Israel allows government councils to pay non-Orthodox rabbis

The Israeli government will begin paying non-Orthodox rabbis and recognizing them as community leaders.

The attorney general’s office advised the Supreme Court Tuesday that Reform and Conservative rabbis in some parts of Israel will be recognized as “rabbis of non-Orthodox communities” and will receive wages equal to those of their Orthodox counterparts.

Only rabbis in farming communities and regional councils—not in cities—will be able to receive this funding. The vast majority of Israeli Reform and Conservative communities are in large population centers.

The attorney general’s office has said that for now, up to 15 non-Orthodox rabbis may receive state support. Before this decision, only Orthodox rabbis received state funding.

The non-Orthodox rabbis will receive their salary from the Culture and Sports Ministry, rather than the Religious Services Ministry—which funds Orthodox rabbis. In addition, according to The Jerusalem Post, funding will go only to the rabbis of communities that request it.

“We have a long-term goal to have an inclusive, democratic, pluralistic Israeli society,” said Rabbi Daniel Allen, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. “We’re going to be patient and persevere until the ideal meets the real. This is one step forward in that effort.”

The attorney general’s announcement follows out-of-court negotiations over a 2005 petition by the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism and Miri Cohen, a Reform rabbi in central Israel’s Kibbutz Gezer.

The movement and Cohen petitioned for the state to fund the Gezer Reform community and Cohen in the same manner it funds Orthodox communities and their leaders.

Earlier this month, the panel of judges presiding over the negotiations—led by Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein—asked the attorney general to intervene.

North American rabbis protest conversion policy

Dozens of North American Orthodox rabbis protested to Israel’s Interior Ministry following reports that converts under Orthodox auspices are being denied the right to immigrate.

“We are concerned that conversions performed under our auspices are being questioned vis-à-vis aliyah eligibility,” said a letter delivered to the ministry on Tuesday. “We find this unacceptable, and turn to you in an effort to insure that those individuals whom we convert will automatically be eligible for aliyah as they have been in the past.”

On Wednesday, a meeting was held in Jerusalem to discuss the issue. Participants included representatives of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Nefesh B’Nefesh, ITIM—The Jewish Life Information Center, the Jewish Federations of North America, Israel’s Interior Ministry and the chief rabbinate, according to Rabbi Seth Farber, ITIM’s director. Farber, a central figure in organizing the letter, told JTA that the Interior Ministry, led by the Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party Chairman Eli Yishai, did not agree during Wednesday’s meeting to retract its policy of consulting with the chief rabbinate on issues of Orthodox conversions, but did agree to consider each aliyah request by Orthodox converts on a case-by-case basis and to continue the discussion.

The Chief Rabbinate has become the defacto central body in determining the validity of Orthodox conversions, and it only recognizes about 20 religious courts in North America, mostly affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America. Conservative and Reform converts are certified as Jewish by the central bodies of their respective movements.

In response to the letter, the plenary of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors adopted a resolution brought by the Unity of the Jewish People Committee calling on the Israeli government to confirm the Jewish Agency’s role in determining the eligibility of new immigrants.

The resolution passed Tuesday on the last day of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting in Jerusalem and was initiated by Chairman Natan Sharansky, who told the board that Israel’s chief rabbinate should not be involved in determining who can be allowed to immigrate to Israel.

“I want to separate the argument about conversion from the recognition of Judaism for the sake of citizenship-eligibility under the Law of Return,” Sharansky told Haaretz. “It’s so important that a person who undergoes conversion according to the tradition of his community and who the community accepts as a Jew be eligible to make aliyah under the Law of Return.”

L.A. Orthodox rabbis want business ethics to be kosher, too

Seeking to accentuate Jewish traditions that place a premium on ethical integrity, Los Angeles Orthodox rabbis are encouraging local businesses to sign up for a new seal of certification that ensures employers are treating workers fairly and humanely.

The move comes in response to allegations over the past year that the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa, routinely violated the rights of its employees, many of them undocumented workers and many of them underage.

