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August 9, 2013 9:14 am

Treating Orthodox Jewish Women as Equals

avatar by Ronn Torossian

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From left to right, at the June 16 Yeshivat Maharat ordination ceremony in New York: Rabba Sara Hurwitz (dean of Yeshivat Maharat), Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Maharat Abby Brown Scheier. Photo: Maxine Dovere.

As the father of young daughters who are blessed to attend Modern Orthodox yeshivas in Manhattan, my girls are taught that their potential is unlimited. At home and at school, they are constantly reminded that they can do anything, and succeed at whatever they choose to do in life. As girls living in the year 2013, we tell them that there are no doors closed to them. Doesn’t every good Jewish parent teach their kids similar values?

Today, Jewish girls go to day school, then Jewish high school, and then universities. Indeed, women – in Jewish life and elsewhere – can do it all. They are able to learn, study, and (gasp) even master materials that many men cannot.  And once they get there, should they then rely upon men for guidance on Jewish issues? NO.

With all due respect, is a woman special because of who she is – or who she marries? A Rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) may indeed be a special woman – but shouldn’t we also have female Jewish communal leaders who are learned and well versed in Jewish issues? Shouldn’t Jewish role models be true Jewish spiritual advisers, whether they are men or women?

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For these and many other reasons, I have been inspired after recently spending time with Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, the Orthodox institution which ordains women as spiritual leaders. The women who learn at Yeshivat Maharat study high level curriculum – and are ordained as leaders of Jewish law, spirituality, and Torah. For many years, while countless Orthodox women have learned Torah, there hasn’t been a path for them to follow to lead communities. How can our community be served when half of our community is being ignored?

How can anyone adequately serve the community without understanding both women and Jewish law?  Whether on issues of “taharas hamishpacha” (family purity), marriage counseling, bat mitzvahs, or simply understanding a women’s mind, shouldn’t female Jewish leaders who are learned and educated consult – and lead – on these issues? Shouldn’t female spiritual leaders help women? Can’t women spiritual leaders bring a perspective that men don’t see?

Many Orthodox Jewish leaders stand firm on this issue – and indeed form a silent consensus. Rabbi Bakshi-Doron, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel wrote, “women can be the gedolim (the greats) of the generation and serve as halakhic decisors.”  And supporters of this view continue to emerge.

It is high time, in 2013, that women are encouraged to stand on their own. Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, and other women were ordained prophets. Much as Halacha is constantly interpreted, nowhere in our written or oral law is it determined that leadership or moral authority is restricted for women. Spirituality is not exclusively in the domain of men.

Strong, smart, learned, and accomplished Jewish women leaders are necessary for the advancement of Am Israel (the nation of Israel). This is about the future of our people.

My mother, Penny Waga, was a single mother who raised us alone. She was indeed the toughest, strongest, most spiritual person I ever met. She was a member of a woman’s tefiillah (prayer) group and taught us we could do anything and everything. Those of us with mothers or daughters need to teach Jewish girls (and women) that they can do everything and anything.

Today, women are equal to men. At a recent graduation ceremony at the Ramaz Jewish school, the graduating women were reminded:  “As you walk, remember that you are not alone. Ruth, Rachel, and Abby. Know that as you march forward, we- all of us—this entire community, walks with you.” Indeed, more members of our community need to celebrate and support this great blessing for the Jewish people that is Yeshivat Maharat.

For more information on Yeshivat Maharat email info@yeshivatmaharat.org or call (718)796-0590.

Ronn Torossian is an entrepreneur, author, and philanthropist. He is a self-described Type A personality – who believes women and men are different – yet both holy, and both capable of leading.

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  • Joseph

    ‘ordained prophets’? Prophets do not require ordination. Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel each had greater ‘Ruach Kodesh’than her husband Abraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov. You can go much further and point out that major crises in Tanach are resolved by women such as Moshe’s mother, sister and Pharaoh’s daughter; Esther, Naomi, Ruth, Devorah, Judith…. However, none of them was ‘ordained’. Nechama Leibowitz taught Torah to men but she was not ‘ordained’. As the Chofetz Chaim says in Mishnah Brurah regarding leaning at the Seder, today all Jewish women have the status of ‘distinguished women’ — but they don’t need to be ‘ordained’!

  • Rachel Yid

    the best line: “Shouldn’t Jewish role models be true Jewish spiritual advisers, whether they are men or women?” And “Much as Halacha is constantly interpreted, nowhere in our written or oral law is it determined that leadership or moral authority is restricted for women. Spirituality is not exclusively in the domain of men.”
    Great piece and I am sending a check to maharat today

  • Yossi A.

    Indeed, these are Orthodox women. The old school yidden may want to keep the wife locked in the kitchen, but the author is accurate in saying there is nothing in Halacha that this yeshiva does wrong or which isnt strictly Orthodox. What these women want is a seat at the table – and even in the religious Jewish world its time to accept it. Yasher Koach.

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