Looking out onto the diverse tapestry that is contemporary Judaism, there seems to be a singular thread among many that inspires particularly intense debate within Orthodoxy. That debate is female clergy. Indeed, the Jewish thought-sphere has been raging for the last decade or more about the inclusion of female clergy as accepted members of the broader Orthodox community’s leadership structure. Whether the discussion has been “Maharat,” or “Rabba,” or even simply the notion of the first woman Orthodox “Rabbi,” each title stands nonetheless as a unique accomplishment and push forward for a dynamic Jewish social fabric.
Looking back more than ten years ago, one of the first modern pioneers of female clergy in an Orthodox setting is the luminous Rosh Kehilah Dina Najman. What is it that makes Rosh Kehilah Najman an exemplar of the future of Jewish practice in America? According to Rabbi Asher Lopatin, President of the Modern Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (and a member at Kehilah), Najman is an individual with a unique sense of: “Integrity, passion, warmth and brilliance all bottled together into a joyous, caring and inspiring human being who leads both Kehilah and Talmud education at the SAR Academy.”
Certainly, besides the demanding tasks of being the locus for a spiritual community, Rosh Kehila Dina Najman dedicates much of the remainder of her valuable time serving as the head of the gemara department at SAR Academy. Before officially receiving her ordination, she was adamant that she wanted a gender-neutral title and that she would be tested as rigorously as men. She also wanted non-gender specific language on her ordination certificate (shtar).
It is always worth exploring what pushes people to join the demanding field of religious clergy. As a child, Dina moved a lot since her father was a Yeshiva University-ordained rabbi and an esteemed chazan. But more than an ordinary rabbi, he was intent that his daughters learn Torah on a high level. So, after her elementary religious schooling, she continued on to Michlala (seminary), then Stern College, before moving onto Drisha Scholar’s Circle and to the yoetzet halacha (female adviser) program at Nishmat in Jerusalem (where she served as a shoel u’meishiv—someone who students can turn to for help in their learning). After graduation, there were not many positions open for women Talmud scholars, so she taught grad students in biology as she increased her scholarship in Jewish medical ethics (learning much from the Torah of the Tzitz Eliezer and from the guidance of Dr. Avraham Steinberg); she eventually became a certified bioethicist through the NYU/Einstein Bioethics and Medical Humanities program. Due to her mastery of the arcana of the field, she remains an in-demand lecturer on bioethics and halakhah for communities all over the world.
While Rosh Kehilah Najman did not then, and does not now, go by the clerical appellation of “Rabbi,” she was the first Orthodox woman specifically appointed to lead a congregation and has since been highly influential in paving a path for women who find their calling at the pulpit. And, it should be noted that besides being a quiet trailblazer and a font of emotional support for her community, RK Najman is a serious Torah scholar, a leading theorist on the topic of Jewish bioethics, all the while leading Kehillah, a thriving synagogue located in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, and raising children. Ordained by world-renowned Orthodox rabbi, luminary, and scholar Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber in Israel, she paved the path for countless women (and men) who will emulate her journey as community leaders when their calling comes to them.
Despite all the progress, there certainly have been times where it has been a lonely path for RK Najman. Presumably, even more challenging is shifting public stories that write early leaders out of the narrative. Even more, she talks about the challenge of “halakhic amnesia” that people today “forget” all the earlier precedence from Jewish tradition of women’s learning, teaching, leadership, and pesak (halakhic leadership).
Yet, despite all the obstacles and push-back, RK Najman persisted. But not only has she persisted, she has been given the opportunity to take Orthodoxy in bold new directions. In my own spiritual work as a rabbi, I’m constantly inspire by RK Najman and her overflowing love for Jewish learning; she is a go-to source of pesak for many today. She is a very prominent and active member of Torat Chayim, the newly-formed and growing progressive Orthodox rabbinical association, showing moral leadership on causes that have vital import for today’s society.
Looking towards the future, I know that RK Najman yearns for the day where there will be equal colleagueship at the pulpit and for crucial educational paradigm shifts toward co-ed ordination programs. Today, there are many individual Orthodox rabbis ordaining Orthodox women and a growing number of Orthodox institutions that are taking the courageous and crucial leap to ordain women (even when some don’t refer to it by the traditional term smicha). While it may seem futile to wonder what Orthodox Jewish practice will look like a century from now, one element is clear: the dominance of men in the clergy will be tempered by the inspiring presence of thoughtful, intellectually-driven women taking the reigns in synagogue leadership roles. I pray for that day. Until then, the Jewish community should look towards paragons of excellence like Rosh Kehilah Dina Najman, for her model will be the one that countless people—women and men—will follow in generations to come.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.