What do we call a woman rabbi?

The question in Israel this week … is what to call a woman Rabbi?

According to the Jerusalem Post hundreds of Orthodox and religious women gathered in Israel for a conference on women and women’s issues within Orthodoxy. The conference is organized by Kolech, an Orthodox women’s organization in Israel.

One of the primary discussions on Monday was the question of what to call a woman who has smicha. Rabanit? Rabbah? Maharat? … maybe just Rabbi? A vote was taken on Monday and will be submitted to scholars to discuss the matter further before the group releases their recommendation.

According to Dr. Chana Kehat, a former chairwoman of Kolech:

I’d estimate that within five years, we will be seeing women making groundbreaking decisions on Halachah … it will take a few more years for people to get used to the idea, but it will happen.

Although there are currently only two Orthodox women rabbis in Israel, there are a number of women who hold leadership positions, teaching positions, and those who are able to decide halachic matters.

Indeed, the times they are a changin …

This is a subject we have blogged about several times in the past. Although there will still be small pockets within Orthodoxy who will hold out against women rabbis (and women serving in many different roles), the Orthodox world will look different in the future.

However, change never comes easy. The expanding role of women in Jewish life is not without criticism and opposition.

According to the JPost article, Rabbi Yehoshua Shapira, head of the Ramat Gan Hesder Yeshiva, was one of the most prominent voices to attack changes in Jewish tradition. Shapira warned these reformers “undermine the Godliness of the Torah and its continuity today, both of which are based on contemporary rabbinic authority. “

Rachel Keren, Kolech’s current chairwoman, shared:

The Kolech conference raises many issues that demonstrate so clearly the need for change in the Orthodox world. One of these issues is leadership. Suggesting that women can also be spiritual and community leaders undermines the existing hierarchies and frameworks.

But, Kolech also breaks other taboos, such as our demand to confront domestic sexual abuse and fight denial of this phenomenon. And for many rabbis, this is not easy to accept.

Keren touches on something important. What is at stake for many of these women is not so much women becoming rabbis. It is the empowerment of women within traditional Jewish life, and the need to confront a number of issues the rabbinic establishment as a whole still refuses to address. This is especially true in regard to Agunot (literally “chained” – women whose dead-beat husbands refuse to give them a Get – a writ of divorce). An Agunah withouot a get cannot remarry, and if she does, her children are considered mamzerim (bastards) and for the rest of their lives carry a halachic stigma – and can only marry other mamzerim.

To this day – the religious Beit-Din establishment around the world is still not willing to work out a compromise for those dead-beat husbands who maybe run off with another woman, who don’t pay child support, and/or just simply refuse to give their wives a get. It is another abusive tactic to keep their wives chained – even after they are long gone.

The issue of Agunot is just one of many issues affecting religious women today. So a call for change is not just about what to call a woman rabbi. It has to do with women also being recognized as valued and empowered to best move Judaism forward.

About Rabbi Joshua

I'm a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband ... not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I'm just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Simchat Yisrael Messianic Synagogue in West Haven, CT, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin' hot human rights attorney... and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.
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11 Responses to What do we call a woman rabbi?

  1. Yumm says:

    I'm opposed to women being congregational leaders. I believe, however, that they can be ordained, and even have halakhic authority over women and children. Title? I think Maharat is an awesome title.

  2. Gene Shlomovich says:

    More of the same let's ram (ever so forcefully, yet slowly) radical feminism and gender warfare into Jewish throats. This has already succeed within the liberal "Judaisms" in the States – and look, they are doing so "well"!

  3. Monique says:

    Gene, we've previously addressed your very familiar retort. It's a fear reflex, and one we don't share, given our experiences in vibrant communities led by women.Yumm, you're entitled to your opinion … and it's not an uncommon one … but I'll have to respectfully disagree with you. It sounds like an awfully nice concession prize. "Shoo, shoo, now!" I don't see how moving the glass barrier just a few inches really changes anything. In fact, all it does is reinforce the view that women are spiritually inferior and that their visible participation and leadership in ritual and communal life is poisonous in some way.But really, that's what Gene has been saying all along, isn't it? That women's participation in spiritual leadership is poisonous. What does that make women, then, other than inferior?

  4. Gene Shlomovich says:

    Monique – why speak in terms of "inferior" vs "superior"? This has not even entered my mind to consider myself better by virtue of being a man. HaShem doesn't love or think of my wife any less (probably MORE) than of me. But men and women have different roles assigned by G-d. It's the same thing that I have to tell my Gentile friends who think that I imagine myself better than they are because I am a Jew (or is it THEY who think of themselves as worse) – I am not better, just different. That's all I am.

