“Facts on the Ground:” An Ironic Approach to Orthodox Female Rabbis?
A curious thing happened last week regarding female Orthodox rabbis. When the umbrella organization for Orthodox Jewish congregations denounced female clergy for the third time in five years, they actually accepted that there are, in fact, female Orthodox rabbis.
Eighty years ago, Regina Jonas of Berlin was the first woman ordained as a rabbi, but decades passed until the next woman, Sally Priesand, was ordained as a Reform rabbi in America in 1972. Next came Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, the first woman ordained as a Reconstructionist rabbi in 1974, and the Conservative movement ordained Amy Eilberg in 1985. Despite the acceptance of female rabbis in the more liberal streams of Judaism, Orthodox Judaism has maintained its opposition to the ordination of women.
Until recently. Avi Weiss, founder in 1999 of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a modern Orthodox seminary ordaining men, established Yeshivat Maharat in 2009, a seminary for Orthodox women that trains them for the rabbinate. Weiss ordained Sara Hurwitz in 2009, who has since become dean of Yeshivat Maharat and has overseen the ordination of 11 women. Their titles vary, sometimes referred to as “maharat,” an acronym that describes their role (teacher of Jewish law, Spirituality and Torah), and sometimes referred to as “rabbah,” a feminized version of “rabbi.” Many of those ordained currently serve in rabbinic positions in Modern Orthodox congregations around North America.
Over the years, Weiss has faced attacks from mainstream Orthodoxy, and his students—both male and female—have had their status as clergy questioned and doubted. In 2010, The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) declared, “We cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate.” In 2013 they re-affirmed this earlier statement; both statements refuse to even recognize Weiss’ female graduates as rabbis. The RCA similarly rejects the status of Weiss’ male graduates, as they are not permitted into the umbrella organization. In response, Weiss has quit the RCA and formed a new organization for Orthodox clergy, the International Rabbinic Fellowship, where both his male and female graduates are welcome.
But the statement from The Rabbinical Council of America last week seems to acknowledge the reality of Orthodox female rabbis while rejecting their employment in the mainstream Orthodox community. Last week the RCA wrote,
RCA members with positions in Orthodox institutions may not (1) Ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; or (2) Hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution
With this pronouncement, the RCA implicitly acknowledged the presence of Orthodox female rabbis while forbidding any RCA rabbi from hiring one. Instead of denying their validity as rabbis, or not recognizing the years of training that qualifies them to be rabbis, the RCA directed its pronouncement to congregations who may want to hire one of the Yeshivat Maharat graduates.
This stark difference in statements is likely due to the approach that Yeshivat Maharat has taken. It’s what they call the “facts on the ground” approach. In 2009, Rabba Sara Hurwitz introduced Yeshivat Maharat to the Jewish world with the an article titled, “Yeshivat Maharat: Facts on the Ground.” Just this week, Melanie Landau, who was ordained in the Spring of 2015 at Yeshivat Maharat, wrote, “We are facts on the ground. I am the Rabba the RCA is decrying.” In a song written and sung by a current student at Yeshivat Maharat, the songwriter sings to the RCA, “You can’t take us down with some scary little words that you write on the page. When there are facts on the ground that Orthodoxy needs more women in leadership positions because there already are.”
This “facts on the ground” approach is usually affiliated with the Israel-Palestine conflict, where Israeli politicians have invoked the phrase for decades to support settlement building in the West Bank. If Jews are settled in areas of the West Bank, the logic goes, the land will eventually become part of Israel’s international recognized territory. It’s a controversial approach within Israeli politics because it has been used to justify the colonialist method of settlement building. This is precisely what has made the possibility of Israel withdrawing from the West Bank so complex. As of data from 2013, there are almost 550,000 Israelis living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a “fact on the ground” that makes life more difficult for Palestinians in these areas and makes the possibility for peace more distant. As Israel has established over 125 settlements in the area occupied since 1967, they have attempted to draw new borders for the State of Israel. This is how the Israeli government has tried to change policy with facts on the ground.
Therefore, it is surprising to see the movement for Orthodox female clergy embracing this ideology. It is associated with colonialism, imperialism, and oppression of the vulnerable, ideas that feminists such as these surely oppose in the religious realm. Just to be clear, I fully support the advancement of women in religious roles in Orthodox Judaism. Their approach frames their proposed change as reformist and not radical, a move that will, in the long run, be most effective. Orthodox female clergy demonstrate that congregations have a need for female clergy and no terrible calamity has befallen Orthodoxy since women began serving as clergy. Their intentional use of “facts on the ground,” though undoubtedly strategic and even admirable given the fact that the overseeing body refuses to grant them justice, unfortunately aligns them with an extremely controversial political movement.
And the RCA’s rejection of the approach when it comes to female clergy is similarly problematic, for they have ostensibly approved of Israel’s settlement building in an effort to expand Israel’s borders to include the West Bank. In a statement from 2012, the RCA supports Israel’s development of the E 1 Corridor, a section of land in the West Bank that will connect East Jerusalem to Ma’ale Adumim, one of the largest Israeli settlements, effectively extending the border of Jerusalem to include this settlement and somewhat bifurcating a Palestinian state in the West Bank. In earlier resolution, the RCA supports Israel’s development of the West Bank, using the religious terms to refer to the geographic area, “Yehuda and Shomron.” Although a brief investigation does not yield any explicit support of “facts on the ground” as a tactical approach, it appears that the RCA does not oppose Israel’s method of settlement building and in some cases might endorse it. The RCA, therefore, seems to employ the tactic when it benefits them and deny it when it comes to women’s advancement in leadership roles. Both responses reinforce patriarchal and religious domination.
What this approach and its resulting responses from the RCA have made clear is the significant divergence between the leadership of Orthodox Judaism and its members who are more open to female rabbis. Judaism does not have a pope (and I’m thankful for that!) but these overseeing bodies of rabbis like the RCA try to function like localized popes, making decisions for their flocks. Survey after survey reveals, though, that Catholics do not adhere to Church doctrine in a variety of areas. There are pro-choice Catholics and gay Catholics, for example, who find a way to merge their liberal political attitudes with their faith. Although some might want to claim they are simply not Catholic, as some may want to say that a rabbah is simply not Orthodox, the fact is that they are and she is. So the gap between leadership and community is an implicitly accepted constant.
One may think that this dismissal of authority would eventually lead to the weakening of authority, but it doesn’t seem to be going in that direction. Despite hostility from the Catholic leadership, women religious haven’t given up on their attempts to widen the role for women in leadership positions in the Church, and the new rabbahs and maharats of the world won’t either. These women aren’t walking away from this particular religious life because the leadership doesn’t reflect the community. Instead, they hope, they can become part of the leadership and better serve the community.
The only question that remains, though, is who will supplant these new leaders when they, inevitably, no longer reflect the community? Will others try to create new “facts on the ground?”