Women on the Bimah: the Debate Continues

Women on the Bimah: the Debate Continues

Forget the debate about whether Orthodox women should be allowed to become rabbis. Two already are.

Rabbi Mimi Feigelson received Orthodox smichah in Israel in 1994, and Rabbi Eveline Goodman-Thau was ordained in Jerusalem in ‘000. Although Feigelson has limited her rabbinic role to teaching, Goodman-Thau, a professor at the University of Vienna, led a congregation in Austria for several years.

Nevertheless, the debate persists. The Jewish Standard spoke earlier this week with Rabbanit Avigail (Poupko) Rock and Dr. Adena K. Berkowitz, who are scheduled to discuss the issue on Nov. 10 at the JCC on the Palisades. The two scholars were gearing up to present opposing perspectives on this heated topic at a session entitled "Orthodox Women Rabbis? Defining the Issue," sponsored by the Rabbi Isaac L. Swift Chair of Judaic Studies.

According to Rock — who explains that "rabbanit" is a title used in Israel for women who are Jewishly knowledgeable in their own right — the notion of a female rabbi does not fit into the scope of Orthodox Judaism. She suggests that, according to halacha, it is inappropriate for a woman to have authority over a man, regardless of her level of learning.

Rock holds an M.A. in Bible from Bar-Ilan University and is currently working on her doctorate. She has taught for more than a decade at advanced schools for women in Israel and is certified by the Israeli rabbinate as a rabbinical advocate, representing women in the rabbinic courts on issues relating to Jewish divorce.

Despite her own advanced level of knowledge, Rock, the mother of four children, does not believe that pursuing rabbinic ordination is the correct course for a woman.

"I believe women call fill leadership roles in the synagogue using their halachic knowledge," she says, giving the example of a "yo’etzet," a woman who advises other women about topics concerning marital relations. She also thinks women could specialize in the laws of kashrut or Shabbat.

Ideally, she says, a community would have both a rabbi and a woman in a leading spiritual position.

According to Rock, there are some rabbinic functions women simply cannot perform. Also, pointing out that being a rabbi is a "’4/7 job," she adds that a woman rabbi could not perform her rabbinic duties and simultaneously raise a family, which would ultimately harm the community.

"Male rabbis can’t get pregnant," she says. "A rabbi can’t say, ‘I’m in labor so I can’t give the shiur.’ Even if the halakhic problems could be solved, I’m not convinced that this is the best thing for society."

"I have to ask what their motivation is," she says of women who desire to become rabbis. "They’re carrying out their own agenda rather than responding to a need in the community. I don’t hear people calling out for women rabbis. We have to ask ourselves what we’re trying to accomplish."

Berkowitz suggests that while women have already begun receiving Orthodox ordination, the issue is still in its nascent stage.

"The question is how widespread it will become and what impact it will have on established rabbinic institutions," she says, adding that "we also need to look at the ripple effect this will have on other women, and on men."

According to Berkowitz — who has a doctorate in Jewish ethics from the Jewish Theological Seminary, a law degree from Yeshiva University’s Cardozo Law School, significant experience as a political consultant, and five children — the core issue is access to learning.

While, she points out, there were always pockets of women who were extremely learned and well respected, in the modern era, comprehensive Jewish education is available on a much larger scale "and has changed the course of modern Jewish history for Orthodox women."

Berkowitz also contends that the issue is not halachic but sociological. In addition, citing a number of historical examples, she argues that highly educated Jewish women can also have active family lives. She cites the example of Rabbi Asenath Barzani of Kurdistan — married, with small children — who in the 1600s was termed a tanna’it, or Talmudic scholar.

"The process is incremental," she says. "Fifty years ago we couldn’t have imagined the position of ‘yoetzet’ or ‘to’enet,’ yet today both positions exist. You need to develop a comfort level within society."

Berkowitz acknowledges that the particular rituals women rabbis can perform — for example, whether they can serve as witnesses — may be "self-limiting," depending on the community.

"Different communities draw the parameters differently," she says, pointing out that while the ritual of bat mitzvah was created by Reconstructionist founder Mordechai Kaplan, the ceremony is observed today by the Orthodox as well, though done in a different way.

Berkowitz believes that the presence of female rabbis in the Orthodox community will be a positive development, exposing members of the community to different perspectives.

"This is not just about gender but about a benefit to the community," she says. "The traditional definition of ‘rabbi’ is ‘teacher.’ What knowledge and talent are we losing [by not ordaining women rabbis]? These are women who want to serve the community."