“We have always considered ourselves to be a light onto the nations — we’re the ones who are supposed to be a paradigm and example and role model for the rest of the world of what it means to be an ethical, moral, Godly person,” said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, leader of Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park. “If the world or if the media is looking askance, for whatever reason, at the Orthodox community, then it behooves us to address the issues.”

Korobkin rallied his colleagues, Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, to address the national crisis in kosher confidence by turning an eye toward businesses that serve the Jewish community on a local level.

They will offer, at no cost, a rabbinic seal of approval to any business or institution that volunteers to undergo scrutiny to verify that employees are being treated according to local, state and federal labor laws. The certificate will not be tied to kashrut in any way.

“We felt we had to do a kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God’s name], and the kiddush Hashem was to be really concerned about the employees and how they are being treated,” Muskin said. “It has nothing to do with kashrut — this goes way beyond kosher eateries and butcher shops and bakeries. We want to know our schools and shuls and businesses are treating employees correctly.”

The three rabbis, and Rabbi Steven Weil of Beth Jacob, introduced the concept to their congregants in sermons during the High Holy Days. They have volunteered their own synagogues to be analyzed first and then within the next few months, hope to expand to other shuls, schools and businesses, starting mainly with the Pico-Robertson corridor and reaching out as the project grows.

A similar initiative in Israel, Bema’aglei Tzedek, was founded in 2004.

Last year, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism created Hekhsher Tzedek, a certification for kosher food processors that encompasses fair treatment of workers, corporate integrity and environmental responsibility.

The Los Angeles group is calling itself Peulat Sachir: Ethical Labor Initiative, based on language from the verse in Leviticus 19 that prohibits an employer from withholding wages overnight from a worker.

“Whereas we are appropriately extraordinarily careful about the laws of kashrut, clearly we have an attitude that is less rigorous and perhaps even somewhat lackadaisical when it comes to this whole other vitally important area of Jewish law,” Kanefsky said. “A religious community has to be very concerned about kashrut, about education, about mikvah [ritual bath], and it has to be very concerned that the people we interact with on a regular basis are being treated in way that is halachically proper.”

Peulat Sachir will involve itself in six areas: minimum wage, overtime, rest and meal breaks, workers compensation, leave policies and anti-discrimination protections. A lay board of labor lawyers, businesspeople and others with expertise in the field will analyze business practices by looking at paperwork and talking with employees.

The board will not deal with the complex area of immigration status. Labor laws apply equally to documented and undocumented workers, explained Craig Ackermann, a labor lawyer and lay leader on the project.

Businesses will not have to pay for certificates, but the rabbis acknowledge that businesses may have to spend more to qualify for the certificate, if, for instance, they have to start paying for overtime, giving paid leave or making sure workers get appropriate breaks.

Whether businesses which are not now in compliance will risk having to pass those costs on to customers is an open question.

“As people committed to halacha (Jewish law), we pay what has to be paid so we can fulfill the halacha — we do it for kashrut, we do it to teach our children Torah. Should we not do it for the halacha of following the law of the land or of how we treat our employees?” Kanefsky asked.

The halachic concept of “dina demalchuta dina,” the law of the land is the halacha, makes legal adherence and Jewish law one and the same, he pointed out.

Ackermann guesses that the first businesses to respond positively will be those that are already in compliance with labor laws.

The rabbis are hoping that once consumers begin to ask for the certificate or more heavily patronize businesses that are certified, business owners will see the benefits, both moral and monetary, to being able to display a Peulat Sachir certificate in the window.

“We’re hoping this is something store owners won’t be able to dismiss easily,” Kanefsky said. “And frankly, the idealist in me believes that store owners will want to be a part of this mitzvah of raising awareness about this in our community.”

Over the next few weeks, the rabbis will continue to constitute the lay board and will reach out to businesses and different segments of the community. They are contacting leaders of the Iranian community, because a large percentage of the businesses on Pico Boulevard are Iranian owned. They are also reaching out to the right wing of the Orthodox community, which on a national level has been wary of similar projects.

