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 a rabbi. To others, the maharat are simply being given proper training and status for a job that Jewish women have been doing informally for millennia, a point that Friedman is quick to make.
“We take the position of leadership in the community and formalize it. Positions before were women taking their own paths to gain that knowledge,” Friedman said.
About 10 percent of American Jews are Orthodox, but they make up about half of those younger than 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 other branches of Jews, 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 — of which modern Orthodox Jews are a part — 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 Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union, the country’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 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.