Ramie Smith. Photo courtesy of Yeshivat Maharat

Hiring ordained woman to teach at Shalhevet accentuates Orthodox rift

The recent hiring of an ordained woman to teach at Shalhevet High School has underscored the ongoing conflict between traditional Orthodox groups that oppose female clergy in title and function and more progressive groups that believe women deserve the same opportunities as men.

Ramie Smith is joining the school’s Judaic Studies faculty, making the Modern Orthodox school the second Orthodox institution in Los Angeles to have an ordained Orthodox woman on its staff. In 2015, B’nai David-Judea added Alissa Thomas-Newborn to its clergy team.

Shalhevet High School Head of School Ari Segal addressed the potential controversy of hiring Smith in a June 14 statement.

“While we recognize this legitimate point of contention, at this juncture, our priority is focused squarely on the quality of our education. Ramie is a superstar, plain and simple,” he stated. “She will serve as a dynamic role model and a significant force in our school.”

In 2016, Smith graduated from Yeshivat Maharat in New York, the first yeshiva to ordain women as Orthodox clergy. She was hired to teach a class, be involved in prayer and co-author a Jewish sexual ethics curriculum, according to Segal.

Smith said she understands that not everyone is ready for a female clergy member — and that’s OK with her.

“Embracing diversity means respecting each institution’s choice to do what works for them,” she told the Journal.

While Thomas-Newborn’s hire clearly is at odds with the umbrella organization Orthodox Union’s (OU) policy, which discourages its members from elevating women to the highest clerical positions, Allen Fagin, OU executive vice president in New York, declined to comment on Smith’s hiring at Shalhevet.

Critics of the progressive wing of the movement, which is often known as Open Orthodoxy, argue that the acceptance of ordained women is a break from Orthodox tradition. Rabbi Joshua Spodek, incoming head of school at YULA Girls High School, said his school’s worldview — hashkafa — falls in line with the OU. 

“We align ourselves and we view ourselves as a feeder school to Yeshiva University Stern College [for Women], and we’re aligned with the Orthodox Union in terms of their hashkafa,” he said.

Part of the debate among those who accept female clergy has focused on what to call them. Titles have ranged from “maharat” — a Hebrew acronym for “Jewish legal, spiritual and Torah leader” — to “rabba” or “rabbanit.”

Following the recommendation of Yeshivat Maharat, which encourages its graduates to work with the communities that hire them in establishing titles, Shalhevet is giving students the freedom to call Smith whatever they want, provided it is respectful. She was known as “rabba” at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York, where she worked before coming to Los Angeles.

“We aren’t determining a title and so parents and students will work out what they call her directly with her,” Shalhevet Principal Noam Weissman said.

Smith dismissed concerns over her title. “There is a time and place for the politics of women’s titles; that place is not my Gemara classroom. I am more than happy to talk to students about my title, the politics of women’s ordination, or anything else, but not at the expense of the Torah I am here to teach,” she said.

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in English communications with an emphasis on television writing and public relations and a focus in women’s studies at Yeshiva University. She previously worked on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” as a production assistant and intern.

She joins a Judaic Studies faculty that includes Segal’s wife, Atara Segal, who has been studying Jewish law at Nishmat, a Jerusalem-based Modern Orthodox institution for women; and Ilana Wilner, who holds two master’s degrees from Yeshiva University.

Since its establishment in 2013, Yeshivat Maharat has ordained 14 women. In 2010, Nishmat created a program for women to become yoetzet halachah, advisers on family purity laws.

The changes come despite strong opposition by the OU. “We feel that the absence of institutionalized women’s rabbinic leadership has been both deliberate and meaningful, and should continue to be preserved,” the group said in a February announcement, supporting a ruling signed by seven rabbis.

B’nai David-Judea denounced the OU statement at the time of its release, with Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky describing female clergy as “halachically valid.” In a recent interview, Kanefsky said his intention had not been to cause controversy but that he had been acting in what he believed was the best interest of his shul.

“One of the things I fear just in general is that people might perceive what I am doing, what we were doing, as divisive,” he said. “It is certainly never the intention to be divisive and my hope always is that we can all express our Orthodox commitments in ways we can be mutually respectful of.”

