. Julie Stern Josephs, the intern, left the synagogue
earlier this year, and the position has not yet been filled, though the
rabbi remains committed to it. To date, only one other
employs a congregational intern.
Rabbi Mintz worries that the individual, private rabbinic ordinations could
pull other positive developments for women under the radical umbrella.
"I do not see a time when a woman is going to lead services in a
traditionally Orthodox setting. You have to define Orthodoxy within
traditional bounds and develop women's opportunities within those bounds,"
says Rabbi Mintz.
Other leaders in the Orthodox feminist community, however, find
encouragement in the news.
"It can't help but be a positive development," says Naomi Mark, a Manhattan
psychotherapist and an active member of Ohab Zedek's women's tefillah
group, where observant women pray separately as a group and take on a
larger role in the service than in a regular, coed congregation.
"Even if the smicha is not 100 percent halachically authoritative," says
Mark, "even if she's serving in a liberal synagogue, even if this is not
the whole answer, it shows more people are moving into uncharted
Mark, who has three young daughters and two adult step-daughters, says the
next generation will draw strength from the courageous acts of this one.
Adena Berkowitz, a JOFA board member who spoke on rabbinic ordination at
the second Orthodox feminist conference in 1998, places recent events in a
historic continuum of female leaders that dates as far back as the 12th
century. In contemporary times, with so many highly educated women,
Berkowitz believes the private ordinations mark the beginning of a trend.
"Gutsy moves never happen in the mainstream," says Bat Sheva Marcus, chair
of the Women's Tefilla Network and chief operating officer of a small chain
of medical laboratories. "It was my fantasy 10 years ago that some
mainstream institution like
rabbis, but it's not going to happen that way."
In reality, she says, the single sweep of a wrecking ball doesn't remove
ingrained, entrenched patterns of thought. "In the end, it's all the little
cracks that knock the wall down."
After a few days to mull over the news, Greenberg, who is often considered
the mother of Orthodox feminism, calls a reporter back. She worries that
she didn't clearly express herself.
In the middle of the night, she says: "I thought to myself, `My goodness,
this is exciting. It's a breakthrough.'"
Article copyright The Jewish Week.
Article copyright The Jewish Week.
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