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Modern Orthodoxy

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Orthodox Women Rabbis?



                                            Devorah Zlochower                            Dina Najman-Licht                         Sara Hurwitz                  Haviva Ner-David

                                        Director, Full-Time Programs                        Rosh Kehillah                           Madricha Ruchanit              First female recepient

                                            Drisha Institute                              Kehillat Orach Eliezer                 Hebrew Inst. of Riverdale         of Orthodox Semikha?




The Orthodox Movement has yet to ordain women as rabbis.  Some say it never will.   Mainstream Orthodox leaders say that ordaining women would fly in the face of halakha and cause an irreparable schism in the Jewish people.  However, in the past decade, Orthodox women have taken on leadership roles in their communities heretofore unknown in the Orthodox community.  Many argue that these women are essentially rabbis -- in all but name. Some people believe that ultimately these roles will lead to the ordination of women as Orthodox rabbis.  Others say that these positions will give women the outlet they crave to be teachers and leaders in the Orthodox community, but that they will never, and should never lead to a woman obtaining the title of rabbi from any mainstream Orthodox seminary.  Only time will tell what will happen, but there is no denying that these are exciting and history-making times for the Orthodox movement.












Before you begin...



Examine the four pictures of the Orthodox women religious leaders above.  What can you tell about them from their appearance and dress?  How do they compare to the pictures of Sally Priesand and Amy Eilberg? 



Orthodox Women Already Ordained?




        Read the following three articles, one from the New York Times, one from the New York Jewish Week and one from the Jerusalem Post.  In them, you will meet 3 women who have already received Orthodox semikha.  Each of these women received private semikha from an Orthodox rabbi -- none of them received semikha from an Orthodox institution.  These ordinations are not viewed as valid in the vast majority of the Orthodox world, and none of the three women in question is working as a rabbi in an Orthodox institution, but nonetheless the ordinations are historically significant for the mere fact that they occurred. 




      Orthodox Women Rabbis-Jewish Week.htm




        In this article, Bat Sheva Marcus, an Orthodox feminist and a founding board member of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, is quoted as saying, "In the end, it's all the little cracks that knock the wall down."  What does she mean by this?  How does this view comport (or not) with your reading of Orthodox theology and philosophy?



      NYT Article Ordained As Rabbis.doc 



        This article notes that "[m]any of the most accomplished women scholars insist they have no interest in seeking the title [of rabbi]."  Why do you think this is so?  What else might accomplished Orthodox women scholars hope to do in the Orthodox world?



    The Jerusalem Post (5/4/06)


       1)  What, if anything, is different about the ordination of Haviva Ner-David in comparison to those of the two women who received Orthodox ordination before her?  Why is her ordination viewed as newsworthy if it was not the first?


        2)  Read this quote taken from the writings of Blu Greenberg and cited in the article:


"Orthodox women," she writes, "should be ordained because it would constitute a recognition of their intellectual accomplishments and spiritual attainments; because it would encourage great Torah study; because it offers wider female models of religious life; because women's input into interpretation of Jewish text, absent for 2,000 years, is sorely needed; because it will speed the process of reevaluating traditional definitions that support hierarchy; because some Jews might find it easier to bring halachic questions concerning family and sexuality to a woman rabbi. And because of the justice of it all."


       How does this view comport (or not) with Orthodox theology as you understand it?


       3)  Examine how Haviva Ner-David presents herself in the article.  What are the similarities and differences between this and the way Sally Priesand and Amy Eilberg presented themselves in the media?  What can we learn from these similarities and/or differences? 




Orthodox Women Acting as Rabbis?




Yoatzot Halacha/Halachic scholars


       In the following two articles, you will learn about a new role for learned Orthodox women:  Yoatzot Halacha, or halakhic advisors.  These women spend a great deal of time learning the laws of family purity, and once they have completed their learning and have passed tests showing mastery of the subject matter, they are certified to answer basic questions regarding this body of halakha (advanced questions, or those with unclear halakhic answers are still referred to rabbis with particular expertise in this area).  The role that these women fill is one that was traditionally filled by congregational and community rabbis. 


        In addition to the Yoatzot Halakha, highly learned women are also beginning to assume other leadership roles in the Orthodox world.  Devorah Zlochower serves as the Rosh Beit Midrash (Head of Yeshiva) at Drisha Institute, a women's yeshiva on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  A new term, "Ramit," (a feminization of "Ram" which stands for Reish Metivta, or Rosh Yeshiva in Aramaic) has been coined to signify the women who are acting as heads or co-heads of women's yeshivot, seminaries and midrashiot.



  Jewish Action (Winter 5760/1999)   



          In this article, written for the magazine of the Orthodox Union, Chana Henkin, the founder of the program to educate Yoatzot, states, "Women halachic consultants are an evolution, not a revolution. The phenomenon has emerged within the halachic community, and, in fact, its emergence demonstrates the vitality of halachah and the halachic community."  Why do you think she presents the Yoatzot in this fashion?  Be specific in your analysis of her words.



