Orthodox women moving toward religious leadership

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Even the title that would be used to ordain women remains an open question.

Words like rabbanit (female rabbi) and poseket (decisor) are bandied about in book-lined offices and private meetings, as if to evoke the age-old authority behind the word "rabbi" and then to retreat from the restrictions many Orthodox Jews still associate with it.

But the direction is clear.

The Union for Traditional Judaism, a Teaneck, N.J.-based seminary that ordains men, is developing a program to award women a degree equivalent to rabbi, but without the license to preside in roles Orthodox Judaism restricts to men, such as serving as a rabbinic witness or leading a prayer service.

While union officials have yet to determine the exact pulpit role of such ordained women, they hope the degree will hold the same scholarly stature as its male counterpart, rendering women equally eligible to teach in yeshivas, direct Hillels and become army chaplains and decisors of Jewish law.

The issue of women's ordination has colored the seminary's image since it was founded more than a decade ago by David Weiss-Halivni, a leading international Talmud scholar.

Halivni broke from the Jewish Theological Seminary and founded the Union for Traditional Judaism after the Conservative movement voted to recognize women rabbis. His departure was widely seen as a protest against the policy.

But Halivni has written extensively on his resignation from JTS, saying his concern was not about policy, but process.

Now a professor of religion at Columbia University, Halivni has argued that the way the Conservative movement decided on the issue seemed to subvert halachah, or Jewish law, to other values.

By contrast, he said, today's drive towards women's ordination at the union is guided by a purely traditional principle: to broaden the spiritual and religious horizons of women, within halachah.

"The difference is whether it is ingrown; and here, it is an ingrown desire for spirituality," Halivni said.

He compared the move to Chassidism, which broke with convention to attain greater spiritual heights, as opposed to the Reform movement, whose proposals to change synagogue decorum were taken, in Halivni's view, from outside Judaism.

Nevertheless, in its early years the union had few women students and even fewer who competed for the same degrees as men.

Five years ago, Adena Berkowitz, a union board member, called the school's dean, Rabbi Ronald Price, and told him that the recent rise in the scholarship and leadership of women in the Orthodox community can no longer be contained by their current status.

"I said, `Look, there's a lot of talent, energy and leadership here, and this potential is untapped,'" she said. She proposed a rabbinic, halachically sanctioned degree for women.

Price, who supports the idea, reacted analytically.

"I do not see myself as a feminist," he said. "I see myself as committed to halachic consistency. But Adena's question was a serious one, and it had to be addressed."

When Halivni endorsed the proposal, the focus became, as in the JTS dilemma, one of style as well as substance.

"This has to be done slowly," said Halivni. "Change is very problematic."

Officials at the union are proceeding cautiously, nurturing the project's growth with womb-like isolation to avoid being labeled, either as a compromise with Conservatism or as nothing more than a reinstatement of less-than-rabbinic status.

Meanwhile, other programs are looking to tap the potential of Orthodox women.

On the heels of the first International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy in February, Rabbis Avi Weiss and Saul Berman, both teachers at Yeshiva University's Stern College for Women, launched Torat Miriam, a program designed to train learned Orthodox women in "the ideologies and traditions of Modern Orthodoxy."

Weiss, author of "Women at Prayer," would not embrace the notion of women taking the title "rabbi," pointing out that none of the 10 women already enrolled in Torat Miriam's first semester this fall want to be rabbis.

But the program's long-term goal is to have women "work on a professional level in the synagogue," he said.

Weiss said there is no halachic prohibition against women performing many of the pulpit rabbi's duties, such as pastoral counseling, teaching Torah and being a spiritual leader.

"It won't be long," Weiss predicted, before "a woman would be able to take a professional position in a synagogue, and we are training them for that."

But Weiss added that a congregation taking a woman as its spiritual leader "should be prepared not to have her perform weddings, or lead the davening, or several other things that rabbis are often called upon to do."

Weiss said, "They are not rabbis. We are talking about something different."

Although Weiss has argued that smicha, the process of ordination, is not based in Jewish law any more, he said, "I do not think it's helpful to talk about women rabbis. I think that hurts much of what we have accomplished for women."

"As leaders we must be careful not to go too fast, not to overstep our bounds," he said. "We're talking about a different title for women, like morateinu [our teacher]."

Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, opposes ordaining women.

"It shakes the boundaries of tradition, and I would never allow it," said Lamm.

"Even the premise that the word `rabbi' has no halachic significance means there's no difference between an Orthodox rabbi, a Conservative rabbi and a Reform rabbi. But of course there is."

The concept, he said, "is meant as a way to imitate Moshe Rabeinu [Moses]. It's more than just a title, a minimalist interpretation."

But Halivni said many of the grounds traditionally used to keep women out of the rabbinate were rooted in "the way things are accepted by society, not halachah."

In times of suffering, he said, Jewish law grants rabbis the right, using the proper authority and adherence to sources, to re-evaluate an issue within halachic guidelines.

"Great suffering is not just a physical concept; it could be psychological," Halivni said. "Today, women are suffering psychologically from the lack of equality."

They are also suffering economically, said Batsheva Marcus, executive director of the Union for Traditional Judaism.

"For women who want to be teachers in Orthodox schools, the lack of a rabbinic degree is reflected in their salary, no matter how capable or knowledgeable they are."