Breaking barriers: Orthodox woman rabbi
Today I received several celebratory emails from friends, announcing the news that Haviva Ner-David, an Orthodox woman living in Jerusalem, had finally achieved her dream of being ordained a rabbi. Her quest began more than ten years ago, when she applied to the rabbinical program at the modern Orthodox Yeshiva University – an application that the administration assumed was a joke and ignored. She went on to pursue rabbinic studies privately with Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky, an Orthodox rabbi, while also earning a PhD in Talmud – and raising five small children. Obviously a determined, smart, and courageous woman.
The triumphant tone of the emails is hardly surprising. What a coup! While the more liberal streams of Judaism began ordaining women in 1972 (Reform), 1974 (Reconstructionist), and 1985 (Conservative) – for more on these changes, see Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution – the Orthodox establishment has insisted that the idea of an Orthodox woman rabbi is oxymoronic and never going to happen. Of course, there have been small steps forward – Orthodox communities giving women leadership roles as “Congregational interns” and as Poskot (decisors of Jewish law), for example – but even these official titles have almost seemed to emphasize the fact that “Rabbi” is not an option. So a hearty mazel tov to Ner-David for persevering and proving these nay-sayers wrong.
And yet… there’s still some ambiguity about what kind of title Ner-David has actually achieved. Rabbi Strikovsky signed her ordination and describes her skills and knowledge as equal to that of male rabbis. But he also acknowledges that the ordination he gave Ner-David is different from the ordination that men receive. In an article published today in the Jerusalem Post, he explained: "Practically, it is the same, since there is no objection to Ner-David providing answers and religious rulings to women who would come to ask her halachic questions, but in the Orthodox world and society it is not acceptable yet to ordain a woman."
Huh? So what exactly has he done? Apparently, he ordained her, but did not give her the title “Rabbi” – a distinction I just don’t get. Haviva is more generous: "His hesitation to give me a title is understandable, but really that was not his role as I see it. He acknowledged my readiness to go out into the world and act in the role of a rabbi and he left it up to my community to decide what title to give me.” And in her community – a progressive Orthodox congregation in Jerusalem called Shira Hadasha – she has already been called to the Torah as Rabbi.
So Ner-David sees herself as a rabbi. But she refuses the title of Orthodox rabbi, because she considers labels limiting and sees herself as part of a post-denominational community.
What do you think? Is this an unqualified achievement or is there some reason to grumble? How important are titles, anyway? Is this just a matter of semantics, or is it an important issue about the power of language and authority? Share your thoughts in the comments, and if you’re in the Boston area on Wednesday night, join us for a dialogue on feminism and Orthodoxy.