For the sake of righteous women
While some in the Orthodox community cling to traditional positions, the boldest steps toward change and equality are being taken in Israel, often initiated and supported by Anglo immigrants.
In some synagogues, especially in Jerusalem, it is no longer unusual to see a group of women reading from the Torah scroll in a separate room or men and women divided by a flimsy, largely symbolic separation-curtain as they pray.
In Israel, women regularly appear as religious "lawyers" in the state-controlled religious courts, a position once reserved for men. A program opened last year in Jerusalem to train Orthodox women as "respondents" to deal with basic questions of religious law and sexuality - positions once considered the sole province of male rabbis.
Both of these programs were launched by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a former New Yorker who lives in Efrat. Riskin was also instrumental in paving the way for three women to serve on Efrat's local religious council, positions that had also been filled, with a few notable exceptions, almost exclusively by men.
But even as women progressed toward a more equal public role in Orthodox Judaism, until recently, it seemed that there was one title they would never be permitted to hold: rabbi.
But modern Orthodoxy could not remain immune to social change.
In 1972, the Progressive (Reform) movement was the first to ordain women rabbis. The Reconstructionist movement followed, graduating its first woman rabbi in 1977. Then, finally, the Conservative movement ordained its first woman rabbis in 1983.
The Orthodox movement has held out. Mimi Feigelson, a student of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, was ordained by a panel of three rabbis after her teacher's death. Feigelson, however, declines to use the title "rabbi," out of respect, she says, for the current social structure of Orthodoxy. Eveline Goodman-Thau was ordained in October 2000 by Rabbi Jonathan Chipman, but she, too, has minimized her role in religious affairs.
Until recently, Orthodoxy had yet to officially accept women as rabbis.
That too, it would appear, has changed.
Haviva Ner-David is an Orthodox feminist who has been a leader of some of the most prominent struggles in Jewish women's lives. Just before Pessah, she received her PhD in Jewish studies from Bar-Ilan University. And then, on the eve of Pessah, Ner-David was ordained as a rabbi in Jerusalem.
Ner-David, who has journeyed through feminism, Judaism and social action for the betterment of the status of Jewish women, admits that she is still not completely aware of the tremendous significance of these two events.
She knows that some Orthodox Jews will not accept her ordination and will not acknowledge her religious and social status as a rabbi.
Yet this young and quiet resident of Baka and mother of five says she is neither hesitant nor frustrated: the dream she began to cherish some 12 years ago is coming true.
"I am not the same woman I was at the beginning of this 12-year journey," she says reflectively. I have discovered a lot about myself and what it means to be a woman rabbi at the beginning of the 21st century."
Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky, well-regarded in modern Orthodox circles, signed Ner-David's ordination, mentoring and guiding her through her process of study. He is, he tells In Jerusalem, a strong believer in women's capacity for study and their ability "to swim in the ocean of the Talmud."
Strikovsky notes that the ordination that he gave to Ner-David is not the same as the more common ordination given to men.
"It is more of an official recognition of her achievements in her studies, that covered exactly the tractates and the issues men have to master in order to get an ordination," he explains.
"Practically, it is the same, since there is no objection to Ner-David providing answers and religious rulings to women who would come to ask her halachic questions, but in the Orthodox world and society it is not acceptable yet to ordain a woman."
Strikovsky acknowledges that the ordination was not granted in a particular ceremony. Yet he also says that Ner-David's knowledge and mastery of Jewish law are remarkable.
He further says that he would be "more than happy to see more and more women entering the world of Torah and Talmud. The only difference between Ner-David and any Orthodox rabbi is that it is not acceptable. But in all issues related to her learning and abilities, I see no difference."
Will women rabbis be more accepted in the future in the Orthodox world?
Strikovsky recalls the story of Osnat Barazani, who lived in Kurdistan in the 17th century. She was so deeply educated that her father, who was himself a rabbi and head of a yeshiva, ordained her and gave her the right to head his yeshiva after his death.