Known as a “rabbanit” at her shul, Thomas-Newborn can perform many — but not all — clergy functions at the shul.

This past spring, OU representatives on a fact-finding mission visited B’nai David-Judea and the other three OU-member synagogues not in compliance with the OU.

“They’re going to take what they discovered back to their board, who will have to render a decision as to what to do with the four synagogues not in compliance,” Kanefsky said. “That’s as much as I know.”

The other synagogues not in compliance with the OU position are the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale — Smith’s previous employer — Ohev Shalom in Washington, D.C., and Beth Sholom in Potomac, Md.

Thomas-Newborn, when hired by B’nai David-Judea, was “morateinu,” a term created by the synagogue, meaning, “our teacher.” Last year, the synagogue changed the title to “rabbanit.”

“ ‘Rabbanit’ is the title that was best for our shul,” Thomas-Newborn said. “It recognizes my education, speaks to the female role, gives kavod to the work I do, is tied to our tradition already, and is being used in Israel and America by other Orthodox women serving in similar positions. It is a beautiful title that I am honored to have.”

Thomas-Newborn welcomed Smith to the community, one ordained woman to another.

“I am thrilled she is joining the L.A. Orthodox community and teaching at Shalhevet,” she said. “I look forward to continuing to learn with her and from her.”  

Why does a shul need a Maharat?

A recent opinion piece in the Washington Jewish Week by Barbara Zakheim praised her Orthodox congregation (the National Synagogue in Washington, DC) for hiring a Maharat, a female spiritual leader. She describes herself as “ECSTATIC!!” (formatting hers) about the role the Maharat, Ruth Balinsky Friedman, has been playing in her shul.

The reasons Zakheim gives: Maharat Friedman is knowledgeable and humble. She shows female Jewish leadership, shares words of Torah, and answers religious questions – especially those relating to family purity. She leads women-only discussions, and helps comfort female mourners.

And, Zakheim is quick to add, she is “delighted” that she doesn’t “ever feel that our Maharat is a feminist or leading a feminist movement.” She’s just an example of how the existence of increasingly educated Jewish women “warrants female leadership along with that of men.”

If all of that is true, why does the shul need a Maharat in the first place?

All the roles Zakheim describes have been played by Jewish women for centuries – by rebbetzins,mikvah ladies, and older relatives. Despite Zakheim’s protestations, the reasons the title Maharat exists in the first place are explicitly feminist.

The Open Orthodox segment of the Jewish community that has been pushing for women’s ordination (at first with the title Rabba, then Maharat) is not interested purely in having women answer halachic questions and comfort mourners. That’s nothing new. Even roles that have not been consistently played by women – such as giving divrei Torah to mixed groups – do not require any change in the nature of ordination.

Incidentally, Zakheim is wrong about whether Maharat Friedman is a feminist. In a 2013 interview with the Web site mayan.org, she said, “I would assume people classify [me and my classmates] as feminists. I would infer that people believe that we are the next step in putting [Orthodox] women in the public sphere and encouraging women to take positions of spiritual leadership within the community. I absolutely identify as a feminist.”

Supporters of the Maharat movement want to demonstrate to the world that Judaism ascribes equal (not equally valuable – equal) status to women and men. As Zakheim put it, Maharat Friedman is “a shining example of overall female leadership for my granddaughters, who also attend my synagogue. They are growing up witnessing that female spiritual leadership is normal… This also applies to the male children in our community, for whom a Maharat is now the norm.”

That represents, precisely, a feminist agenda – and one that is alien to traditional halachic Judaism. Showing young boys that a woman can not only play a feminine leadership role, but also be just as “official” as a male clergyman is not a goal contained in any of our religious texts. It is simply Western political feminism grafted onto traditional Judaism, and does not deserve to be called Orthodox.

Zakheim concludes that she looks forward to “the time when every modern Orthodox community hires a Maharat or the equivalent and reaps the benefits of their leadership as the National Synagogue does today.”

Anyone who supports an Orthodoxy wedded to our tradition rather than infused with foreign and possibly ephemeral value systems should be anything but ECSTATIC!! should her wish come true.

David Benkof is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof); or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.