That debate came into focus last month, when the right-wing Agudath Israel of America reacted tepidly to an announcement from the centrist Orthodox Rabbincal Council of America (RCA) that it is creating a guide to labor ethics to be distributed not only to kosher producers but to all businesses.

The RCA, which serves as the halachic adviser for the Orthodox Union (OU) kashrut certification agency, said it will write into kosher supervision contracts the need for companies to comply with all local and federal laws regarding labor and environmental issues. While the OU has long had a rule on the books that its certified companies must be in compliance with the law, this gives more teeth to the provision and raises awareness among kosher purveyors.

The RCA’s new guidelines will also delineate talmudic and biblical business ethics beyond American law, which it hopes businesses will voluntarily adopt.

Korobkin expects that the ethics initiative in Los Angeles will spread to other communities.

“I am hopeful that this will raise a greater level of awareness within various elements of the Orthodox community that this is an issue that needs to be addressed,” Korobkin said. “I think many times we in the Orthodox community want to know how to react to crisis, and sometimes the way we react is by having a tehillim [psalm reciting] rally, or we speak about the need to daven [pray] harder, or to do teshuvah [repentance]. We feel this is form of teshuvah, as well — this is a form of raising awareness in certain areas where there is room for improvement. We can act as a shining example to society at large and to other communities.”

For more information on the Ethical Labor Initiative, call (310) 276-9269.

Reform Rabbis Split Over Performing Mixed Marriages

Rabbi Deborah Bravo of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, N.J., went through plenty of placement interviews after her 1998 ordination as a Reform rabbi. Everywhere, she got the same question: not about her attitude toward homosexuality, not whether she wore a kippah and tallit, but whether she would officiate at an intermarriage.

“It has become the litmus test for placement,” Bravo said in San Diego at last month’s annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform movement’s rabbinical association.

Rabbi Jerome Davidson of Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, N.Y., a member of the conference’s ad-hoc committee on intermarriage, hoped to introduce a resolution at the convention calling on the organization to condone rabbis performing intermarriages, as long as the non-Jewish partner doesn’t practice another faith and the couple is open to leading a Jewish life. That’s the standard required by most Reform rabbis that perform mixed marriages.

Knowing it was still too controversial to pass easily, however, Davidson and his colleagues put off a resolution until the conference’s next convention in March 2007.

Even then, it will be a tough sell. Still, the issue undeniably is heating up.
Unlike their Orthodox and Conservative colleagues, who are not permitted to perform intermarriages, Reform rabbis are discouraged but not forbidden from doing so. A 1973 conference resolution declares the group’s opposition to members participating in any ceremony that solemnizes a mixed marriage, but the resolution doesn’t bind rabbis to that policy.

Consequently, Reform rabbis — as well as Reconstructionist, Humanist and unaffiliated rabbis — must decide on an individual basis whether they will perform intermarriages. Many say it’s one of their most difficult decisions.
“The question of officiation is a very tricky one,” said Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “It’s the only time where we say no.”

“No” is not a popular answer in today’s Reform congregations, Reform rabbis say. Though there aren’t hard numbers, it’s estimated that about half say yes.
Their ranks are growing every year, forced more by pressure from their congregants — many of them intermarried themselves — than by any theological revision.

Rabbis at the conference convention said the tipping point may finally have been reached: At a time when half of all new Jewish marriages involve a non-Jewish partner, Reform rabbis who refuse to perform intermarriages feel they’re on the defensive.

Rabbi Morley Feinstein of University Synagogue in Westwood said that he won’t officiate at an interfaith wedding, but that the Reform movement should continue with efforts to include non-Jewish spouses in the synagogue.

“The key thing is not the actual performance of the ceremony,” he said. “The key is what are we doing beyond the ceremony to integrate the family into Jewish life.”

On the other hand, rabbis who do officiate believe that they can finally be open about their stance.

“We need to be realistic,” said Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. Turning mixed couples away at the altar is “enormously hurtful.”
Some Reform rabbis believe it’s time for the conference to adopt a nuanced acceptance of the practice.