Concerned that his words might be considered as a qualification of her achievements, Strikovsky then adds, "In all other aspects - her piety, her knowledge and her dedication to Jewish law - I am not stepping back. I would especially like to point out her very deep and impressive knowledge of all the issues [Halachot] that are the crucial ones for men to be ordained."
What really matters, he says, is the ever-growing number of women who study Torah and Talmud. "This makes me happy and Haviva [Ner-David] is one of the best of these women."
Ner-David says that it is enough for her to receive smicha (ordination) from her revered teacher and that she did not expect him "to be so bold as to actually give her the title 'rabbi.'
"I have deep respect for Rabbi Strikovsky, and I am so grateful to him for all he has taught me, modeled for me and been willing to risk for what he knew was right," she says. "His hesitation to give me a title is understandable, but really that was not his role as I see it. He acknowledged my readiness to go out into the world and act in the role of a rabbi and he left it up to my community to decide what title to give me. And it seems to me already that my community has decided that it is ready for a woman rabbi.
"I have been called up to the Torah twice since my ordination, and both times, without my inserting the title myself, the gabbai [sexton] calling me up to the Torah called me up as Harav Haviva. People are already calling me rabbi, and so, it seems that there is a community out there that is actually more ready for this development than some might have thought."
Prominent Orthodox Jewish thinker and feminist Blu Greenberg notes that the criteria for becoming a rabbi today differ dramatically from standards prevalent decades ago. In one of her many essays, Greenberg writes, "A close look at the convention of ordination reveals that it is not a conferral of holy status nor a magical laying on of hands to transit authority. Nor does the process uniquely empower a rabbi to perform special sacramental functions that a knowledgeable lay person cannot. Ordination is the confirmation of an individual's mastery of texts (largely from the Talmud and codes); familiarity with precedents; and ability to reason analogically and apply precedents to contemporary questions."
She continues, "Conferring the title 'rabbi' is a guarantee to the community that this person has been judged fit by a collective of rabbis or by a single great scholar to give guidance on matters of the forbidden and the permitted, primarily as it concerns the laws of kashrut, the Sabbath and family purity. The smicha process assumes but does not even test for personal piety, good character or a spiritual bent. The formal criteria are almost wholly intellectual, but do not even test for personal piety, good character or a spiritual bent."
Greenberg believes that female rabbis, like their male counterparts, do not need to serve in a congregation or to be leaders of prayer in order to serve as rabbis.
"There are countless men," she writes in her book Judaism, "perhaps the overwhelming number, who have been ordained in the Orthodox community yet do not perform any functions additional to those of their lay fellows. So be it for women."
Greenberg has advocated for women to become rabbis since the mid-1980s. "Orthodox women," she writes, "should be ordained because it would constitute a recognition of their intellectual accomplishments and spiritual attainments; because it would encourage great Torah study; because it offers wider female models of religious life; because women's input into interpretation of Jewish text, absent for 2,000 years, is sorely needed; because it will speed the process of reevaluating traditional definitions that support hierarchy; because some Jews might find it easier to bring halachic questions concerning family and sexuality to a woman rabbi. And because of the justice of it all."
Greenberg is not alone.
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, rabbi of Los Angeles Congregation B'nai David-Judea in Los Angeles, wrote in an article published in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, "The stupidest thing the Orthodox community does now is not having women rabbis. It wastes intellectual and spiritual talent."
Yet despite the fact that her ordination has been granted by a well-known Orthodox rabbi, Ner-David says that she would not define herself as an Orthodox rabbi.
"I feel strongly that such labels only serve to divide the Jewish people in a time when what we need is unity. Moreover, such labels tend to limit at a time when what we need is a fresh perspective and new voices," she explains.
"I call myself a Jewish rabbi, a rabbi of and for the Jewish People. And that is actually true for the types of people I tend to counsel and teach...[I am] part of an emerging and growing post-denominational community of serious, struggling, committed Jews who are less interested in fitting in and more interested in finding an intellectually and spiritually honest path to God by listening to the rainbow of voices that can be heard through constant interpretation and reinterpretation of our traditional texts and rituals."
Ner-David adds that is precisely why it is so important that women enter the rabbinate.
