The discussion concerning the ordination of Mormon women is a thing these days. When seeking to think about these issues in a broader context, it has been common to compare the experience of Catholic women. But I thought it might be instructive to take a comparative look at the latest development in the modern Orthodox wing of Judaism. Rachel Finegold, a 32-year old Chicago woman, is poised to become the first ordained woman hired as clergy by an Orthodox synagogue.This has already happened in the other wings of Judaism. In the Reform movement the first female rabbi was ordained in 1972, the first Reconstructionist in 1974, the first Conservative in 1985. Orthodoxy has been, and remains, a much tougher nut to crack.
In June, Rachel will leave Anshe Sholom [“People of Peace”], a modern Orthodox synagogue in the Chicago area, to join the clergy at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim [“Gate of Heaven”] in Montreal. Effective August 1 she will become the director of education and spiritual enrichment there. Among her duties will be speaking periodically from the pulpit, leading Torah text classes and visiting the sick and elderly, as well as developing programs for youth and young families.
Rachel was raised in an Orthodox family in Brooklyn, and graduated with a degree in religion from Boston University. Her twin brother studied many of the same things, but when he graduated at the same time from Yeshiva University he was ordained a rabbi, and she (obviously) was not. She wasn’t angry or resentful about it; the circumstance simply led to an awareness in her that had been lacking before.
Even without ordination she was hired by Anshe Sholom in 2007 to play a major role in the synagogue there. She could have left Orthodoxy and been ordained as a Rabba (the feminine form of Rabbi) in another branch of Judasim, but that was never a possibility for her, as she is committed to the Orthodox form of the faith. Rachel is one of three women who will graduate in June from the “Open Orthodox” Yeshivat Maharat in Riverdale, NY, which was founded in 2009 by Rabbi Avi Weiss to provide a path to Orthodox ordination of women. Although most Orthodox synagogues do not recognize this school, some modern Orthodox do, as in the case of the Montreal synagogue where Rachel has been hired.
Although she will be ordained clergy, there are some concessions she will abide by. She will not use the title Rabbi (or Rabba), but rather Maharat, which is an acronym for “manhigah hilchatit ruchanit Toranit,” which means “one who is a leader in Halakhah (Jewish Law), spirituality and Torah.” A Jewish prayer service requires a minyun, which is a minimum of 10 men, and although she will be able to call and organize such a service, as a woman she will not count toward the minimum of 10 men. She also may not serve as a witness or judge in Jewish legal proceedings, which means that although she wil be able to perform weddings, she will not be able to sign the formal marriage contract.
Part of the motivation to open Yeshivat Maharat was that smart Orthodox women were becoming lawyers, teachers and CEOs, and that tremendous source of potential leadership for the Orthodox community was not being tapped. Another part of the motivation is that these accomplished women do not feel like full participants when they walk into their synagogue, and many of them are simply leaving rather than accept that state of affairs. The yeshivah also fills a pastoral need, as many women simply feel more comfortable counseling with another woman than with a man.
Rabba Sara Hurwitz, who was instrumental in the formation of the yeshivah, comments as follows: “There is a thirst in the Jewish community for spiritual leadership with the distinct voice of a woman.” People assume that women are trying to encroach on traditionally male roles, but she sees it as a partnership. Rachel says “I see this as the inevitable next step. If you open the books to women, they are going to eventually want to share that knowledge. They’re going to want to use their talents and abilities in the noblest way.”
I would like to extend my profound congratulations to my fellow Chicagoan, Maharat Rachel Finegold, for helping to blaze this particular trail in modern Orthodoxy.
Are there lessons in the Orthodox experience and approach that might possibly translate to the Mormon world, I wonder?
(If you would like to see Rachel speak on sex in the Jewish tradition, start at about the 9 minute mark at this presentation on faith and sexuality at Catholic Theological Union.)
(This post was inspired by an article in today’s Chicago Tribune by my friend and the paper’s religion editor, Manya Brachear.)