Banished to the Balcony?

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.

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Maharats, Misogyny and Marching On

It was a late spring-time graduation unlike any other, a landmark event in Jewish history.  On June 16th, at the Ramaz School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, for the first time ever, with the bestowal of a parchment and the recitation of a specially chosen biblical phrase, three women became spiritual leaders and legal authorities within Orthodox Jewry: Our sister, may you become a multitude. (Genesis 24:60).

On stage, the three women and their mentors looked out on a crowd of cheering supporters from across Jewish denominations.   The founder of Orthodox Feminism, Blu Greenberg exulted in” the sea change,” while Rabba Sara Hurwitz, Yeshivat Maharat’s Dean, said, “This is the beginning of a new reality. This room is made up of visionaries and risk-takers.”

Intoning a phrase from the Song of Songs, Rabbi Avi Weiss, Yeshivat Maharat’s champion and founder, was both empowering the women and responding to his critics: “Hashme’enee et kolech,” or let me hear your voice, he chanted as in deep meditation, strategically adding,“Your voice as poseket (legal arbiter) is sweet.” His self-styled mantra was also a position statement. It let his right wing detractors know that these maharats would be setting a few legal precedents of their own and what’s more, there was no use invoking the prohibition of  “kol isha” often used in the past to silence women’s voices entirely.

When Rabbi Weiss bestowed the title rabba on Sara Hurwitz in 2010, it evoked such a furor that he backed down. Better to call these learned women “maharat”  and move forward, rather than risk censure, and consequent shunning of his rabbinical school’s male candidates, along with the women, within the Orthodox mainstream.

For all these reasons, the ordination was underpinned with a tacit agreement to emphasize the remarkable achievement of the day rather than its political concessions. While I cheered and clapped and swayed along with the others, I was constrained by something I can best describe as low-grade heartache.

A pioneering educator of Orthodox girls, who prefers to remain anonymous, lent his words to my distress. “This is certainly a step in the right direction. Still it’s like graduating medical school and not being allowed to call yourself a doctor.”

The maharat must publicly agree to more than dropping the campaign for a rescinded title. She is also clear about her adherence to the halakha even – or especially – when it denies women full-fledged human rights. Yes, the maharat is ordained, she is even in demand for paid pastoral positions (the bill for which so far, is largely being footed by wealthy women supporters not the synagogues, but that too could change.) However – and this is the part that is surreal to me –  in accordance with halakha, these ordained women are not to be called to the Torah, nor can they effectively say kaddish or serve as witnesses. They cannot even be counted as a full-fledged adult in making up a minyan. Sara Hurwitz’s well-known quip, “We don’t have to make up the minyan, but only to be sure that there is one” reminds me of Billy Holiday entertaining a well-heeled crowd at the Waldorf Astoria, but coming in through the service entrance in compliance with racist restrictions.

Susan Reimer-Torn is a writer and journalist and  the author of the upcoming memoir: Maybe Not Such a Good Girl.


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Seeking and Disbelief

My disbelief in a God who causes these events does not free me from seeking God in them when they do occur.”        Arthur Green , Radical Judaism

But there is one curious statistic regarding not only the three graduating maharot but also the other 11 women candidates in upcoming classes. In the time since their schooling began, there have been among the married women students, 7 births. And as it happens, each and every one of the newborn babes is a girl.

My me’AZ study companions rush into the breach. Eve, an earth goddess turned rabbinical student, exults in the dawning of a new age of feminist enlightenment. “Why else all girl babies?” She’s pretty sure she can read the signs. Meanwhile,  I grimace, reminding the group that according to some rabbis in the Talmud, all girls and no boys is a divine curse.

“My disbelief in a God who causes these events does not free me from seeking God in them when they do occur.” Radical Judaism.

From the beginning of time (me’az) and nowadays with renewed vigor, we tread a winding, unmarked path where sometimes its not so easy to tell the difference between a blessing and a curse.

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A First Graduating Class

Last week I was assigned to do a piece on the upcoming graduation of three women, each of whom is about to become a Maharat. Once ordained as a Maharat, each of the three women will be – and yet will not be– the equivalent of an orthodox rabbi.

A little background: In 2010 a certain modern orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss engendered a storm of protest by conferring the title rabah (feminine form of rabbi) on a rigorously-trained woman candidate. After the furor simmered down, it was agreed that eligible women were to be granted the hopefully far less controversial title of Maharat. Their role is to serve as teachers, spiritual advisors and even, interpreters of the law (halacha) to orthodox congregations.

There is still an audible grumble of opposition. On one side (let’s call it the religious left) there is regret that the women did not fight for a title which would declare an obvious parity with male rabbinical colleagues. On the left, we are also dismayed that a Maharat must eschew equalitarian prayer quorums and accept that a woman may not be called to the Torah, be counted in the minyan or admitted as witness in a court of law. (Many among the modern orthodox have already relaxed these rulings but the Maharat is not really all that modern.)