          The Jewish Week 

       Professor Samuel Heilman, an expert on the Orthodox community states in this article that he "does not view a synagogue engaging a yoetzet halacha 'as a significant innovation.'"  As the article states: 


        “It speaks much more to modern America,” to the progressive nature of the Modern Orthodox community, particularly in a flourishing neighborhood like Riverdale, than to any religious exigencies, he said.  “This is an administrative thing, it’s not a rabbinic thing,” Heilman said. “I don’t know that it’s different than having a woman who is an assistant to the rabbi” and handles certain educational and administrative duties.


       Given your knowledge of the history and theology of Modern Orthodoxy, do you agree?  Explain.



Congregational Interns/Madricha Ruchanit



        In the following two articles, you will learn about two new roles for leadership-oriented Orthodox women.  The first article describes the creation of the new position of congregational intern, women who serve basically the same function as rabbinic interns -- rabbinical students training to take positions as congregational rabbis.  These interns counsel congregants, officiate at synagogue events, teach, visit the elderly and infirm, and give sermons.    They do not lead services or serve as religious witnesses.  Today, there are a number of Orthodox synagogues around the United States who employ such women.  While there is no question that the creation of the position of congregational intern marked a watershed moment in the development of leadership roles for women in the Orthodox community, critics have pointed out that the very title begs the question: what exactly are these women interning for?  Unlike their male cohorts, the rabbinic interns, they do not have positions in the rabbinate for which to train. 


   The second article describes the outgrowth of the congregational intern position in one of those initial synagogues that created the position.  The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale ("HIR") has now created a full-time position for a woman akin to an assistant rabbi.  The title for this position is "madricha ruchanit," or spiritual advisor, and the woman serves in virtually the same capacity as the (male) assistant rabbi at the synagogue does.  The HIR is currently employing its second madricha ruchanit.  Sharona Margolin Halickman, the first one, made aliyah a few years ago.  Sara Hurwitz, the current madricha ruchanit, is pictured above.



          NY Times-Congregational Interns.doc

          Jewish Week-Sharona Halickman.doc




Read both articles and then answer the following questions:


    1)  In the New York Times article, how do Rabbis Mintz and Weiss describe their opinions about women rabbis in Orthodox Judaism?  Given these opinions, why do you think they created the position of congregational intern? 


    2)  Examine how Julie Stern Joseph and Sharona Margolin Halickman describe themselves and their new positions in both articles.  Are they trailblazers?  Reluctant leaders?  A bit of both?  Why do you think they portray themselves and their new positions the way that they do?


    3)  Why do you think Rabbi Weiss describes Sharona Margolin Halickman as "perfect" to be the first?  What qualities does Sharona have that make her ideal in his mind?  Why?


    4)  Do you see any differences between the way the congregational interns present themselves to the media and the way that Haviva Ner-David presented herself?  If so what do you attribute these differences?




Rosh Kehillah
           The most recent development in the rapidly-growing world of women's leadership roles in the modern Orthodox community occurred only last year.  Dina Najman, a halakha scholar and medical ethicist was hired as the Rosh Kehillah, or Head of Congregation, for Kehillat Orach Eliezer, a progressive Orthodox synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  The position she filled was previously held by a male Orthodox rabbi.  The following New York Times article documents this historical moment.



Read the article and then answer the following questions:


1)  In the article, Rabbi David J. Bleich of Yeshiva University cites a number of objections to Ms. Najman's position.  What are they, and how would you analyze them in light of Modern Orthodox theology?


2)  How does Ms. Najman present herself in the article?  How is this similar/different from other women religious leaders (Orthodox or otherwise) we have seen in our investigation?


3)  Speaking of recent advances in leadership roles for women in Orthodox Judaism, Daniela Weiss, executive director of Drisha, a women's yeshiva on the Upper West Side states, “I can’t help but think that each progression is going to inform the other.”  What does she mean by this?




The Future
Given the facts on the ground, what are Orthodox thinkers saying about the potential for ordaining Orthodox women rabbis?



A right wing perspective


A left wing perspective



NOW:  Having read these two pieces and investigated Modern Orthodox Judaism's current stance on leadership roles for women, write a paragraph from a history book on American Judaism to be published in 2020.  The paragraph should address what transpired in Orthodox Judaism with respect to the issue of women's ordination from 2008 until 2020.  Have women been ordained?  If so, when, how and by whom?  If Orthodox women rabbis do exist, do their roles differ from male Orthodox rabbis?  If women have not been ordained, what roles do women play in Orthodox religious leadership?  How did the debate play out in the community?  Has it been put to rest, or is it ongoing?





How is the process of addressing/creating leadership roles for women in the Modern Orthodox movement in keeping with Modern Orthodox philosophy and theology?  Give as many examples as you can think of.


How is this process NOT in keeping with Modern Orthodox philosophy and theology, if at all?  Give examples.  Why do you think the issue of women's leadership roles diverged from this philosophy and theology in this way?


What can this teach us about the interaction of theology/philosophy and society?






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