Fe­male clergy col­lide with Or­tho­doxy

Wash­ing­ton syn­a­gogues sup­port women lead­ers rab­bis ruled dis­si­dent

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY JULIE ZAUZMER

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 area, 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 ma-

Three more — Po­tomac’s Beth Sholom, and syn­a­gogues in Los An­ge­les and New York — fol­lowed suit.

Herzfeld and Fried­man said 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 Wed­nes­day.

The three Ortho­dox Union lead­ers who at­tended the meet­ing did not re­spond to in­quiries from The Wash­ing­ton Post, nor did the pub­lic re­la­tions staff at the OU. 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.

Herzfeld and Fried­man said that the of­fi­cials told them they are con­sid­er­ing ex­pelling Ohev Sholom and the three other syn­a­gogues from the OU, and that they would make a decision in the fu­ture.

Fried­man said she used the Wed­nes­day meet­ing 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 in­harat. sti­tu­tion­al­ized 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 Wed­nes­day, was not to any of the roles 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; just two said the op­po­site.

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 il­le­gally pho­tograph­ing women un­dress­ing for the rit­ual bath. Fried­man has been able to coun­sel women at Ohev Sholom about us­ing the bath and on 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.”


Ma­harat Ruth Balin­sky Fried­man is a leader at North­west Wash­ing­ton’s Ohev Sholom, one of the coun­try’s four Ortho­dox syn­a­gogues to buck the tra­di­tion’s guid­ance by hav­ing a woman in such a role.

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