There was a moment in my late twenties when I seriously considered rabbinical school. I was changing careers, trying to figure out what my next step would be, and becoming a rabbi would have allowed me to blend my love of Jewish ritual, my intellectual curiosity, and my passion for helping people into a calling. It made sense, on a deep level. But the more I talked about it with friends who were already rabbis and rabbinical students, the more they cautioned me, “As a woman, if you become a rabbi and you’re not married yet, you need to accept that you’ll probably never marry. Men don’t want to date women who are authority figures; it’s too emasculating.” I wanted to be a rabbi. But I also wanted marriage and children. When I believed that I needed to choose between them, I couldn’t bear the thought of never having children of my own. I quietly turned my focus to other graduate programs.
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This was the first time that Orthodox women were ordained in an institutional setting. There was a profound sense that not only was this a big moment for the three women getting ordained, but also for the men who trained them. I could hear the pride in Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, the Rosh HaYeshiva’s voice, and how much this meant to Rabbi Avi Weiss. In particular, Rabbi Weiss emphasized the desire to give a professionally recognized title to these women (even if it is Maharat, rather than Rabba), and the absolute necessity of the support of the male rabbis who have welcomed these women into their congregations. For Rabba Sara, I had the profound sense that she was creating an exciting new cohort of colleagues for herself. It’s one thing to be a groundbreaker, but totally another to bring others along with you, to create a system and a path for future generations.
Orthodox women are making history in front of our eyes. On June 16, three women will be ordained to serve, in effect, as Orthodox rabbis, given the title of Maharat (an acronym for the Hebrew words meaning leader in legal, spiritual and Torah matters).
They will graduate from Yeshivat Maharat in New York City, the first and thus far only women to receive institutional ordination as religious and spiritual leaders in the Orthodox world.
Naomi Eisenberg’s spoken word poem Can I Ask You a Question? speaks for itself. Created in honor of her mother’s 25 years in the rabbinate, Naomi tackles questions of gender and equality in Judaism—and in our society at large.
Last week, Rabbi Scott Perlo wrote a provocative article in the Washington Post in which he addressed the continuing discomfort that many Jews—even liberal, gender-equity-supporting ones—feel about female rabbis. He suggests that this puzzling phenomenon may be due to the central place nostalgia holds in many people’s feelings about Judaism. It comes as no surprise that this nostalgic vision does not include female rabbis.