Wednesday, August 23, 2006

OMG-D An Orthodox Woman Rabbi

The New York Times (8/21) reported that Dina Najman, “a mother of three and an expert in Jewish bioethics, will become the spiritual leader of Kehilat Orach Eliezer, a small Upper West Side congregation. She will not be called rabbi; instead, she has been given the title of rosh kehillah, or head of congregation. It is the highest position in the community, and she will be performing many of the functions of a rabbi, within certain limitations that have been laid out by the congregation’s leaders in an effort to abide by Jewish law…While Ms. Najman will be the spiritual leader, because she is a woman she will not be allowed to lead services or read from the Torah. Nor will she be counted toward the minyan, or preside over certain events like baby-naming ceremonies and weddings. What she will do, however, is deliver sermons, answer questions about Jewish law from congregants, teach classes on Jewish texts and counsel people, all traditional rabbinical functions.”

When I read this I thought this was fairly innocuous and unimportant It turns out it is a big deal to the world of blogging. Modern Orthodox bloggers find the entire episode offensive. The distinguished blogger Hirhurim (8/17) sniffed, “this has nothing to do with Orthodoxy.” His reason was that although the congregation abides by Orthodox halacha, the previous rabbi was Prof. David Weiss-Halivni formerly of JTS and Columbia. It is therefore stamped with the original sin of Conservative Judaism even if its practices are strictly Orthodox and it is not a member of any conservative rabbinical organization. The irony here is that Prof. Halivni resigned from JTS when the Conservative movement agreed to ordain women rabbis.

The blogger Cross-Currents says, without any evidence, “It is fine that Congregation Kehilat Orach Eliezer, in the words of the Times, “functions essentially as a modern Orthodox community, seeking to adhere closely to halakah, or Jewish law. It’s close, it just isn’t all the way there.” I appreciate the pun on ‘close’, but a joke does not make somebody into a Conservative. In fact, the majority of Conservatives, especially the group that is now in charge, would consider this congregation far too religiously extreme. I don’t think Prof. Hauptman will be davening here in the near future.

Reading the comments on the various blogs, the main complaints against a woman leading a congregation seem to stem from two main underlying concerns. Some Orthodox men think a woman rabbi is an oxymoron. They just don’t think it is possible for a woman, whatever her competence in Jewish law, to be the leader of a shul. I think some of this has to do with the imagery in the study of Torah. If the Torah is marked as female, then the acts of penetrating the Torah, mastering its intricate details, clinging to the Torah, and even loving the Torah, seem to be naturally associated primarily with a male. Nature, itself, at least on the Orthodox view, favors heterosexual relations. Whatever the exact underlying psychology, many Orthodox Jews find it impossible to idealize a woman as a spiritual leader.

The second concerns come from Modern Orthodox Jews who feel that if they were associated with these abstruse, vaguely Orthodox groups, they would be exposed to devastating criticism from the right. Charedim don’t have a problem with this woman since it will be a long time coming before Rabbi Najman will be delivering sermons in the Vishnitzer’ Bais Medrash or any similar place. The Modern Orthodox realize they are vulnerable to criticism from charedim on their right because of the porous and somewhat indefinite left flank. They feel it incumbent to differentiate themselves from any changes that have not already been accepted by Modern Orthodoxy. All they have at their disposal, since Hashem didn’t lay down the rules for how to be Modern orthodox is the essentialist gambit: “You call THAT orthodox,” followed by eyes rolling upward. They seem to feel if it isn’t already common practice at Yeshiva University it can’t be Orthodox. These same Modern Orthodox are the first to characterize the Chasam Sofer’s slogan ‘’everything new is forbidden ‘’ as rigid and fanatic.

What we have here is a congregation that is either Orthodox or something in between Orthodox or Conservative, which has yet to be classified into some newly created denomination. There’s a huge space between left-wing Orthodoxy and the Conservative movement, and there’s enough room for a dozen variants. My view is the more the merrier. I think all these organizations, including Drisha, YCT Rabbinical School, the now partially defunct Edah group, The Union of Traditional Judaism, the Jewish Orthodox Feminine Alliance (JOFA) and many others that are in the making are all to be welcomed. In time all these grops may someday coalesce into a new ‘’frum- enough- and- MODERN’’ denomination in Jewish life. If this will force the Modern Orthodox to become more charedi, what can I say … it is difficult to be a Jew.


At 3:11 PM, Blogger Baalabus said...

1) Your sources are all right wing. Gil of Hirhurim is most definitely not MO, to say nothing of cross-currents.

