Breaking the Modern Orthodox Glass Ceiling

"We Can Do It" poster, c.1943.

Recently, The Jewish Week published an article by Rabbi Dan Friedman about the roles of women in modern Orthodoxy. The article, entitled “Female Orthodox Rabbis? We Already Have Them,” argues that as women pursue the chance to become rabbis in some modern Orthodox circles, they undermine the influential roles women have in modern Orthodoxy, such as the learned and spiritual rebbetzin or the guest lecturer at shul.

It seems at first that Friedman is conceding that women’s historic influence on Orthodox life allows them to lead those communities, imparting their wisdom to community members. However, what Friedman is really doing is advancing a condescending argument as to why women ought to accept their place and not push the gender equality envelope.

He writes, “Contemporary viewpoints calling for the complete equality of men’s and women’s roles in every facet of life fail to recognize the unique contributions that women and men have to make.” He asserts that women are nurturers, better suited to pastoral roles, such as counselors. Since male rabbis are assumed to be the sole available counselors, rebbetzins and other female leaders are often underutilized. While this may occur in some circumstances, Friedman is missing the crucial point that women’s inherent nurturing personalities and leadership skills ought to make them excellent Orthodox rabbis.

To say that advocating for gender equality undermines appropriate gender roles is merely an excuse to perpetuate a long history of sex discrimination within the Orthodox world. If modern Orthodoxy claims to be just that—modern— why then do we accept the idea of a woman president in the secular sphere, while barring women from holding the highest office in the religious sphere? Why do we teach our daughters, whether consciously or not, to accept second best?

Friedman’s solution of elevating titles given to female leaders in the Orthodox community, such as referring to a morah as rebbetzin, implies that Orthodox feminists must accept the exclusion of women from the rabbinate. Rather than question the assumptions behind fixed gender roles in modern Orthodoxy, Friedman advocates for the recognition of female strength and leadership while maintaining the gender status quo. Keeping women from being ordained is nothing more than plain old institutionalized sexism.

Years before the controversial ordination of Sara Hurwitz, teachers at my Orthodox high school told me that women are not rabbis because they are naturally more spiritual than men and do not need to assume the role of rabbi; they have already proven their ability to connect with God. Others told me that women are not rabbis due to their exemption from time-bound mitzvot, including prayer. My understanding of this concept is that women are not required to pray at specific times since they are likely to be mothers and cannot predict when they will need to tend to their children. What about all the other demanding jobs Orthodox mothers manage to do (and do well) while caring for their children? And should not mothers be the deciders of how they structure their parenting? I have also been told that women are not rabbis because it is not tzniut. This argument is the most offensive, as it implies that women in leadership roles are objectified; rather than teach sons to accept and respect women, daughters are taught not to tempt men.

The energy spent defending the prohibition of women from becoming rabbis could better be channeled towards challenging negative gender norms within the modern Orthodox community. It will take an understanding of the values a female rabbi can bring to her congregants to move the discussion to a more positive—and a more “modern”—place.

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The solution is not to call morot rebbetzins, which implies being the wife of a rabbi, but to give morot the same respect, dignity, pay, and opportunity for advancement as rabbis. Within a day school setting, morot and rabbis should be paid on the same scale for years of study and years of teaching experience, because they are doing the same vital work. Both morot and rabbis should have equal opportunity to advance in authority, including to head of school. If it is the custom of the community to rise for rabbis, they should show the same respect for morot. And both should be addressed in the same way--not Rabbi Last-name and Morah First-name, but with the same familiarity/respect to both.

The article presents a thoughtful yet thought provoking response to a topic that is obviously peering around the corner for parts of the orthodox world. I think the author captures the salient arguments which demonstrate the inherent weaknesses in the orthodox position towards ordaining women in the Rabbinate. She is able to pierce the language which seems to honor women but really serves to keep them from reaching their full potential. This is a topic that deserves a wider narrative in the Orthodox world.

Language is such a powerful tool to mask agenda, in fact, there is no greater tool at our disposal. Thanks Eva Bilick, for pointing out the irony in this specific instance of institutional inequality masked in egalitarian language. It's easy to frame an oppressive and freedom-inhibiting notion as forward thinking and a cause for the greater spiritual-good (just look at political frames like "the war on drugs," "right to work," and "pro-life").

Changing the name, for example, from Morah (Hebrew for female-teacher) to Rebitzin, does nothing but change the color of the paint under which the structure remains untouched. There are generations of women and men, myself included, who went through the orthodox school system and were given the same answers to the difficult questions Eva posed above. REgardless of my personal opinion on the matter, the WHY's and WHY-NOTs of gender roles in religion deserves real dialogue; it is a topic so relevant to the future of American Jewish identity and deserves the opportunity for people of all denominations to confront.

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How to cite this page

Bilick, Eva. "Breaking the Modern Orthodox Glass Ceiling." 20 February 2013. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 24, 2024) <>.