“We’re living in a new era of American Jewish life,” Davidson said.
The 1973 resolution discouraging rabbis from officiating at intermarriages was predicated on the assumption that those unions “invariably led to assimilation,” but growing numbers of mixed couples joining Reform congregations and raising Jewish children have disproved that thesis, Davidson said.

“We should be ready to be there when the couple begins its Jewish journey, assuming we feel that’s the journey they’re going to take,” he said.

Others, like Rabbi Steven Fox, the conference’s newly installed executive vice president, think the time isn’t right. The conference should unite Reform rabbis rather than set potentially divisive policy, Fox said, adding that rabbis who don’t perform intermarriages need the support of the conference for their increasingly unpopular decisions.

Even many rabbis who do perform interfaith weddings say it should be an individual decision, not movement policy.

After two decades of not officiating at intermarriages, Rabbi Judy Shanks of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, Calif., said she changed her position in 2003 out of “admiration for the non-Jews in our community whose selflessness, dedication and commitment to creating a Jewish life have strengthened the life of the synagogue.”

It became clear to her, she said, “that if these people are making themselves part of us, then I want to be there for them at every important life-cycle event.”

But she came to her decision on her own, in consultation with other rabbis she respects.

“I don’t think the CCAR needs to establish a position,” Shanks said.
What emerged from discussions at the convention was how carefully Reform rabbis are making these decisions, and how similar their reasoning is, no matter what they decide.

“Those of us who do mixed marriages feel we’re strengthening Judaism. Those of us who don’t do them feel we’re strengthening Judaism,” said Rabbi Alvin Sugarman of The Temple in Atlanta.

Some say their refusal to perform mixed marriages has led the non-Jewish partner to convert later, out of respect for the rabbi’s position. Others say that performing the wedding and embracing the mixed couple from the beginning eventually leads many non-Jewish spouses to convert.

Those interviewed agreed that the officiation debate focuses too much on just one step, and perhaps not the most important step, in what should be an ongoing journey of Jewish engagement.

Rabbi Howard Jaffe of Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Mass., won’t give couples an answer over the phone. He brings every couple in for a personal talk, to open a dialogue that he continues even after the marriage.

Citing a recent study by Brandeis University’s Cohen Institute, Jaffe said there’s no evidence that a rabbi’s position on performing mixed marriages plays a role in whether or not couples feel welcome in the Jewish community.

“More important than having a rabbi at the wedding is the kind of welcome the couple gets down the road,” he said.

To help rabbis share their decision-making processes, as well as information on how they conduct interfaith wedding ceremonies, Ed Case of announced at the convention that he’ll create a relevant resource center on his group’s web site.

“Whether a rabbi should officiate or not is not the issue,” Fox said. “How we help the mixed marrieds engage in Jewish life is more important.”

Spectator – My Husband, the Rabbi

The first time the word “rebbetzin” appeared in The New York Times was in 1931, in a review of a book about Yiddish theater. The term stood untranslated; the reviewer and his editors assumed that readers would understand the meaning.

The word has gone in and out of favor among those whom it describes, but the role itself has been an influential one, albeit not always recognized, over the last century in the American Jewish community. The first book to study the evolution of the role and the women who have filled it, “The Rabbi’s Wife: The Rebbetzin in American Jewish Life,” by Shuly Rubin Schwartz (New York University Press), not only honors many unsung heroines but provides a significant contribution to American Jewish history.

Schwartz, a professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and dean of its undergraduate List College, is the daughter, niece, wife and soon-to-be the mother of rabbis. Sadly, since beginning this book, her husband, Rabbi Gershon Schwartz, died suddenly, so she now has an additional role — that of widow of a rabbi. Although “The Rabbi’s Wife” is not at all personal, Schwartz’s insider’s perspective informs her book. Because of her background, she was able to gain access to rabbis’ wives of different generations, who felt comfortable opening up their lives and — when they had kept them — their files.

