Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold
Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold. (Congregation Shaar Hashomayim)

Maharat

The Orthodox Madame Rabbi

Rachel Kohl Finegold, one of the first Orthodox Jewish women to be ordained as a top spiritual leader, talks about breaking synagogue gender barriers.

This past Rosh Hashanah holiday, Rachel Kohl Finegold, 33, one of the very few Orthodox Jewish women to be ordained as a rabbi, gave a one of her first sermons at Montreal's Congregation Shaar Hashomayim. After her speech, she walked back down to the women’s section, where she was greeted with warm welcomes and congratulations. One woman grabbed her hand, looked her in the eye and said, “We’ve been waiting for you.”

“Once people meet us, they realize we’re actually not strange or different. We’re just like them,” said Kohl Finegold, who previously worked for six years as an Education and Ritual Director at a congregation in Chicago. “We’re comfortable in the Orthodox community and we want to help it move forward in a positive way.”

While Kohl Finegold is a full member of the clergy at her synagogue, the title of Rabbi is not freely passed to women. Instead she is referred to as a Maharat, Hebrew for a “spiritual leader.” Despite this, Kohl Finegold is one of the only women in recent years to break Orthodox Judaism's glass ceiling and become a member of its religious boys' club, which has shut out women for centuries.

Kohl Finegold and two other women made history in June by being the first women to graduate from the Yeshiva Maharat—a four-year program created in New York in 2009  to ordain Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and in the Jewish community.

While many speculated that the graduates would never find jobs in a male-driven Orthodox clergy, the school actually received offers for more positions then there were women to fill them. Due to the demand, said Yeshiva Maharat’s head, Rabbi Jeffrey Fox,the school now has 16 female students currently enrolled, some from as far away as Poland and Australia, and 21 inquiries from women for next year's class— 10 of whom Fox thinks will actually apply, and four of whom will make the final cut.

“They all have to be brave because they are doing something different, but they are quite humble in their quest for change,” said Fox, who has been with the school since its inception. “They want to teach and lead, not change the world.”

Whether she wanted to or not, Sara Hurwitz, the creator of the Yeshiva Maharat, did change the world when she became the first Orthodox woman to ever be ordained in the U.S. in 2009, although the move prompted international backlash from many right-wing organizations like the The Agudath Israel Council, which called the program “a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition,” and the Rabbinical Council of America, which to this day issues a statement that reads “We cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.”

“The community at large is considering new possibilities, but not every synagogue will want to have a female presence,” said Hurwitz, who decided to change her original title of “Rabba” to Maharat, after a backlash in the Orthodox community.

"They all have to be brave because they are doing something different, but they are quite humble in their quest for change."

Similarly, Kohl Finegold said she couldn’t speak as to why certain organizations won't get behind female rabbis.

“Those people haven’t engaged me directly,” she said. “I’ve heard them write about me and talk about me but if they would call me to talk I would be happy to have a conversation about what we’re doing.”

While a female presence in the Orthodox clergy is a new enterprise, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements of Judaism have been ordaining women since 1972, 1974, and 1985, respectively. There are a number of Orthodox programs in the U.S. and Israel that offer unofficial titles and courses of studies in Torah and Jewish learning, but none that actually offered a certificate of ordination, until Yeshiva Maharat.

“We had to make people understand how within the frame of Jewish laws, we’re trying to push boundaries, but not push beyond Jewish law,” Hurwitz said.

Unlike other denominations of Judaism, there are three major things Orthodox female rabbis cannot do based on Jewish laws written in the Torah, rituals that Hurwitz calls “the red lines.” A woman cannot lead certain parts of the service; she cannot serve as a judge on a bet din, a rabbinical court that decides things like conversions; and she cannot be counted in a minyan, a term for an Orthodox Jewish prayer service that requires a minimum of 10 men. Though she may organize that service, even round up the tenth man, she cannot be counted as one of the 10.

Hurwitz said that while she believes it would have been much be easier for her to join a clergy in a more left-leaning denomination, Orthodoxy is the title she most closely associates with.

“I think the distinctions are there but for the first time there’s a willingness for Orthodox women to sit at the communal table along with Orthodox men and alongside Reform women,” she said. “It makes for a much more productive and pluralistic dialogue.”

The Jewish Orthodox feminist Alliance, an organization that strives to break barriers within the community, has worked with the Yeshiva Maharat to help women around the world see the potential of having a female voice in Orthodox synagogues. In December, the organization will host its annual conference, where Maharats and female leaders from the U.S. London, Australia, Israel and other countries will educate women on how they can follow in the footsteps of these de facto female rabbis.

“We want to show that these women are here, it’s a fact on the ground and there’s no turning back. It's literally changing history,” Elana Sztokman, executive director of JOFA said.

When Kohl Finegold attended Hurwitz’s Maharat ordination in 2009, she never dreamt that she’d be filling that same position four years later--though she says now she couldn’t dream of doing anything else.

“The hardest part is the first thing people see about me is that I’m female and they don’t think beyond that right away,” she said. “I’m not here to be the token woman I’m here to do my job. Once people can realize that maybe we can more the conversation along, someday.”

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