WASHINGTON – In a few weeks, Ruth Balinsky Friedman will move from New York City to her new job at Ohev Sholom synagogue in northwest Washington, the start of what may be one of the biggest social experiments in modern American Jewish Orthodoxy.
Friedman is the first woman hired by a U.S. Orthodox synagogue to be a maharat, or female spiritual leader, a new clerical position meant to give women the same education and training as rabbis but with a carefully chosen title that preserves gender distinctions essential to the Orthodox.
The 28-year-old, who wears a head covering, is one of three women who graduated last month from a new school founded by several prominent but controversial rabbis on the liberal fringe of Orthodox Judaism.
Ordaining women in any clerical roles has been forbidden among Orthodox Jews, as in many other traditional faiths. By creating the maharat position, the rabbis who established the school Yeshivat Maharat are pushing the issue of whether and how women can be religious leaders.
To some, the trio who graduated June 16 are violating the spirit if not the law of Judaism by filling a public role akin to rabbi. To others, the maharat are simply being given proper training and status for a job Jewish women have been doing informally for millennia.
About 10 percent of American Jews are Orthodox, but they make up about half of those under 18 because of their high birth and retention rates. The rabbis who created the maharat are part of modern Orthodoxy, a growing segment of Orthodox Judaism that is more open to advanced secular education and women’s progress. But they are on its frontier, and it remains to be seen whether their thinking on women’s spiritual roles will spread.
The major Orthodox organizations have opposed or stayed silent on the maharat but have not tried to censure synagogues that hire them (in fact, all three graduates of the new Yeshivat Maharat have jobs, including one at Canada’s largest Orthodox synagogue). But some experts say that in the long run, the issue of women’s roles will divide Orthodoxy.
“The right wing will not accept it and dig in their heels even more. What remains is what will happen to the center, or will there even be a center,” said Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union, the nation’s largest Orthodox body.
While other denominations of Judaism — including Reform and Conservative — have been ordaining women since the 1970s and 1980s, the Orthodox have resisted. Orthodox women, however, have been slowly gaining parity in religious and secular education, high administrative positions in synagogues and in their secular careers. Worship leadership, though, has remained off-limits.
Traditional Jewish law is silent on specifically whether women can be rabbis. It is clear, however, that women can’t be religious judges or witnesses at such events as weddings, and they don’t count toward a minyan, the 10-person minimum required for prayer. The minyan requirement has meant that men — feeling obliged to make sure prayer services can be held — go to synagogue more and become synagogue leaders.
Orthodox groups, which have condemned the maharat, say the concept violates the basic Jewish idea of modesty and the reason Orthodox synagogues separate men from women.
The maharat say they aren’t crossing any new red lines. They will not lead Torah services or be counted in minyans. But they note that the role of rabbi has changed over the centuries. Rabbis in Judaism are not like Catholic priests; they are not required under Jewish law for any spiritual task, and the word is derived from the Hebrew “teacher.”
The new position is being presented as something akin to an assistant rabbi. When Friedman starts at Ohev Sholom on Aug. 1, she will give sermons and lectures on the Torah, shape programming and serve as a pastoral counselor.
At a synagogue filled with women who work as judges, doctors and political operatives, the step to a maharat wasn’t huge, and Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld said there has been little controversy. That said, multiple requests to interview members of the 300-family synagogue were turned down. A couple of members agreed to be interviewed.
Alisha Klapholz, 32, said modern Orthodox women in the area need learned females they can go to for personal issues, including Judaism’s detailed laws concerning sex and menstruation. Klapholz is getting married later this summer, and she said she had to go to New York to find a scholarly modern Orthodox woman she could relate to.
“She’ll be good for the community. A lot of the opposition is fear of the unknown,” said Klapholz.
Only time will tell whether Orthodox Jews as a whole will embrace women as public spiritual leaders.
“Clergy is built on relationship. That’s how it’s effective in general. And Maharat Ruth will be very effective,” Herzfeld said.
Growing up the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi in Evanston, Ill., Friedman never saw women in spiritual leadership roles, she said.
Friedman was taking advanced Torah study classes in 2009 when Yeshivat Maharat was founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss, the leader of a mega-synagogue in New York called the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Weiss is considered the father of “open Orthodoxy,” which prioritizes interfaith efforts and expanded leadership roles for women.
Steve Lieberman, who goes to Ohev Sholom, said it’s important to keep being innovative about welcoming Jews at a time when Americans are fickle and searching for spirituality.
“The typical argument is ‘mesorah’ — tradition. When someone says ‘tradition,’ they mean the problem isn’t Jewish law. That’s why this is important — so in 20 years it won’t be contrary to Jewish tradition,” Lieberman said. “It’s just like when people saw Jackie Robinson wearing number 42. It made it easier for the next generation.”