• Orthodox women watch from a window as the men celebrate with their rabbi during the feast of Purim. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The process of creating women rabbis did not begin this year, or even this century, but Modern Orthodoxy is starting to catch up.
Elana Sztokman

20 May 2016 - 3:06 PM  UPDATED 29 Sep 2016 - 3:10 PM

We are living in exciting times for Orthodox Jewish women. Bursts of passion and creativity are finding expression in religious women's dance, art, music, and scholarship. Women are pushing boundaries in all corners of Jewish life, in education, synagogues and family dynamics. Perhaps the most exciting and potentially transformative area of advancement in the inclusion of women in clergy positions in the Orthodox world.

The process of creating women rabbis did not begin this year or even this century, but rather hundreds of years ago. It is important to understand this historical context because, as Pamela Nadel writes in her formative book, Women who would be Rabbis: “Uncovering women’s history remains a political enterprise. Women need to know that others preceding them have wrestled with the same questions and ideas. Without this knowledge, they remain disadvantaged, unable to build upon the creativity of those who came before.”

In 1889, an American Jewish journalist named Mary M Cohen wrote a short story for Purim in Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent in which her female protagonist  asked “Could women be rabbis?” It was set in Purim humor but contained serious arguments. “There are trials in the lives of women that men do not and cannot understand,” one of her characters argues.  “Women are created to the work of ministering just as they are to the painting of pictures, the writing of poems or the moulding of statues.”  But the men in the story are not easily convinced. “Our people are not ready. It would sound alarm.”

These same arguments are being sounded in the Jewish communities worldwide.  And while there still remain obstacles to women’s equality in Jewish leadership, women rabbis are certainly here to stay.

Jewish history is replete with women who effectively served as rabbis – informally and without being ordained – before denominational divides had fully taken over Jewish life. Despite this history, it has taken some time for the practice of women rabbis to take hold, even in the liberal movements. The Reform movement began discussing women rabbis in 1922 when  Martha Neumark, a student at Hebrew Union College campaigned to be ordained -- and lost the battle.

Even then, Reform leaders considered ordaining women as violating tradition. But mostly they were afraid of losing their own power. Women rabbis, they said, would “give the larger group of Jewry that follows traditional Judaism a good reason to question our authority…” It was about men’s fear of losing power and authority even then.  American Jewry remained staunchly opposed for decades to come, even after Regina Jonas received ordination in Germany in 1935. The American Reform movement ordained its first woman rabbi, Sally Priesand, in 1972. The first ordained female Reconstructionist female rabbi, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, was ordained in 1974, and the first Conservative woman rabbi, Amy Ellberg, was ordained in 1985.  (In 1981, Karen Soria, born and ordained in the United States, became Australia's first female rabbi.)

Congregants worried that women rabbis could not carry heavy Torah scrolls, that women would be too soft-spoken for the job.

In all these denominations all around the world, women rabbis faced similar challenges. They often struggled to overcome the belief that this was one job women could not possibly do. Congregants worried that women rabbis could not carry heavy Torah scrolls, that women would be too soft-spoken for the job -- or alternatively too "militant" in their feminism. Some didn’t like seeing women in the ritual garb of kippa and tallit . And there were lots of opposition about "disturbing tradition” and “the natural order of things”

From a historical perspective, then, Modern Orthodoxy has become the latest group to join the revolution. Bet the distance between the revolutions in other denominations and that in Orthodoxy is not as wide as some might think.  In fact three women received Orthodox ordination before it became a public brouhaha:  Mimi Feigelson in 1994, Evelyn Goodman-Tau in 2000 and Haviva Ner-David in 2004.

Still, these three ordinations were private events, whereas the ordination of Rabba Sara Hurwitz in 2010 changed the entire landscape of women's leadership in Orthodox life. Hurwitz did not only receive ordination but announced the creation of the first school to ordain Orthodox women, "Yeshivat Maharat." Despite the firestorm that it initially created, the Maharats have received tremendous support, especially among women who have been thirsting for change, and for faces of female spiritual guidance in their lives.  So although she was not the first orthodox woman rabbi, the Maharats are leading a revolution in Orthodox life. 

Today, Orthodox institutions of higher learning are practically competing over who is the most progressive on women's issues. Several organisations in Israel are now ordaining women as rabbis and halakhic decisors.  Moreover, in 2015, the first orthodox women began taking on the title “Rabbi”, including  Lila Kagedan who is headed to Australia next month as scholar-in-residence for the synagogue Shira in Melbourne.

Opposition to women rabbis has nothing to do with halakha and everything to do with entrenched ideas about gender, power and assumed social hierarchies.

The support for women's rabbinic leadership can also be seen in the rebellious ways that Orthodox Jews have begun responding to their leadership on this issue. In 2010, when the American Orthodox rabbinic organisation Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) first came out opposing women rabbis, they were largely supported by their stunned constituents. However, when the RCA in 2015 reiterated and heightened their opposition, the reactions were mostly against the RCA.  Tablet called the resolution "A huge waste of time".

But the voices of the women here are most significant. Michal Raucher, for example, wrote, “When [the RCA] denounced female clergy for the third time in five years, they actually accepted that there are, in fact, female Orthodox rabbis. With this pronouncement, the RCA implicitly acknowledged the presence of Orthodox female rabbis while forbidding any RCA rabbi from hiring one." 

Clearly opposition to women rabbis has nothing to do with halakha and everything to do with entrenched ideas about gender, power and assumed social hierarchies. The arguments heard in the orthodox world about why women can’t be rabbis are the same ones heard in other denominations for the past 120 years.

Seen in perspective, we can understand where history is headed.  One day, years from now, Orthodox leaders are going to have to answer to their descendants about why they were so resistant to that radical notion that women are people. It would be nice to see more men in positions of power take that kind of long view of history.

In the meantime, watching women lead the revolution in religious life is nothing short of invigorating.

Dr. Elana Sztokman is the Scholar-in-Residence for the National Council of Jewish Women Australia (NCJWA). She is speaking all around Australia over the coming weeks, including at the Melbourne Jewish Writers' Festival.