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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!

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3 Comments


"The unwillingness to call her rabbi after having what was considered
to be rabbinic training seems only to smack of sexist hypocrisy."



It’s hard for the world of liberal Judaism who holds intellectual autonomy and
intentioned choice as the cornerstone of their faith to understand the
"language" of Halacha. What does it mean for something to be out of
the realm of personal decision-making? How is it possible that someone who does
not allow a woman to fulfill a man's obligation in davening is not sexist? In a
lifestyle and worldview founded on personal autonomy and choice, it is not
possible. Behavior must necessarily reflect individual views because the former is
determined by the latter. I let woman lead prayer because, and only because, I
believe women should lead prayer. In the world of Halacha though, this is not
the case. Behavior has a source outside of oneself, namely
obligation/historical precedent. My behavior then is not first a reflection of
my personal positions, but of an orientation to the world and spiritual life
that sees Halacha as binding. It is with this in mind that I admonish us all not to pass judgement on Rabbi Strikovsky or any other Orthodox
response to Haviva Ner-David. Their hesitancy in calling Ner-David Rabbi
reflects nothing of personal attitudes towards woman or sexist hypocrisy, but only particular legal difficulties with the proposition. Anyways, at the end of the day, regardless of title, Haviva Ner-David should be a rolemodel for all Jewish women.

With all due respect to Rabbanit Ner David's Learning which I acknowledge as significantI am disappointed that the first claim to be an "Orthodox" women rabbi is an individual that seems "at best" on the fringe of "Orthodoxy". I think this will be less then helpful in actually helping create acceptance of more normative and numerous women rabbi's that le'atid lavo will be developed. I wish that Rabbanit Ner David would take a page out of Rabbanit Henkin's model. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach z'l who had semicha from Rabbi Hutner z'tl already ordained at least 2 to my knowledge women rabbi's Mimi Feigelson and Sarah Leah Grafstien the latter is a Rabbi of a Renewalist congregation in Phoenix the former is somehwere within the broad spectrum of Orthodoxy and teaches at University of Judaism in Los Angeles. So to have another learned fringe woman rabbi within Orthodoxy seems at least to me not a chiddush except that there is more press and blog. The latter two women have been functioining for decades.

9/15/06

I applaud Haviva Ner-David for becoming the first female Orthodox rabbi. Clearly, her path of more than ten years of study to earn both a PhD in Talmud and her rabbinic ordination sets a new precedent for women seeking a more intellectually respected place in the Orthodox world. However, the ambiguity of Ner-DavidÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s title as Ì¢‰âÒrabbiÌ¢‰âÂå particularly in the eyes of her own teacher, Rabbi Strikovsky, and within the Orthodox community at large is troubling. Although Strikovsky explains that Ner-DavidÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s training is on par with those of her male counterparts, he believes that her rabbinic authority is less authentic simply because of her sex. In a post-denominational world, the recognition of Ner-DavidÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s title as a Ì¢‰âÒRabbiÌ¢‰âÂå or an Ì¢‰âÒAlmost RabbiÌ¢‰âÂå regardless of her qualifications would be somewhat irrelevant. But that world does not yet exist. Since Ner-David has chosen to make a place for herself within the framework of Orthodox Judaism and since her rabbinic aspirations were nurtured by an ordained Orthodox Rabbi, the unwillingness to call her rabbi after having what was considered to be rabbinic training seems only to smack of sexist hypocrisy. Is the label itself important? Yes and no. The title itself may be of little interest (as it is to Ner-David), but the consequences of allowing others to rescind a title that one has earned seem significant. OneÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s title has a strong impact upon the power to make decisions within any institution. And if Ner-David is truly intent upon making a place for herself and perhaps for other women in the Orthodox world, she should not be so detached as to say that a title does not matter.

With all of the vagueness surrounding the authenticity of Ner-DavidÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s title, one is left wondering why Orthodoxy is the route she has taken in the first place. A review of her book Life on the Fringes from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning explains that many of Ner-DavidÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s ideals are clearly out of step with normative Orthodox ideology. She advocates for an interpretation of Leviticus that accepts homosexuality. She also chose to immerse her new-born Jewish daughter in a mikveh as a covenantal birth ceremony which is traditionally reserved for conversion. Additionally, she admits to certain halachic rituals being fundamentally Ì¢‰âÒsexistÌ¢‰âÂå thereby not resonating with her personal sense of meaning.

One wonders why Ner-David did not choose to be ordained in the Conservative Movement, a halachic movement in which many of her views would be openly explored and embraced. Though I am puzzled by Ner-DavidÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s path, I do respect her choice to identify with Orthodoxy. Yet if Ner-David wants the Orthodox world to come around, so to speak, her fight must not end with the complacency of having a Ì¢‰âÒless thanÌ¢‰âÂå status. Otherwise, the doors have not yet been opened; they have only been knocked upon.

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How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Breaking barriers: Orthodox woman rabbi." 5 May 2006. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 22, 2017) <https://jwa.org/blog/orthodoxwomanrabbi>.

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