This post is written by a guest contributor, Chavie G.
While women rabbis are fully accepted within the Conservative and Reform movements, the legitimacy of women Rabbis, or even of women taking on roles traditionally associated with those of rabbis, is hotly contested among followers of Orthodox Judaism. The disagreement intensified when, last week, the Rabbinical Council of America, currently the major Jewish Orthodox rabbinical council in the United States, released a statement forbidding its members from ordaining or employing women rabbis or any women taking on a role that resembles being a woman rabbi.
A quiet-yet-stern backlash ensued from liberal orthodox Jewish communities, with some orthodox Jewish leaders declaring the RCA vote of having been more political than religious. Others pointed out the importance of women’s formal involvement in legal interpretation within a religion so heavily based upon a traditional legal code. The controversy continues to reverberate even into this week, and a lot of really good writing has come out of it about the importance of formal opportunities for women’s leadership in Orthodox Judaism, and about the experiences of the women who are forging the way toward new roles for women in Orthodox religion and society.
Although these articles may not be of direct interest outside the fairly small world of Orthodox Judaism, these articles offer a valuable insight into how religious communities with formal limitations on gender roles are working to navigate respect for women and feminism in the context of their legal traditions. Plus, the responses to the RCA’s statement include a delightfully snarky musical composition to boot. Here are my personal top three:
1. While many Orthodox Jewish women are very comfortable and happy with their role within Orthodox Judaism, others feel a tension between feminist and halachic (Jewish legal) values. For women in orthodox Judaism who desire equal religious roles and opportunities, we are conscious that ours is still a collectivist society in which the good of the whole is prioritized over the good of the individual. In this framework, decisions regarding our roles as individuals are not necessarily ours to make — yet we still struggle to define roles that enable us to live according with both our feminist and religious values.
In this article, Batsheba Haber speaks eloquently regarding that tension. I don’t like her categorization of folks who are frustrated or upset by the RCA’s recent pronouncement as simply “angry feminists.” However, the rest of her letter and the context of the community that she’s writing for and from within, make me think that this is simply what she felt she had to say in order to be taken seriously by a religious community that, at least in my experience, is immediately suspicious of feminism in any shape or form.
2. Marianne Novak speaks about her experiences as a student in the program that ordains women as a “Maharat.” The program trains women in Jewish legal texts, pastoral counseling, and other aspects of community leadership without using the title “Rabbi.” It is this program that is the main focus of the RCA’s recent sanction against women engaging in programs that ordain them to serve in a role that even resembles that of a rabbi.
3. While the formal statements by leaders of various communities were calm and stately, some less-formal statements were delightfully snarky. And musical. If you have time for only one of these three links, make it this one!