Maharat Rachel Finegold

rachelfinegold.phpThe 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.)


  1. I’m not sure that’d work so well in Mormonism. Could we give women Priesthood, then tell them they can’t actually do anything with it?

    I’d also noted you mentioned that most Orthodox synagogues don’t even recognize hat she has. Does that mean the “Open Orthodox” synagogues may soon no longer be considered “Orthodox” by the remainder?

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Yes, Frank, there is a possibility of schism over this, although it hasn’t happened so far.

  3. sounds like what the orthodox synagogues are aiming at, is what we already have in the Relief Society…, Or i’m i reading this wrongly?

  4. “Could we give women Priesthood, then tell them they can’t actually do anything with it?”

    Isn’t this exactly what the LDS Church has already done?

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I think this is more than a RS president. She is ordained clergy. Yes, she is still subject to some limitations, but otherwise she relates to the congregation as a rabbi. A closer analog might be a counselor in the bishopric.

  6. alphonso says:

    I think this is a good step. Women need to have a greater voice in all forms of society. They have wisdom and knowledge to impart that men do not. I want to hear their perspective. Congratulations for Maharat Rachel Finegold.

  7. One of the primary differences I see between the Jewish tradition of ordination and the LDS model is that, correct me if I’m wrong, within the Jewish model a rabbi has had extenesive formal education via recognized universities or other institutions . . . It seems to me that a woman can achieve an equal status with a man in this setting. This benchmark makes gender discrimation much more apparent. How or where (withing the LDS model) can a woman “prepare herself” or establish her equal qualifying status for such ordination? We don’t have a paid clergy. Based on what I read here, the Jewish clergy are paid. Can you clarify?

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Yes, the Jewish clergy are paid. And I think you make a good point about the preparation for ordination being grounded in extensive education, something that is not really transferable to the LDS context.

  9. David Goldstein says:

    As an Orthodox Jew, I can tell you that this “ordination” is recognized by just about nobody. Look up “open Orthodoxy” and you’ll see that it has far more in common with other so-called streams of Judaism and not much in common with the broad Orthodox Jewish world.
    This is nothing but an outlier, but the liberal press loves to hear traditional religion molded to meet the requirements of political correctness.

  10. Shira Karp says:

    Don’t exaggerate, David. Be fair. I can’t find a seat among the hundreds of worshippers who pack Shira Chadasha in Jerusalem (seat of the original Open Orthodox movement) every week, and here in my home there are two thriving minyanim (prayer meetings)–and the largest, most famous mechitzah shul (“Orthodox” synagogue) in the city–which are left-wing/modern Orthodox. These decisions are not respected by the majority of the Orthodox community, and they will never be. But hundreds of people in this metro area alone and hundreds more around the world are hardly “nobody.” I’ll also note that the two little minyanim I’m thinking of–not counting the big synagogues–have more young families and children than many other minyanim (prayer meetings) in this metro area, so there is a very small population of future worshippers for whom this “outlier,” as you accurately but contemptuously refer to it, is not outlying at all, but normative.

    Is this traditional Orthodox Judaism? No. But neither was the Bais Yaakov movement that pushed for a grammar school education (!) for girls only a hundred years ago in Eastern Europe. Neither, for that matter, was the Hasidic movement of the eightenth-century Ba’al Shem Tov. You may not choose to see Marahat Finegold as a religious authority, but hundreds of people who keep the Sabbath, keep kosher, and practice the laws of family purity do so, as do their children. They will never be the majority, but they are not “nobody” either.

    As far as sharing this process with our Mormon cousins (God bless and Godspeed–we’re all striving towards heaven as best we can), the process we’re arguing about as a community is the method of deriving meaning from the ancient codices of religious law, set down by our Sages of blessed memory. Questions that remain on the table are whether the Sages are allowed to misunderstand or be misunderstood (e.g. five planets in the Solar System, pi=3, education of women promotes licentiousness and vice) and what they would have said to respond to modern social problems. I think it’s safe to say that David and I will have different answers to these questions. But everyone as a community (or, I’ll admit it, several fractured and squabbling communities) is striving to understand the will of God: to worship God alone and not merely worship the status quo. Therein lies the challenge!

  11. Lisa Liel says:

    This is just one more step towards the apparently inevitable separation of “Open Orthodoxy” from Modern Orthodoxy. They should do the honest thing and merge with the Union for Traditional Judaism, since calling themselves “Orthodox” is an abuse of language. It’s a real shame that well meaning people like Rachel Feingold don’t have the courage of their convictions to acknowledge that they have left Orthodoxy, and insist on trying to pull Orthodoxy off the path with them.

  12. Lisa Liel says:

    With all due respect to Shira, Bais Yaakov was never outside of Orthodox Judaism. The opposition was a cultural thing, and the arguments for it, which eventually won, were well grounded in halakha. This is not the case for the “Open Orthodox”, who use Jewish sources in exactly the same way the Conservative Movement did a century ago.

    I’d also add that not all members of Anshei Shalom (Feingold’s former congregation) are as far left as its leadership has been.

    Note: I’m not saying that Open Orthodoxy is wrong, though I believe it is. What I’m saying is that it isn’t Orthodox. Abraham Lincoln was being badgered by a journalist who was using language… loosely, shall we say. He asked the man, “Sir, how many legs has a dog?” The journalist responded: “One.” “And if we call the tail a leg?” Lincoln asked him? “Five,” answered the journalist. “No,” explained the president. “Calling it a leg does not make it one.” Nor, I’d add, does calling “Open Orthodoxy” by that name make it Orthodox Judaism. The label “Post-Orthodox” might be more correct.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Thank you to David, Shira and Lisa for adding your Orthodox perspectives on this development. We very much appreciate hearing from you!

  14. “Neither, for that matter, was the Hasidic movement of the eightenth-century Ba’al Shem Tov. ”

    Exactly. Not even the Gaon of Vilna was Orthodox in the way that adherents of the Chatam Sofer came to define it.

  15. Lisa Liel says:

    Only if you define “Orthodox” strangely. The Vilna Gaon was as committed to the fact that the Torah, both written and oral, was given at Sinai, and that what we have today is that Torah.

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