Orthodox Women & Religious Leadership

Though the Orthodox rabbinate remains all-male, some Orthodox women have assumed para-rabbinic roles.

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Yo'atzot Halakhah

In 1997, Nishmat, a Jerusalem-based Torah study center for women, began to train female halakhic advisors, or yo'atzot halakhah, qualified to answer questions regarding the laws of Jewish ritual purity (niddah). The details of these laws, which relate to menstruation as well as other issues of sexuality and women's health, are subjects that some women are understandably uncomfortable discussing with a male rabbi.

A candidate to become a yo'etzet halakhah studies for two years at Nishmat and receives training from experts in psychology, women's health, and sexuality. Since the first graduating class in 2000, 61 women have been certified as yo'atzot halakhah. These women work in Jewish communities in Israel and in North America and answer questions via phone and Internet from women around the world on topics in women's health and halakhah, including issues of family purity, fertility problems, and sex education for teens.

The creators and graduates of this program are careful to call themselves halakhic experts or advisors--not halakhic deciders--to pre-empt objections that it remains the exclusive role of rabbis to give halakhic rulings (p'sak). Indeed, yo'atzot often turn to rabbis to resolve complicated issues. Due to the way the role is defined, the position of a yo'etzet is accepted in many Orthodox circles, including some that are to the right of center.

Women in Synagogue Leadership

Since the late 1990s, a handful of Modern Orthodox synagogues in the United States have created congregational leadership positions for women. While each synagogue has chosen a different title--community scholar, assistant congregational leader, education fellow, spiritual mentor--all these positions carry a job description that resembles much of what pulpit rabbis do, incorporating teaching and pastoral care.

Though the women who hold these positions might look like rabbis and sound like rabbis, they are careful not to call themselves rabbis. According to some liberal Orthodox thinkers, like Blu Greenberg, the opposition to women being called rabbi is sociological, psychological, and political--but not halakhic. Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law do prevent women from being witnesses or counting as part of a minyan, but women can do most of the jobs that male rabbis do, and Greenberg argues, if they have the required knowledge and training, they deserve the title.

Leaders in more right-wing Orthodox circles do not agree. Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, argues that the laws of modesty should prevent women from functioning as rabbis. According to Schachter, Orthodox women are not discriminated against by this limitation but rather are privileged to maintain their modesty in an immodest world. 

While a few women have received private ordination from Orthodox rabbis, most notably Haviva Ner David, Mimi Feigelson, these women have not been recognized as rabbis in mainstream Orthodoxy. In March 2009, after a defined course of advanced study, Sara Hurwitz received ordination from Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale as a Mahara"t, an acronym Weiss devised, which stands for "halakhic, spiritual, and Torah leader." Committed to training more women to serve as religious leaders of synagogues, schools, and college campuses, Weiss opened Yeshivat Mahara"t in New York in fall 2009.

Time will tell if there will be jobs and positions for the graduates of Yeshivat Mahara"t, and if the Orthodox sensitivities to a woman being called rabbi will change as more qualified and learned women are seen in religious leadership roles. In the modern world, where women hold public positions in so many areas, it is certainly likely that an increase in the numbers of women with advanced religious education and leadership experience will make a serious difference to the Orthodox community.

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Sarah Breger

Sarah Breger is a writing fellow at Moment Magazine in Washington DC.