My own spiritual guide, Rabbi Jan Uhrbach a woman ordained by the JTS more than a decade ago, helps me to understand why the first- time ever ordination of three women as maharats within the orthodox world is a time for celebration.
“Its not that I don’t have sadness,” she tells me. “But it’s not helpful to provoke an intense backlash. It is important for the women to get out there. For change to come about it has to happen on multiple levels. One on one relationships are hugely important.”
She reminds me that women rabbis were not so easily accepted at first, even in more liberal communities. “Even if halakha weighed less heavily, it was a difficult cultural shift.” What’s more, “People’s experience and the laws are related because halakha does not evolve in a cultural vacuum. The more voices heard, the more people are expanded and empowered, the less monolithc and the more hope for healing.”
I understand. It’s a step by step, steady, if slow, forward march that tiptoes its way around ingrained misogyny. But I have no doubt about the positive effects of these women going out in the world: The maharats are personable, warm, funny, they look you in the eye. They are erudite and informative without a touch of condescension. (They have their own understanding about life, different from a man’s. Two out of three of them were breast-feeding minutes before the ordination ceremony began.) Surely, they will bring who they are into the domain of halakha.
These three women, Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rachel Kohl Finegold, Abby Brown Scheier, the first maharats to go forth in the world, have daunting issues of work-life balance to work out. They are already adept at another kind of balancing act -they are authoritative, yet in touch with the flesh, caring, forthright and I assure you, fully human. It is for all these reasons, and a few others, that I get a little teary-eyed about their still being banished to balconies.