Belief

Can Orthodox Jewish women be rabbis?

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Jewish women in the US have been getting ordained as rabbis going back to the 1970s. But that's not the case for Orthodox Jewish women. Everyone knows that Orthodox women can’t be rabbis, or so the saying goes. 

But the cliché is becoming less true. 

More Orthodox women are undertaking the same kind of religious study and training for rabbinical ordination that was once reserved exclusively for men.

And one Orthodox woman based in the US even calls herself a rabbi.

“I really am a rabbi,” Lila Kagedan says with a smile. The 35-year-old is a recent graduate of Yehsivat Maharat, an Orthodox rabbinical school for women located in New York City. “The title rabbi might be a bit surprising and might feel new, but actually women have been in leadership roles in the Orthodox community for many, many years.” 

Kagedan says this goes back to Biblical times and she names Devorah, Miriam and Yael as examples. Many women have served as Jewish leaders throughout history, she adds. 

“It is my hope [they will] for centuries to come,” Kagedan says.  

The Rabbinical Council of America sees things very differently. The RCA is a group of leading rabbis from the Orthodox tradition. At the end of October, it issued a proclamation that prohibits its members from ordaining women as rabbis or hiring women who assume the title of rabbi. The reason given, in a word, is tradition. 

The RCA’s latest proclamation reiterates its ruling from 2013, saying that ordaining women is a “violation of our mesorah (tradition).” 

There has been significant pushback against the RCA’s latest ruling. 

“Denying the right of Orthodox women to become rabbis doesn’t only suppress their personal aspirations and potential contributions to the Jewish community,” writes Jane Eisner, editor of The Forward. “In a tradition-bound, hierarchical movement, it means that women cannot be in positions of authority, controlling the conditions that rule and sometimes harm their lives.”  

In a spirited musical rebuttal posted online, Talia Lakritz sings, “Oh RCA, I hope that you'll change your ways. I hope that you'll come to see that 50 percent of the people have so much to give, so just let them live!” 

Lakritz is an intern at Yeshivat Maharat, where most graduates who have received ordination degrees have decided not to assume the formal title of rabbi. 

“This should not be a surprise to anyone,” says Rabbi Gil Student, who blogs about Jewish teaching at TorahMusings.com.

“This is really the lack of a change. It’s following a traditional view,” Student says. “The ordination of women is something that traditionally has not been done and this recent RCA decision is really just a continuation of that tradition.”  

Rabbi Student says Orthodox leaders in the US do recognize that the role of women has changed over time and that Orthodox Judaism is finding new ways for women to be religious leaders.  But if women want to call themselves rabbi, Student says, they are not really Orthodox Jews any more. 

Interestingly in Israel, women seem to have more freedom when it comes to rabbinical ordination. Several Orthodox women have been quietly ordained by religious authorities in the Jewish State. And this past summer, a yeshiva in Jerusalem granted two Orthodox women graduates the formal title of rabbi. 

One of them is Meesh Hammer-Kossoy. She says Orthodox Israelis have been remarkably accepting of her as a rabbi.  

“I’ve been overwhelmed by people who’ve turned to me with halachic questions — with legal questions — advising with me as a rabbi. So, I feel that my services have already been utilized much more than I had ever dreamed,” Hammer-Kossoy says. 

Kagedan says she has also gotten a lot of encouragement since the latest round of controversy began a little over a week ago. Even a few Orthodox rabbis, she says, have given her quiet words of support. She hopes they’ll be brave enough to go on the record at some point. But for the time being, Kagedan says the door is open and it’s going to stay open. 

“Women’s ordination will continue. This RCA resolution, I think it has motivated us all to really continue our work and move forward.”  

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