I just returned from Hartford, Connecticut where I attended three days of annual business meetings for the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (MJRC). As in years past, this year’s meetings introduced further discussions and decisions on matters of great importance to our movement. Every year I am reminded of what an incredible honor it is to be a part of such a tremendous group of colleagues and friends. I am also reminded of the historical weight and responsibility we carry.
We are living at a time when we are experiencing the prophetic rebirth of a Jewish movement for Yeshua. And the MJRC is the first rabbinic/leadership body to emerge in nearly 2,000 years tasked with wrestling with the issues and dynamics of Jewish life – from a perspective that is “rooted in Torah, instructed by Tradition, and faithful to Messiah Yeshua (from MJRC mission statement).” Although other groups exist, the MJRC is really the first body of Jewish Yeshua-followers since the early Jerusalem Council to be wrestling with halachah, establishing standards of Jewish observance, and in dialog with our wider Jewish community. Specific individuals and congregations helped pave the way for the establishment of such a council – but whether you agree with the standards and vision of the MJRC or not – this is a momentous reality.
A Note About Our Process
Before I proceed with some of this year’s specific discussions and decisions, I’d like to clarify a little about our process. The MJRC’s standards of observance are not arrived at overnight, or arrived at haphazardly. In many cases it has taken many years to reach some of our current conclusions. There is a rigorous process of research and discussion that goes into each issue, which includes the taxing work of subcommittees even before it is discussed and voted on by the entire council. That is also why our current standards are somewhat limited as we are still in process (and always will be – until Mashiach returns – may it be soon!).
Most people who are aware of the MJRC immediately jump to our standards documents without first knowing anything about our process. That is why I strongly encourage everyone to read our Introduction to the standards followed by our thoughts on Halachah and our process of arriving at conclusions before moving onto the standards themselves. This way you will understand the priorities we place on Scripture, our approach to rabbinic interpretation, and also our openness to divine inspiration. Understanding our thought-process is as much, if not more important, than the conclusions themselves.
History of Women’s Ordination in Messianic Judaism
It may also be a helpful to first give you a little background about the ordination of women within the Messianic Jewish world.
Discussions regarding the ordination of women have been stewing for some time. In October of 1993 (nearly 20 years ago), Dr. Kay Silberling presented a position paper regarding the ordination of women to the theology committee of the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues (IAMCS). In 2001, Rabbi Dr. Ruth Fleischer wrote an article in support of women rabbis which appeared in the book Voices of Messianic Judaism, edited by Reform Rabbi Dr. Dan Cohn-Sherbok. Also in 2001, Dr. Kay Silberling published an article supporting women’s ordination that appeared in Kesher, a Messianic Jewish scholarly journal.
However, despite the ongoing discussions of the issue, both the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) and the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues (IAMCS), which together represent the majority of affiliated Messianic congregations around the world, still do not ordain women as rabbis. Despite this fact, like their female counterparts within Orthodoxy, there have been a few women within the Messianic Jewish movement who have received semikha through private ordinations.
Another Step Towards Women Messianic Rabbis
The possibility of women serving as rabbis has been one of the topics of discussion since the establishment of the MJRC. Out of our own convictions arrived at over time, and the recognition that someone must be the first to push the envelope, in 2010 the MJRC released our definition of what a Messianic Rabbi should be. And in the accompanying commentary we included wording of “his or her.” Then in May of 2011, the MJRC passed historic resolutions recognizing the ability of women to serve as rabbis and that it would welcome them as full members of the council:
1.2.3 – In concert with the example of Messiah Yeshua and the teaching of scripture concerning the leadership roles of men and women, we affirm the ordination of women as Messianic Jewish Rabbis.
We also recognized that this alone was not enough. Therefore in our meetings this last week we passed two more resolutions towards women’s ordination. The first was further language explaining the resolution above, and the second was a resolution to establish a process of ordination – wherein those who qualify, including women – may receive semikha from the MJRC.
Therefore, beginning next year it may be possible for a woman to finally receive semikha as a rabbi from a Messianic Jewish organization – we would be the first American institution to do so.
As many of you already know, my wife and I (as well as many others) have been on the forefront advocating for women to become rabbis for a number of years. For me personally, the recent decisions of the MJRC gives me so much naches to finally see this become a reality. Although there is not necessarily a particular immediate candidate in mind to become the first women Messianic rabbi to be ordained in America (by an organization), it will now be a possibility. And the fact that it is now an option makes all the effort worth while.
Another issue we discussed this year included who we will recognize as a Kohen or Levite for ritual purposes and participation in life-cycle ceremonies (like Pidyon HaBen). So check back soon with the MJRC website for that, as well.