Opponents on the religious right decry “a crossing of the lines” and “a blurring of gender distinctions,” that can only lead to even worse things. Any encroachment on certain cherished principles (think of the defenders of second amendment rights ) is for them, the beginning of a slippery slope to a feared and reviled egalitarianism.

Folks on both sides of the controversy see in the first graduating Maharat class a significant first step when it comes to Orthodox women breaking out of traditional constraints. It is a new leadership role, even if a very cautious and polite one. Change we are reminded happens slowly, over time. But happen it likely will and that is either a very good or an unspeakably bad thing, depending how you happen to view it.

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Ayekah? It means – where are you? Unexpectedly, the sparks fly.

The question keeps appearing in Radical Judaism like a rallying cry:


So, where (the heck) are you?

This is an echo of God calling out to a guilty Adam in the Garden of Eden. (The Divine Interrogator was far less concerned with the whereabouts of Eve though she is fingered as the instigator of humanity’s first naughty deeds.)

Hey you – yes, you – where do you stand?

And what are you actually doing about it?

What responsibility are you assuming?

Is your voice being heard? What action are you taking?

Art Green says this is the defining moment; ayekah is the essential question to which the Jewish conscience must reply.

Several in our me’AZ study group – mostly those with secular and left-leaning upbringings – find this a seemly and welcome wake up call. But, one woman has a different take. She protests that all this emphasis on personal responsibility weighs us down with a life-long burden of guilt. “We can never live up to it,” she laments and I, like her, a daughter of the orthodox, know all too well what she means.

I make a mental note to invite her along to my yoga and meditation classes. There, the kindly teachers are forever reminding us that “we are enough.” Growing up, that’s not a message we often heard. Frankly, I can’t imagine what life would have been like if we had.

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I belong to an Upper West Side woman’s study group called Me’AZ. The name arises from our study of Avivah Zornberg, hence the initials AZ. In Hebrew it means “from AZ” and also, loosely translated, “from then on” or more poetically, harking back to long ago. Even though women may not have gathered in study groups such as ours since the before-time, the collective feeling, the text and issues we grapple with are ancient, so the name fits us just fine.

Me’AZ  has become accustomed to admitting of paradox and lowered expectations when it comes to take-away truths. But this, if you ask me, is a sign of shared spiritual maturation. Right now, we are completing the study of Radical Judaism by Arthur Green.

Rabbi Art G writes, “For me the personal God is … a set of projected images that we know and use rather than an ultimate reality.” And a few paragraphs later he says, “Yet I still affirm there is a God who seeks us out.”

We spend maybe a little more time than we ought to untangling the conundrum: How can a non-entity, even a divine one, seek us out? Each of us gives the idea a spin, weaving in a little Hasidic tale here, a little Mordecai Kaplan there and something of our own. It’s a long, warm, light-filled Shabbat afternoon and no one is in the usual kind of hurry to get things done.

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This is not about women playing dance. It’s about revolution.

The most courageous fourteen year old girl I have ever set eyes on, Malala Yousafzai, was shot in the head for her advocacy of education for women and I am spending my time organizing a flash mob of dancing women to promote gender equality. Is there something wrong, even laughable and inappropriate, with this picture?

Women Dance for a Change  was  inspired by a repugnant, though far less deadly, assault against Jewish girls seeking an education: I refer to the worldwide outrage in response to ultra-Orthodox men in Beit Shemesh spitting on young women going off to school.

Within a week of the Beit Shemesh incident, Miri Shalem organized a flash dance in the town’s public square. This has led to a new movement called Women Dance For a Change.

On October 26th, there will be another flash dance in Israel, this time to raise awareness of breast cancer:  Jewish, Palestinian, Christian and Arab women will join in the round.

I have long danced. It is my way to exorcise personal demons, indulge the quiet-mind moment, make music visible, communicate without words and live fully in a woman’s body.  But when a 14-year old activist and women’s very lives are threatened by such murderous hatred, is it a time to dance?  Or, as in the famous verse of Ecclesiastes, is it more appropriately, a time to mourn?

I am not alone in pausing to question the suitability of dance at a time of life-threatening crisis. Is it too playful? Too non-confrontational? Is dance, in sum, too celebratory to be considered a powerful tool of social change?

Gillian Shuttes responds to those questions on I quote at some length: Dance denotes a freedom of body, mind and soul. It is both a celebratory and rebellious act in that it speaks of a freedom of movement, a non-restricted relationship to body and is the antithesis of an oppressed, restrained and violated body.

It is erroneous to think of celebration as non-revolutionary. Celebration is the ultimate rebellious act in a world that is dictated to us by non-celebratory forces.

It is every woman’s right to live in a celebratory world – one that celebrates her sexuality, her beauty, her wisdom, her body, her right to be orgasmic and free.

I wish I had written these words myself. It is why I dance and why I support Women Dance for a Change. Take a look.

This is not about women playing dance. It’s about revolution.

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