Schwartz began pondering related issues while a graduate student at the Seminary in the 1970s, as she noticed the number of women in her classes hoping to get into rabbinical school should JTS begin ordaining women. “It got me thinking: Here are these bright, motivated religious women, who felt a calling to the rabbinate. My question was where were all these talented women in previous generations? My answer was that a lot of the talented women married rabbis.”

These days, professionals do much of the work that once was taken care of by the rebbetzin: synagogues now have executive directors, assistant rabbis, education directors and youth directors. In general the traditional rebbetzin role continues to thrive mostly in the Orthodox community, where women cannot be ordained. One pocket where the role continues most clearly is the Lubavitch community, where rabbis and their wives do outreach work as a team. But among the other denominations, women’s roles have changed radically.

“Women don’t have to marry rabbis to lead,” Schwartz says. “In balance, the Jewish community is richer.”


Waiter, Hold the Knishes

They’re vanquishing the Viennese table, banning the bars, and even putting the kibosh on fancy kugels in Borough Park and other fervently Orthodox neighborhoods, where weddings have become extravagant — and very, very expensive — affairs.

A group of 27 influential Charedi rabbis will soon issue a takhana, or rarely issued formal guideline, setting strict limits on the number of people who are to be invited to an Orthodox wedding, the number of musicians hired to play, and even the type and amount of food that is to be served.

These rabbis, led by Yaakov Perlow, the chief religious authority of the fervently Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America, are leading a charge to change the communal culture around frum weddings, where even families of moderate means feel social pressure to invite upward of 1,000 people and serve them food from lavish smorgasbords set with everything from intricate ice sculptures to glatt kosher prime-rib-carving stations.

"It’s gotten to the point where the amount of money being spent on weddings is absurd," said Shia Markowitz, an Agudath Israel of America lay leader who is helping to organize the new guidelines.

Markowitz was at one wedding where the groom was a Kohen, and the caterer carved an edible statue out of watermelon pulp shaped to resemble two hands held up praying, in the Dr. Spock manner of kohanim.

Paying for such frills is taking too big a bite out of Orthodox families’ budgets, Markowitz said, since a bare-bones wedding today costs $35,000, and fancier parties easily reach more than $150,000. And that’s for one wedding alone, in families with four, six and even 10 children who need to be married off.

"People borrow money to pay for them, they take out second mortgages, and then are stuck because they can’t repay it," Markowitz said. The stress caused by these money woes "is even affecting people’s health and shalom bayis," or the peace in their homes.

The rabbinic authorities who have signed onto the takhana, which is still in draft form and being tweaked, include the leaders of the Torah V’Das, Chaim Berlin, Mir and Lakewood yeshivas, as well as rabbis from Monsey, Riverdale and Philadelphia.

A draft was distributed to roughly 3,000 people at the Thanksgiving weekend annual convention of the Agudath, where it sparked spirited discussion — almost all of it positive, according to people there.

Now news of the guidelines is spreading farther through the Orthodox grapevine, and members of the takhana-organizing committee have received phone calls from as far away as Israel and Los Angeles, expressing support and interest in applying them there.

But there has been some negative feedback, too, which has already made the guidelines more generous than they were in earlier drafts: at first the rabbis wanted to ban beef from the list of potential entrees and limit the number of musicians to four.

Now beef is again an acceptable alternative, along with chicken or fish, for an entrée to be accompanied by not more than two simple side dishes, preceded by soup or salad, and followed by an un-fussy dessert, for a total of no more than three courses, according to the guidelines.

A one-man band is the preferred alternative, but up to five musicians may now be hired. Ideally, artificial flowers are to be rented, and gowns rented from communal services that supply the Orthodox community. But at most, no more than $1,800 is to be spent on flowers, Markowitz said.

There is to be no bar at weddings — a few wine and liquor bottles may be placed on tables — and the smorgasbord is to be a modest, primarily cold buffet. And there are to be no more than 400 adult guests invited.

Giving muscle to the guidelines is the fact that the rabbis who sign on — and organizers hope to have hundreds eventually committed — will refuse to attend weddings that don’t adhere to the takhana.

Now people will have to choose which prestige they value more — spending thousands on sculptures of chopped liver or having numerous rabbis in attendance, Markowitz said.