2) Your statement Charedim don’t have a problem with this woman since it will be a long time coming before Rabbi Najman will be delivering sermons in the Vishnitzer’ Bais Medrash or any similar place contains a false premise. Haredim carp about the woman Rabbi out of self-vindication not just to MO but also to themselves, as if to say: see what happens when you abandon our rules! So Haredim do have a reason to speak about this, and not just MO as you claim. Recalling item 1 above, your claim remains without evidence.

3) In this and other posts you continually skewer the MO for an alleged fear of and inferiority complex towards the Haredim, and seem to blame the MO, exclusively, for preventing the achievement of the EJ vision: a continuum from Haredi to Conservative Judiasm (and perhaps further left of that). Haredim and your new classification, the Strictly Orthodox, continually recieve your fond appreciation for providing you with such life-enhancing, inspiring fodder in the form of Artscroll books. Haredim recieve scant blame for anything in your view of things. If EvanstonJew controlled the world what would he like to change exactly? MO more accepting of groups on the left, or Haredim more accepting of groups to their left? Answer this too, EJ: who do you think is more tolerant of Edah etc., the MO populace or the Haredi populace? Exactly.

This is the composite picture of EJ: he's pro-Conservative, pro-Haredi, but anti-MO. And this from a guy who wants a continuum?

At 5:22 PM, Blogger Gil Student said...

Gil of Hirhurim is most definitely not MO

Sure I am

At 6:10 PM, Blogger LitaLives said...

And here I thought I'm the only one to tear into EJ for skewering the MO & idolizing everyone else.

At 8:49 PM, Blogger Baalabus said...


I know times are changing when a bearded Broolynite, who wears a black-hat and davening jacket, sends his kids to a Haredi school, and consults Daas Torah at every turn, is offended when not considered Modern Orthodox.

At 3:43 AM, Anonymous blogyid said...

EJ-I enjoy reading your posts--what do you consider yourself to be? what kind of school do you send your kids to?

At 1:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I bet Gil will defend Eliyahu W Feral
as MO!!!

At 3:11 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

baalabus- I will respond as best I can in a blog specifically addressing your criticism, probably early next week.Despite your somewhat sour tone, I really do appreciate your close reading of my blog.

At 10:54 PM, Blogger Baalabus said...


I apologize for the unintended, but in retrospect now obvious, sour tone. I guess the tone was borne of a certain frustration, that while virtually every one of your posts is erudite and original, still, it's hard to reconcile it all together. It's almost as if you're two very different people at once.

Hope we're still friends.

At 8:42 AM, Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

Rabbi Najman

This is one of the reasons the right and center oppose giving women even halachically permissable, but uncustomary, roles. KoE went to great lengths to make it clear their Rosh Kehilla was not a rabbi. She herself studiously avoids making the claim. Nevertheless, as soon as this happens the phrase 'women rabbis' starts flying around. When the next round of the debate occurs you know some people are going to point to Ms Najman as proof that Orthodoxy already accepts women rabbis.

At 9:17 PM, Anonymous RebP said...

Very confused.

Why would anyone care if a woman learns Torah and teaches it publicly.

I know that people do, and I am aware that the gemara says ke'ilu melamda tiflus.

On that subject a)there are 2 pshatim in the pirush of the word tiflus and it is not AT ALL clear that the meaning is not like that of basar tafel -- as if the gemara is trying to say that since they are not chayav and men are, spend more time on the mechuyav than on the patur.

b) there is a de'ah (ben azai?) that it is mutar (chayav? see rishonim)to teach girls torah.

In addition, why is there a burning urge by certain factions to prove that I AM A RABBI TOO!

It is not original, not new, there are toanot in Israel, there are women who answer sheelot, lots of women study halacha . . WHO CARES.

The issue is not the study. The issue is the demand that I also need the recognition for that study. And they don;t. Torah is not about recognition.

As an aside, it also happens to be a fact that many of the rabbanim in prewar Europe never bothered to get semicha. They were accepted as authorities because they were knowledgeable and that was sufficient. To get semicha is to say that I want all the rights and responsibilities that come with it. Rights = paskening. Responsibilities = a woman can't have minuy lesrara.

You can;t have your cake and eat it too.

If a woman wants to pasken, do it w/o semicha.

If she wants semicha, don;t claim orthodoxy as your standard of choice.

Just my thoughts.

At 10:58 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

My good friend, a prominent Jewish educator explained to me the other day why she thought the appointment a big deal. She said ' The congregation spent a long time interviewing many candidates and then chose this women.It is a sign she was judged to be the most qualified leader/teacher by a group that had the privilege to have Halivni as their rav. It shows what a woman can acheive in the study of Torah'

At 10:34 AM, Anonymous RebP said...

I guess. I still think that people are superimposing their own weltaunschung onto their parents Judaism and this is the result.


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