  5. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Gene-Respectfully, how is women speaking out "More of the same let's ram (ever so forcefully, yet slowly) radical feminism and gender warfare into Jewish throats."Who said anything about a war? Who said anything about radical feminism?Again … I am sorry to say, but you are reading way more into this then what is either in the blog or in the way we think.

  6. Gene Shlomovich says:

    Joshua, it's your blog and you speak your mind. I do enjoy many of the things that you guys share here. And while you do cover a fairly broad range of subjects, it's just seems to me that the women empowerment (specifically promoting women religious leadership) is almost the running theme here. Anyway, I have to believe that HaShem will sort things out. Have a good Shabbos.

  7. Yumm says:

    I happen to be a Jewish woman, and I do not concider my self spiritually inferior. In fact, I prefer connecting to G-d as a woman. And I take pleasure in taking the "lead" in mitzvot like challah, shabbos candles, etc. I know my Torah and Judaism well (sometimes even better than my rabbi???)… But to me, being a mother and a wife is the highest pleasure and honor that can be bestowed upon a woman. In my synagogue, I teach, share my opinions, and do help make decisions. People come to me for advice. I would not mind studying even more, and get a smicha. You could call me rabbanit, maharat, or woman rabbi. But to be a senior rabbi, and lead a congregation? No, thank you. That's just simply against my religion. No compromise would ever be acceptable. The day my synagogue hires a female senior rabbi, I will take a stand as a Jewish woman (no matter what my husband says) and leave. (Kind of like Jimmy Carter recently did.)It's way to easy – and may I say, biased – to assume that all conservatives are uneducated, ignorant souls who need to be enlightened by those who have seen the light of postmodernism and feminism.Perhaps our conservative beliefs are not based upon some knee-jerk reaction of fear or male chauvenism. Maybe we just seriously and humbly believe that our conservative, traditional and classical understanding of the Bible is correct, and maybe we choose to try hear and do what we sincerely feel the Torah teaches?Good shabbos!

  8. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Hi Gene-In regard to your specific comment that "it just seems to me that the women empowerment (specifically promoting women religious leadership) is almost the running theme here."True, womens' roles in Judaism is something we care about, this is only the third post on the issueof women rabbis since we started the blog. Consider our other topics like "Spirituality," "Torah," "Nexgen," etc. which have double or triple the amount of posts….Hardly our only running theme.Good Shobbos!

  9. Monique says:

    Yumm, I didn't call you (or Gene … or anyone else who disagrees with us) uneducated or ignorant. I said that you're entitled to your opinion and that I had to respectfully disagree.I'm saddened to hear that the installment of a female rabbi in your congregation would lead to your departure, but you're fully entitled to vote with your feet.Sadly, most of the under-40 generation has already voted with their feet and are sitting everywhere BUT the pews of Messianic synagogues. We can't attribute their absence EXCLUSIVELY to this issue, of course. BUT … the digging in of the heels of the older generation on this issue (for the sake of fear, personal preference, or an increasingly indefensible reading of a select handful of verses) is indicative of the culture clash going on.

  10. yumm says:

    People in liberal congregations (Reform, Conservative) are voting with their feet (and wedding bands) too – despite the presence of female rabbis. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is growing.

  11. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Yumm-Thank you for your thoughts and comments. In regard to your last response, we do not advocate for extremes. Rather, our entire blog is about balance. There is no evidence that supports a correlation between women rabbis and moral decay. True, we may not always agree with certain trends within the wider Jewish community today. And although many of those trends are happening within Movements that were also the first (in modern times) to ordain women, there is no correlation between the two. Otherwise, your claims would have to be true for all other movements and religions.Most of it depends on values and reasons for doing something. In the example of the ordination of women rabbis, if the purpose is only for popular reasons, or the "politically correct" thing to do, then all other decisions will be based on such logic. However, if true wrestling with texts and traditions warrant such readings, and a very healthy and balanced approach is reached, then such a process will be reflected in other decisions made. Our position on women is not liberally based, but from truly wrestling with texts and traditions.Lastly, you try to put Orthodoxy on a pedestal by noting it is growing, you have to look a little more carefully. True there is a growth in Orthodoxy. However, statistics tend to support that children of Orthodox parents do not remain Orthodox. There is an old joke that has been proven true. Orthodox kids become good Conservative Jews, good Conservative kids become great Reform Jews, and good Reform kids either become Orthodox or Christian (and then the cycle starts all over again). Additionally, Orthodoxy only represents 10% or so of Jews. And although it is growing, it is actually NOT the fastest growing form of Judaism. The fastest growing "denomination" within Judaism is unaffiliated/secular.There are more Jews voting with their feet away from Judaism then to it. Interestingly however, and we have blogged on this before, they are not voting away from "spirituality." Just away from Judaism.

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