"Our goal is to bring down a $35,000 wedding to under $15,000," he said.

In their takhana, the rabbis will also do away with the vort, or engagement party, which used to be nothing more than a friendly l’chaim at the bride’s family’s house shortly after an engagement was announced, but in recent years has become like a wedding before the wedding, with hundreds of guests in a rented hall eating catered food running up a bill of thousands of dollars.

"People invite their 1,000 closest friends" to their engaged child’s vort, said Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the kashrut division of the Orthodox Union (OU). "It’s an imposition on everyone invited to something superfluous, which was invented by the caterers to waste people’s money."

Genack said he favors the takhana, even though his kashrut certification agency oversees caterers, whose businesses will suffer if the community adheres to the guidelines.

"I don’t think the focus of concern should be on the parnossah [income] of the caterers, but on what’s appropriate for the community," said Genack, who wasn’t sure if the OU or its allied rabbinical organization would take up a similar effort.

The takhana effort is garnering nearly universal acclaim, even from those whose pocketbooks will be hit the hardest.

"Would it hurt my business? Definitely yes," said Moishe Baum, owner of Baum’s Superior Caterers in Brooklyn, which handles weddings large and small, lavish and simple. "It definitely would take a cut of my budget, but I do believe that God has many ways of sending money, and we’ll find other ways to bring it in."

This isn’t the first effort by Orthodox leaders to rein in the lavishness of weddings.

The earliest recent attempt may have been by the Gerrer rebbe, who in 1978 issued a decree requiring his Chasidim to limit attendance at their weddings to 120 people or fewer, and instructing them to invite family up to the first-cousin level and not beyond.

"The community adheres to it," Baum said.

Years ago Rabbi Moshe Heinemann, a widely respected kashrut authority based in Baltimore, wrote an article in Agudath Israel’s magazine The Jewish Observer, appealing to people to use common sense and restraint when planning weddings. It did not have the power of rabbinic enactment, however.

But even more serious, and specific, rabbinic intervention in wedding matters is nothing new: Rabbis governing central European Jewish communities in the 16th and 17th centuries dictated to their mostly impoverished constituents how weddings should be handled — all the way down to the fineness of the lace on the bride’s wedding dress.

Orthodox Women Rabbis

The time has come to educate women and give them the titular and legal authority to right that which has gone so terribly wrong in the Orthodox world

The furor raised in Orthodox circles by 27-year-old Haviva Ner-David, who is studying in Israel to become the world’s first Orthodox woman rabbi, should have been no surprise to anyone. Old habits die slowly, some say never. Although halacha (Jewish law) does not technically forbid a woman from becoming a rabbi, the Orthodox claim that tradition prevents a woman from becoming one. Furthermore, because a few minor limitations on a woman’s public role in a synagogue would prevent her from fulfilling some of the responsibilities of a pulpit rabbi, the Orthodox claim she should not seek ordination at all. This argument, of course, is fallacious. Aside from easy solutions to such minor obstacles, most male rabbis also do not perform the role of pulpit rabbis; nevertheless, they are ordained.

Still others argue that female ordination distracts and detracts from the most important issue in the Orthodox community, that is the issue of the agunah (the married woman who is unable to obtain her Jewish divorce from a recalcitrant husband). To the contrary. It is precisely the agunah issue that should inspire Orthodox women to become rabbis and have the right to interpret halacha.

Historically, the rabbis have been the sole interpreters of Jewish law, the judges of conflicts affecting Orthodox Jews and the deciders of Jewish legal issues. The Orthodox rabbinate has been comprised only of men. Ergo, Jewish justice and legislation has been the exclusive domain of men. And they have miserably failed in that job, especially in the areas of Jewish law that adversely impacts women, such as the get (divorce) and chalitzah (the body of law that prevents a childless widow from remarrying unless her deceased husband’s brother releases her to do so).

