“New” versus “Groundbreaking”

yeshivat maharat

post by Jessica

The Times of Israel recently posted a beautiful article about the upcoming Maharat graduates (we posted the article to the RR facebook – it’s here, if you’re interested). It takes the time to profile each of the graduates and talks a little about the opportunities they face. Plus, the nice pictures are awesome. Just this past Shabbat, the Chicago Tribune ran a great piece about Rachel Kohl Finegold, who was hired by Congregation Shaar HaShomayim in Montreal. Both pieces, while appropriately realistic, were also celebratory.

As with a lot of news, sometimes it’s good to ask “Is this worth all the fuss?” After all, maybe this is just my friend Rachel (we were congregants of hers in Chicago) taking on a new job. As the Tribune points out, Rabbi Lopatin hired Rachel in 2007, before there even was a Maharat program.

So, what’s new? What’s groundbreaking?

Without the opportunity for recognition, some women have gone elsewhere. Finegold has watched friends abandon rabbinical callings to become teachers, secular lawyers or CEOs instead.

“How sad is that for the Jewish world to lose a leader?” Finegold said. Not to mention, those women still feel the sting when they walk into the shul on Shabbat, she said.

“Women are Ph.D.s, CEOs and running for president and then they have to bifurcate their identity when walking into a synagogue where they don’t feel like full participants,” Finegold said. “That can be hard. When women participate in every other area of their lives, this feels like a glaring omission.”

The groundbreaking part? The way in which Maharat is trying to address this issue. It’s the first time that Orthodox Jewish women have been trained on the model of Orthodox rabbis, deliberately, in an institutional setting, not just one-on-one. Given the way Orthodoxy has been struggling with this place of women, it’s a very big deal.

As a society, we value training and credentials. Sure, there are stories of this teacher or that prominent person in the community who is self-made, without education, but most of the time, we look for the qualifications, something that tells us, yes, this person knows what he or she is talking about. Even in my own program, when a friend and I got down about some of the course work, I called it our “entry fee” – things we have to get through to gain the degree. And once we have the degree (in not very long for me), it opens a world of possibility.

The kind of training these women are receiving will prepare them to be leaders of the community in a way that we haven’t had in the Orthodox community. The value (and controversy) of having this kind of institution is that it legitimates women’s leadership in a way that it hasn’t been in Orthodoxy. So, the answer? No, this is way more than just Rachel getting a new job. We’re seeing something new in the community – not just one woman here or there, but a real chance for a place – and a career path. At the end of the Tribune article, they talk about Shayna Lopatin (age 12) seeing Rachel as a role model. And that’s something that’s also groundbreaking.

It won’t be easy. We’re going to be “groundbreaking” for a while. There’s a reason we use that term – the word connotes moving earth! There are the myriad issues in our own community, not the least of which is what, exactly, these women will end up calling themselves (the school is granting Maharat). And we know from the experience of the liberal denominations that even once there are women rabbis, the issues don’t end. I don’t think we even know yet, exactly, what it will be like in the future. Just by doing what they’re doing, they’re already changing the landscape. For what I mean, see a piece written by another friend for the Lilith Blog – Rabbis in Red Lipstick.

There’ll be more new, old, unchanging, ever changing issues.

But for now – I’m so immensely happy for and proud of the three graduates, and can’t wait to see what happens next.


5 thoughts on ““New” versus “Groundbreaking”

  1. I must take issue with her statement that she finds it sad that women abandon rabbinical callings to become teachers . . . As if that’s somehow lower in status. Teachers can, and should be, recognized as leaders at the same level as rabbis. Some of us have more education than some rabbis out there. While I’m beyond thrilled that Orthodox women now have an opportunity to lead in a way they haven’t before, lets not relegate teachers to the same category as CEOs.

    • I think her point was more that if you WANT to be a rabbi, anything else is a compromise – even if it’s to do another great thing, it’s still not your initial calling, if that makes sense.

  2. When a male rabbi decides to teach in a day school or university setting, do we say that he has abandoned his rabbinical calling? If not, then why would we say that when a woman does. Otherwise, sure, I agree with everything. Although I do think that it is important to note that women have been studying these topics in many settings, including institutional settings, for years. It was mostly “catch as catch can” and nothing really ever led to a terminal rabbinic degree, but there have been programs for years that train women in the areas in which male Orthodox rabbis train–kashrut, Shabbat, taharat hashmishpacha, pastoral counseling–etc. I daresay that many women have the equivalent knowledge of that of men who get semicha from Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, and many men work in positions similar to those of men who have such semicha. (Not to denigrate such semicha, but…) The same is true of semicha that male Lubavitch shluchim get–women have that knowledge and have been doing equivalent educational, inspirational, and community-organizing work.

    I want to support Yeshivat Maharat and these three women without denigrating the generations of women who preceeded them. This is new, but it’s not entirely new. And it’s not entirely groundbreaking, even if those who oppose Yeshivat Maharat want to claim that it is, or even if Yeshivat Maharat wants to claim that it is.

    Wow, I guess I had stronger feelings about this than I thought!

    • I think to say that by being a teacher in a day school or university setting, you don’t do everything that a rabbi does. There are many, many things that are the same, but not all of them – and the rabbi has made that choice to teach, rather than to be engaged with a community in the way a pulpit rabbi is. The women who made that choice often made it out of necessity or practicality.

      I’m sorry you got the impression that I was saying the previous kinds of study didn’t count – given that I studied myself at Pardes for a year, and have lots of friends who have gone through various programs at various places (Nishmat, Drisha, etc), I’m certainly aware that A LOT of study has been going on in all of these places, and in the ones that you mentioned. In addition, I believe Melissa is going to write about one of the Maharat precursors in a future post. We’re well aware that there are lots of women role models.

      My point was that this isn’t exactly totally groundbreaking or new – but there are elements that are new, and it’s really important to acknowledge that. The title, the institutional setting, all of that – and not just any institution, but one interested solely in confirming women with that title – it’s nothing to sneeze at. I think we can acknowledge that, without denigrating what has come before.

      And yes, my feelings are pretty strong about it too 🙂

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