The committee of seven male rabbis was crystal clear in its report: “A woman should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position.”
That stance has been the rule in Orthodox Judaism for thousands of years. But in recent years, a few pioneering Orthodox women have pursued credentials as Jewish spiritual leaders — and four synagogues, including two in the Washington areas, have hired them as clergy.
Now, since those seven rabbis published their report in February, the Orthodox Union that serves as the organizing body for this most religiously traditional branch of Judaism is putting pressure on the four synagogues, urging them to modify the female leaders’ roles or face possible expulsion.
At Ohev Sholom, the Northwest Washington congregation that calls itself “the national synagogue,” the clergy insist they won’t change the role or title of their female leader, Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman.
“Our maharat is a beloved, beloved figure in our community, and people are inspired and in deep appreciation of her spiritual talents,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. “It’s not even negotiable.”
Yeshivat Maharat, a school established by liberal-leaning Orthodox rabbis, began graduating female clergy in 2013, giving them the title “maharat” — instead of “rabbi,” which has been conferred on women in the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements of Judaism for decades but remains reserved for men among the Orthodox.
Ohev Sholom became the first American synagogue to hire a maharat. Three more in the Orthodox Union — Potomac’s Beth Sholom, and synagogues in Los Angeles and New York — followed suit.
Herzfeld and Friedman said that the Orthodox Union did not initially complain when Friedman was hired, and only asked Ohev Sholom for a meeting to talk about her position after the rabbinical committee issued its opinion in February. The meeting happened on Wednesday.
The three Orthodox Union leaders who attended the meeting did not respond to inquiries from The Washington Post. A spokeswoman for the OU wrote in an email, “We do not believe it will benefit our private meetings to go public right now, as we don’t want to prejudice the ability to have meaningful conversations in an ongoing effort at resolution.”
The New York Jewish Week reported that the same three officials also planned similar meetings with the other three Orthodox synagogues employing female clergy. At Beth Sholom, synagogue president David Felsen declined to comment on the discussion with the OU. “Maharat Fruchter is an inspirational and powerful spiritual leader, who along with our rabbi brings a tremendous amount of spirituality to our community,” he said about Hadas Fruchter, the congregation’s assistant spiritual leader who was ordained by Yeshivat Maharat in 2016.
At Ohev Sholom, Herzfeld and Friedman said that the officials told them they are considering the four synagogues from the OU, and that they would make a decision in the future.
Friedman said that she used the meeting on Wednesday to explain her role in the synagogue. She answers spiritual questions, teaches, gives sermons on the Sabbath and officiates at weddings and funerals. But she does not do what a rabbi does — she is prohibited from leading a prayer service where men are present, to begin with. She too agrees that Jewish law strictly limits what a woman can do.
“I don’t lead services, because women don’t lead services in Orthodox law,” she said. When people ask why she doesn’t simply become a rabbi in a more liberal branch of Judaism, she explains, “I really believe in the Orthodox approach to Jewish law.”
But she doesn’t agree about how those Orthodox laws should be interpreted. The rabbinical report listed numerous explanations for why women should be prohibited from all spiritual leadership, including citing a 12th-century scholar’s writing that women should not be kings, and arguing that a traditional prohibition on a woman being a kosher butcher means a woman can’t hold any other religious authority over the community either.
Women can and should serve as teachers, counselors and administrators of synagogues, the report said. But they should not take on the regular duties of a rabbi, including officiating at life cycle events or giving sermons.
“We feel that the absence of institutionalized women’s rabbinical leadership has been both deliberate and meaningful, and should continue to be preserved,” the committee wrote.
According to Herzfeld and Friedman, the OU officials’ main objection, when they met on Wednesday, was not to any of the roles that Friedman performs at Ohev Sholom but to her use of the title “maharat.” They did not propose an alternate title, Herzfeld said.
“It’s not even negotiable to talk about changing the title for the purpose of demeaning her. Why else, if you’re comfortable with what she does? And you want to take away her title? That’s just demeaning to her,” Herzfeld said. “The fact that we’re treating her with the respect that we would give a man is what bothers them. That, to me, is a civil rights issue.”
Friedman agreed. “Certain people within Orthodoxy just seem to be uncomfortable with women having positions of leadership within the community,” she said. She said she will preach her sermon on the subject this week.
The Ohev Sholom community will support her, she said, even if the OU does not. The synagogue took a survey this month to demonstrate Friedman’s effectiveness: 161 people said that having a maharat brings value to the congregation, and just two did not.
Friedman’s presence has been especially important, Herzfeld said, for women rattled by the revelation two years ago that Barry Freundel, the rabbi at the other Orthodox synagogue in Washington, had been taking illegal photographs of women undressing for the ritual bath. Friedman has been able to counsel women at Ohev Sholom about using the bath and many other sensitive questions, including the complex laws surrounding menstruation and sexual activity that Orthodox women follow.
Women ask her questions, Friedman said, that they would not be comfortable asking a male rabbi. Thanks to her presence, those questions no longer go unanswered.
And the answer they get is based in the traditional Jewish law that everyone in the congregation embraces.
Regardless of the OU’s decision, Herzfeld insisted, “We are Orthodox.”
This post has been updated.