The myriad examples of rabbinical impotence and incompetence in this area of Jewish law are staggering. Witness the male rabbis who failed to obtain a get for a woman even after they turned over the extorted funds to the husband. Read accounts of the severely beaten wife being urged by the rabbis to obtain her get by giving her abusive husband the money to appeal his battery conviction. Listen to the tale of the widow whose child died before her husband did in an auto accident, and was thus forced to beg and barter her freedom from her brother-in-law because, as a childless widow she was bound to her husband’s brother by Jewish law. Notice the Orthodox rabbis squirm to admit that the effects of Jewish divorce laws wreak abominable horrors on Orthodox women and children, but that they “cannot change halacha.” It is time to respond with the paraphrase of a popular quote: “There is nothing wrong with Jewish law, only with the people who interpret it.”

It is no secret that men are the sole constituents of both the Orthodox pulpit rabbi and of the rabbis who head yeshivot. Women do not count in the minyan, they are not called up to the Torah, and their role in the synagogue is strictly silent and invisible behind the mechitzah. Furthermore, major yeshivot have been traditionally seats of Talmudic learning, reserved exclusively for men; thus, rosh yeshiva rabbis need not answer to any woman. It is no accident, therefore, that few Orthodox rabbis would deign to offend their male constituents, dare incur the wrath and disdain of their colleagues, or risk being shunned by the Orthodox rabbinate by decrying that any halachic interpretation of Jewish divorce law that allows Jewish men such unfettered power to abuse women and children is a chillul Hashem, and should not be tolerated.

When Orthodox women denounced the rabbis’ ineptitude with claims that, ‘where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way,’ these claims were dismissed by the rabbis as ravings of ignorant women. At the same time, women were deliberately prevented from learning Talmudic law because the rabbis claimed that the sages forbade the study of Gemara by women.

How right they were. It is precisely this forbidden education that has opened women’s eyes to the need to help themselves. In a Canadian Orthodox community, women organized a mikvah strike when they became frustrated with the rabbis’ inability to help a woman obtain her get. Not surprisingly, the mikvahs did not remain closed for long before the men assured that the agunah obtained her get. But Orthodox women are beginning to recognize that such “Lysistrata” strategy is not only demeaning to both women and men, it has very little impact on the agunah problem at large. Orthodox women are now realizing that using their intellect and education will be far more effective in bringing global solutions to oppressed women and children in the Jewish world.

While the title “rabbi” does not automatically confer wisdom or godliness in the eyes of the public, it does validate the opinions of its possessor. It is an unfortunate truism that in the Orthodox community, when a rabbi makes a halachic decision that may be contradicted by an eminent scholar who does not hold the title “rabbi,” the populace will automatically accept the rabbi’s interpretation, even if the rabbi’s opinion is indefensible. (This phenomenon is not unique to the Orthodox community. A university professor with a Ph.D. may be spouting nonsense during his lecture, but if his theory is rebutted by a scholar who lacks the Ph.D. initials after his name, it is unlikely that many will disregard the professor’s assessment.) Thus, when Rabbi Avi Weiss proposed, at the International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, that in lieu of ordaining women as rabbis, these Talmudically educated women should be given the title morot (teachers), he was oblivious to the psychological impact that the title “rabbi” confers upon its recipient. Can anyone deny that in a halachic debate between rabbis and morot, the rabbis will always prevail, regardless of the validity or their opinion?

Orthodox women do not seek to become rabbis simply to “be like men.” To the contrary, Orthodox women have been traditionally trained to take private, rather than public, roles in the Orthodox community. However, when male rabbis consistently shirk their duty to do justice for all Jews, there is little alternative to allowing women to test their remedies. The time has come to educate women and give them the titular and legal authority to right that which has gone so terribly wrong in the Orthodox world.

Is this phenomenon likely to occur within the next few years? Are we destined to see mass ordination of women by 1998 or 1999? Not likely. But those who predict the permanent demise of such a movement will have a better shot at stuffing an escaped genie back into its bottle.

Alexandra Leichter is a family-law attorney in Beverly Hills, and is a member of the Modern Orthodox Westwood Village Synagogue.

All rights reserved by author, 1997.