As a little girl, when Rabbi Lila Kagedan was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said “rabbi.”
“I looked up to rabbis. I loved going to shul on chagim and Shabbat, and during the week when I could.”
While her grandmother would say “that’s not a job for a nice Jewish girl,” her late father encouraged her to dream, saying, “Maybe you’ll be the first Orthodox rabbi as a woman.” Now she is indeed the first Orthodox woman in North America to call herself “rabbi,” a change that she describes as “incredible progress.”
In 2015, after earning her smichah from New-York-based Yeshivat Maharat, founded in 2009 as the first yeshiva to ordain Orthodox women in North America, Rabbi Kagedan was hired as a spiritual leader at Mount Freedom Jewish Centre, an open Orthodox shul in New Jersey.
Although the only one to take the title “rabbi,” there have been 11 graduates of the yeshiva, who call themselves either “rabba” or “maharat.” There are 22 other women currently enrolled.
“My title is an accurate descriptor of what it is that I do – much like calling a doctor a doctor. Rabbi, after all, means teacher,” Rabbi Kagedan said in a lecture March 7 at the National Council of Jewish Women, organized by the Toronto Partnership Minyan.
Speaking about her path to becoming a rabbi, she shared the challenges she faced as an Orthodox woman.
“I was drawn to ritual. I felt committed to the halachic process, but to be honest, I became absolutely disgruntled several times growing up,” said Rabbi Kagedan, who grew up in Montreal and Ottawa.
One of those times was when her 13-year-old brother was permitted to sit on a beit din for the annulment of vows before Yom Kippur. “Meanwhile, I felt like I had no status.”
Rabbi Kagedan, a clinical ethicist with degrees from institutions such as University of Toronto and Harvard University, said that “it always amazed me how much was expected of me in terms of my secular education… while virtually nothing was expected of me in terms of ritual or religious leadership… It was just sufficient that I show up, and even that was not mandatory.”
She said she knew that if she were male, she would have the freedom to pursue the rabbinate, “but it wasn’t possible for me.”
She said that when she met Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the Yeshivat Maharat dean, she was studying privately for the Jerusalem rabbinate ordination tests and she was in graduate school at the time, “but there was something graduate school was not offering me. There was a void. And the idea of studying with a community, rather than alone, and the idea of having institutional backing and the idea that I could be a part of the change that I had always envisioned for world Jewry was too compelling to decline.”
Speaking about the resolution passed in 2015 by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) that reaffirmed its 2010 position that women should not be ordained, nor should women be hired for rabbinic positions in Orthodox institutions, Rabbi Kagedan said it elicited anxiety and concern among women in the field.
But despite the ruling, Rabbi Kagedan did not criticize the RCA for its stance.
“I am a product of RCA teaching, so I don’t have anything negative to say about the RCA, mostly because I don’t have anything bad to say about my teachers.”
But, Rabbi Kagedan added, “there are no shortages of obstacles” for Orthodox Jewish women. “Even if this feels normal to some, there is no question that it is a struggle and a fight. Misogyny is alive and well, especially in the Jewish community, and we must not give up this fight.”
She said she’s taken her father’s advice to combat those who oppose women in leadership roles with the very texts they use to try to provide halachic reasons for keeping women out of leadership roles.
“I guarantee you, the community will be better off with women in these roles… People who have experienced marginalization… people who have struggled so much to achieve what is obvious to others… are uniquely positioned to meet the needs of the community in different ways and to be sensitive to the need of the community in a variety of ways.”