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Why Orthodox Judaism needs female rabbis

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Rabbi Lila Kagedan says she clings to and relishes Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Lila Kagedan says she clings to and relishes Jewish tradition

I was en route to Ottawa when I received the first alert about the Rabbinical Council of America’s (RCA) resolution rejecting female ordination.

It was Erev Shabbat, a time of anticipation for welcoming the Sabbath queen. A time of peace. A time spent readying ourselves for a much needed day of rest. And yet chaos had ensued.

What a disheartening way to bring in Shabbat kodesh, the holy Sabbath. What sadness to usher in Shabbat with feelings of fragmentation rather than of unity, and with feelings of discord instead of harmony.

I wasn’t surprised by the outcome of the RCA’s vote per se, but I nonetheless felt frustrated. As an Orthodox rabbi, the title I assumed upon receiving smichah from Yeshivat Maharat this past June, I want to be accessible to my community. The RCA resolution made me worry that I would not be able to serve in my fullest capacity.

Within minutes of that first alert, my phone began to ring off the hook, my inbox was flooded with emails from colleagues, friends, family, teachers and mentors. I called my colleagues, the incredible women in my field. They were frustrated by the resolution, but the truth was they barely had time to discuss it, as they were busy preparing for Shabbat, putting finishing touches on their sermons and rushing after a full day of work as busy clergy. Nonetheless, the tone of the correspondence – including from some individuals within the RCA – was one of comfort and support.

I am a traditional person. I cling to Jewish tradition and relish it. And it was the adherence to tradition that motivated me to take the time-honoured title bestowed upon those who have learned what I had learned at Yeshivat Maharat. Rabbi. That’s what we call a person who fulfils all of the requirements to receive smichah. It was simple and clear to me.

I often wonder what would happen if a woman graduated from medical school but did not assume the title “doctor.” What would happen when she went to see her patients? How would they know what she was there to do?

My talented and inspiring colleagues, the graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, have taken a variety of titles, including “maharat,” “morateinu” and “rabba.” They are my role models, and I respect the choice of every woman in the rabbinate to take the title that works for her. That is, after all, the philosophy of Yeshivat Maharat. The yeshiva confers the degree, and the musmachot, the ordainees, choose a title.

The day of my ordination was an incredible experience of celebration for me and my colleagues. And yet the fixation on my title – instead of on my learning and skill set – was a dark cloud. My new title was met with push-back and aggression in many Orthodox circles.

Nevertheless, women’s ordination in Orthodoxy is alive and well. The RCA’s latest resolution – a reaffirmation of its 2010 ruling on the same issue – emerged because of the success of women in the Orthodox rabbinate. If this were a non-issue and didn’t pose a threat to the status quo of the Orthodox rabbinate, it would not have been commented upon. Orthodox Jews already knew the position of the RCA regarding the ordination of women. The organization’s apparent need to republish and reassert its position only affirms the place that women in the rabbinate have already assumed. Women working in Orthodox clergy have already been placed in pulpit positions, educational settings and other areas of Jewish communal life. And their addition to these settings has been beneficial to the communities that they serve.

The commitment of these women to avodat HaShem, to holy work, speaks for itself. Women entering the Orthodox rabbinate are doing so specifically because of their commitment to tradition, Jewish law and Jewish practice, and because we know well that young people need role models they can relate to. We feel protective of the Jewish community, and are compelled to work to ensure its survival. And in an age when there is a woman running for president of the United States, do you really think that young Jewish women will be satisfied with only male leadership to look up to?

The entry of women into the Orthodox rabbinate follows in the great Jewish tradition of women assuming roles of leadership and service. Jewish women have been active leaders from the time of the Bible.

Deborah, Yael, Miriam and our foremothers paved the way for Golda Meir and Rosalie Abella, who in turn paved the way for, to name but two, Rabba Sarah Hurwitz, the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, and Dina Najman, the rosh kehillah (head of congregation) at Kehilat Orach Elizer in New York – talented, strong leaders who have answered their calling to serve.

* * *

From the moment I entered shul the Shabbat after the RCA released its resolution, I was confronted with questions. What did it mean? Was it because I took the title rabbi? How did I feel about the RCA? What was the future for women in Orthodoxy who were ordained and becoming ordained?

In truth, I personally benefited tremendously from some RCA rabbis in my own education. I feel grateful to them, and I acknowledge that their organization has always possessed reach and impact. I strongly believe that I could give back to the RCA, and contribute to the organization that supported so many of my teachers’ – and therefore my own – learning. The stated mission of the RCA is “to advance the cause and the voice of Torah and the rabbinic tradition by promoting the welfare, interests and professionalism of Orthodox rabbis all around the world.” I couldn’t agree more.

But there is no question that it is a struggle. Misogyny is alive and well in the Jewish community. This is a challenge that will require a radical culture and philosophical shift in order to be solved. It isn’t easy to reconcile ancient philosophy with contemporary values.

And yet, we have come a long way. The simple fact that there exists an Orthodox rabbinical school for me and others to attend is monumental. There is certainly room in the tradition to make sense of these issues, but it requires some brave souls, some reorientation and, of course, open and willing communities and leaders – including some brave and confident men.

Change is happening, albeit slowly. More and more women in Orthodoxy are leaning in and are trying to take their seats at the table. We have a long way to go, but I am optimistic. Now, more than ever, women’s leadership in Orthodox Judaism must be encouraged to rise up  and be successful.

Alu vehatzlichu!