"Until recently, Judaism has been molded and defined by men alone. It is now time for the voices of women to be part of the shaping of what Judaism will look like at this exciting point in history, a period of tremendous flux, challenging of norms, and spiritual searching. I think it is so important not to be confined by the Orthodox label, because I do not want to fall into the trap of needing to prove that I can play by the men's game, that I can be a 'good girl' and not rock the boat."
She continues, "What we need now is not women who simply want to prove that they can also be men, but rather, we need women who can bring a new and fresh perspective. In many ways, we are at a transitional point in the Jewish world. The world is changing and Judaism will have to change too, as it always has in the past.
"But it is crucial to figure out the right balance between innovation and tradition and the way to incorporate change without losing a sense of continuity with the past or the essence of Judaism's message about how we as Jews should connect to the Divine."
Ner-David says that "it is crucial that at this point in history, when women's voices are finally being heard in the general culture, that women be part of the conversation of how to bring Judaism into the 21st century. But we have to enter this conversation as ourselves, with our true voices, without trying to prove anything to anyone about how like the men we really are and can be.
"Even if men come to regret having agreed to share their power because we are not willing to comply with their rules, we must insist on having our true voices heard. Because what will we really have gained if we enter the rabbinate only to perpetuate the same patriarchal, hierarchical model that we have had until now?"
Having said this, Ner-David repeats that she is deeply committed to living a traditional Jewish life. And she is committed to Jewish law as a primary reference point for engaging in the discussion of how to live a Jewish life.
There have been few responses to Ner-David's ordination, and those few have been positive.
"I am very happy and proud of her," says Hanna Kehat, founder and leader of Kolech, the feminist Orthodox group in Israel. "The nuances - whether it is a usual smicha or not - are of no importance. What really matters is that women should turn to her and ask for her religious rulings, acknowledge her achievements and support her. Nobody will give us our rights, we will have to struggle for each step.
"So be it," she continues. "The important thing is to remember that it can be done. This is very happy news, for all of us."
Ner-David is part of a gradual, yet profound, cultural revolution taking place among Orthodox Jewish women, who are waging a determined struggle for a more equal role in the most tradition-bound branch of Judaism.
She wrote a book, Life on the Fringes, about her spiritual journey leading up to her decision to pursue this path. In her writings, Ner-David weaves her personal journey with her feminism, Judaism and religious analysis of some of the most pertinent issues regarding women and Judaism.
That journey has led her to take upon herself commandments that have been traditionally viewed as incumbent upon men, including praying with phylacteries (tefillin) and wearing tzitzit (ritually-fringed garment).
The journey has also brought her into social and political activism, including her involvement with Women of the Wall, a women's prayer group that seeks to pray out loud on the women's side of the Western Wall wearing traditional ceremonial garments, and Mavo'i Satum, a nonprofit advocacy group for women whose husbands have refused to give them a divorce.
She was also a founder of "Shira Hadasha," a progressive Orthodox synagogue that pushes the boundaries of Orthodox Halacha in terms of women's participation.
Ner-David is working on a second book that takes off where the last book left off, describing her continuing journey toward her ordination.
She says that she has always struggled to balance her often seemingly radical ideas with her love of tradition, and the book frames her personal spiritual journey through the three commandments specific to women: halla (setting aside a portion of dough when baking bread); nidda (laws of family purity); and hadlakat haner (lighting the Shabbat and festival candles), as well as other issues, including living in Israel at the height of the current intifada; creating rituals for miscarriage; and designing egalitarian Jewish wedding ceremonies that will guarantee women's equal status during the marriage and in the event of divorce.
In many ways, this Pessah, when she received both her PhD and her ordination, was a true Holiday of Freedom for Ner-David. She sees this as the end of one chapter of her life and the beginning of another.
"I felt so intensely what it must have felt like to leave Egypt and enter the desert: full of excitement and hope, and at the same time wary of the unknown.
But what will sustain me, as it has throughout this arduous journey of ups and downs, discouragements and validations, feelings of loneliness and feelings of incredible support, was my belief that as the Divine Cloud was guiding the Israelites in the desert, God is guiding me on my journey as well."