Holy Glass Ceiling
On June 13th, 2013, three women graduated from the Yeshivat Maharat and were ordained with the title of maharat, or female spiritual leader. Even then, the Rabbinic Counsel of America (RCA) refused to recognize these women as part of the Orthodox Rabbinate. This is a two steps forward, one step back situation. On the one hand, Orthodox women have gained partial access to the rabbinate; on the other hand, some of the reigning Jewish forces in power are unwilling to accept these inevitable changes and reforms.
In response, journalist Susan Reimer-Tom wrote in a blog post for JWA titled “Maharats, Misogyny, and Marching On:” “While I cheered and clapped and swayed along with the others, I was constrained by something I can best describe as low-grade heartache.” I agree with and understand Reimer-Tom’s words. When a group of rabbis who are supposed to be Jewish community members that I can respect and trust issue a statement like this: “…We cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as Orthodox rabbinate members, regardless of the title. The RCA views this event as a violation of our mesorah (tradition) and regrets that the leadership of the school has chosen a path that contradicts the norms of our community…,” I feel hurt. In contrast, I am lucky to be part of a Jewish community where I do not experience discrimination based on my gender. The clergy that I interact with are from different places on the age, gender, and sexuality spectrums. My bat mitzvah was officiated by a female rabbi, and my mother and grandmother were allowed (and encouraged) to perform Aliyahs (calls to read Torah).
In my life, my Jewish community is a place where my gender does not hinder my rights to participate or pray. I cannot begin to imagine how I might feel if one of my rabbis told me that my presence in the community was not as welcome as a man’s. I also don’t think I would feel any better if a rabbi told me that I am allowed to participate in religious life in some ways, but only if I consent to less power than the men around me. I realize that being part of a more liberal, reform Jewish sect allows me privileges that not all Jewish women have.
The RCA’s statement is not only a blow to the hardworking students of Yeshivat Maharat, it is detrimental to any woman trying to break through the ever-present glass ceiling, which sadly has now expanded to cover the synagogues’ roofs. The Yeshivat Maharat women’s achievements are undeniable, but old traditions are forcing them back.
In light of this bleak situation, the Orthodox community did recently take an important step forward. It was announced on January 11th that Lila Kagedan, a 2015 graduate of Yeshivat Maharat who uses the title of rabbi, has been hired by an Orthodox shul, Mount Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph, New Jersey. Many commentators showed support for Kagedan and Mount Freedom’s decision. Others publically refuted it, saying that this was a mistake and that it went against the Torah’s values. The majority came to the conclusion that it was impossible for them to ever consider Kaegan a rabbi. She is not Orthodox, they said. She does not understand her faith, they said. My upbringing has made me biased, and the comments horrified me. I forget that I am privileged and that my Jewish world looks radically different than other girls’.
I cheer for Kaegan’s trailblazing. Again, two steps forward, one step back.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Groustra, Sarah. "Holy Glass Ceiling." 8 February 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 4, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/holy-glass-ceiling>.