Traditional and Revolutionary

A Historic Graduation Ceremony For Orthodox Women

This weekend marked the first time in history that Orthodox Jewish women were formally ordained as clergy. Erin Leib Smokler on the inaugural class of graduates from Yeshivat Maharat.

While national and local papers love to cover stories of unlikely graduates, one small ceremony took place yesterday that will likely occur without any national headlines at all. It is arguably the most historically significant graduation that you haven’t heard of.June 16 marked the first time in history that a group of Orthodox Jewish women were formally ordained as clergy. The inaugural class at Yeshivat Maharat, a New York seminary for Orthodox women, will assume leadership within the heretofore male-only domain of the Orthodox rabbinate. After four years of intensive study of Jewish law, in tandem with a strong curriculum in pastoral development, these women have demonstrated proficiency in Jewish texts and are thoroughly prepared to serve. Like their male counterparts at other Orthodox rabbinical seminaries, they have all passed high-level exams and have acquired professional experience through rabbinic internships. The word “Maharat,” a neologism coined by Rabbi Avi Weiss in 2009, is a Hebrew acronym for “leader in Jewish law, spirituality, and education.” Yeshivat Maharat’s graduates are indeed such leaders, rabbis in practice if not in name. All have jobs awaiting them in Orthodox congregations.

Yeshivat Maharat opened in September 2009, with Rabbi Weiss, of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, as founder and his first female clergy member, Sara Hurwitz, as dean. Hurwitz was ordained privately by Weiss earlier that year, first as ‘maharat’ and then as ‘rabba,’ the feminine form of ‘rabbi.’ The ordination caused a storm in the Orthodox community, both a flurry of excitement among sympathizers and a wave of pushback among detractors. With a respectful nod to those who opposed the specific title of ‘rabba,’ Weiss and Hurwitz established Yeshivat Maharat as a semikha (ordination)-granting institution with the hope of growing the ranks of female rabbinic leadership. Yesterday marked the inaugural fulfillment of that grounding vision.

The world significance of this moment of otherwise parochial interest should not be overlooked. Historically, reformation regarding the rights of women, in all Western religions, meant a break with those who considered themselves to be the most stalwart bearers of tradition. And restricting women’s ritual or clerical rights often became the hallmark of orthodoxies themselves. This is certainly true within sectors of the Orthodox Jewish population today, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem—where women fighting for the right to pray collectively have been met with aggressive ultra-Orthodox resistance—and around the world. This year’s graduates offer a groundbreaking path forward for contemporary women who wish to stay anchored in traditionalist culture while also taking leadership responsibility. Their achievement demonstrates that one can be rooted in a self-consciously conservative society and still be a revolutionary.

To be sure, throughout Jewish history, there have been a few courageous women who earned the respect of their communities as spiritual leaders. Marat Osnat became the Rosh Yeshiva (head of the yeshiva) of Kurdistan in the 16th century, teaching men the laws that would give them the authority to be called rabbis. Rabbiner Regina Jonas became the first female rabbi in Germany in 1935. In the 1970s, this number began to increase with the ordination of women in the Reform and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism and it continued in the 1980s with the ordination of women in the Conservative movement.

Yet, until now, in the Orthodox movement, ordination has been granted only privately and rather infrequently. Yeshivat Maharat is about to alter the landscape by graduating full cohorts of women publically and by granting them the systematic training and support of an institution that has become a symbol of change in a world that resists it. The face of Orthodox rabbinic leadership is about to transform and, with it, the experience of orthodoxy itself.

As indicated, there are many detractors within the Orthodox Jewish community who adamantly oppose this development, seeing in it a rejection of Jewish law and a whiff of rebellion. In an effort to preserve “sacred continuity,” they have accused Yeshivat Maharat of “violat[ing]... our mesorah (tradition)” and “contradict[ing] the norms of our community.” Those in the ultra-Orthodox community have similarly cited the advent of female rabbinic leadership as “a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition... that must be condemned in the strongest terms.” They have declared: “Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.” In a religious movement that lacks a centralized authority, it is the unfortunate right of one Orthodox Jew to define out another. But communal acceptance happens through communal consensus, and there is solid reason to believe that such consensus is growing.

There are already several modern Orthodox communities—and there will be many more over time—that have welcomed this development as long overdue. Having hired these graduates, and even a soon-to-be-graduate, they have demonstrated that they are ready to embrace some changes within the “norms of our community.”

It is also worth noting that Jewish law, though surely slow to evolve, is actually on the side of this change. Halakha does not explicitly prohibit women from serving as religious leaders (serrarah); being authorities on law (poskot); or teaching religious text. History is surely on the side of change too. In the Book of Esther, Queen Esther, situated within the court of Ahasuerus, yet reluctant to take on the full mantle of power to save her people, is pointedly asked: “Who knows if it was for just such a moment that you have risen to leadership?” (Esther 4:14) This urgent question reverberates as a new era in Jewish history is inaugurated. For indeed it is for just such a moment—this time in history, this era of gender equality, this age of spiritual seeking—that these women have arisen to leadership. The time has come.

We can expect that these brave women will serve their communities as rabbis have always done: With love and wisdom, in deference to tradition and the spiritual needs of those who cling to it. Perhaps their example is one that not just Orthodox Jews, but all people of orthodox faith, could look to with hopeful anticipation.