Synagogues with Maharats Are Still in the Fold, At Least for Now

Written by Malka Goldberg on . Posted in Community News

Disappointment tempered with optimism were the prevailing feelings among clergy members at two local Orthodox synagogues directly impacted by the Orthodox Union (OU) Board’s recent statement reaffirming the organization’s ban on female clergy.

Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, Maryland, and Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., both employ maharats — a title derived from the Hebrew acronym of “manhiga hilkhatit, rukhanit, Toranit” (female leader of law, spirituality, and Torah). In its Jan. 31, 2018 statement, the OU Board announced that it will continue to “urge” these and the two other OU-affiliated synagogues in the U.S. with maharats on their staff to “modify their practices,” but the OU will not be taking any punitive action against the synagogues at present since they have already employed female clergy for some time.

“The OU Board determined to continue its dialogue with these synagogues in the hopes that such continued dialogue can bring these synagogues fully within the parameters of the Rabbinic Responses,” the statement said. “The Board will evaluate the results of these efforts in three years.” In the meantime, no other synagogue will be able to hire female clergy without losing their OU membership.

“I’m disappointed that it is limiting for other communities who would want to hire a maharat,” said Maharat Ruth Friedman of Ohev Sholom, in response to the OU Board’s decision. “The statement is disappointing but also empowering, because even if [female congregants] see other people disagreeing with what we’re doing, they see that what we’re doing is right and will continue to embrace that for themselves.”

“I believe we should do everything we can to try to make it work with the OU,” said Rabbi Nissan Antine of Beth Sholom. “There is a lot [the OU] does permit — almost everything that is done by our maharat.” He stressed that “the whole movement toward female spiritual leaders in Orthodoxy has been done with great halachic care.” (Maharat Dasi Fruchter of Beth Sholom did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom said that his congregation is “100 percent in accordance with halacha [Jewish law]. We are so proud of the fact that we’re part of a community that recognizes that women can be amazing spiritual leaders for the Orthodox Jewish community.” Rabbi Herzfeld felt the OU’s statement overstepped the organization’s purview. “They don’t get to define what is Orthodox. That’s just not the way our tradition through the centuries has worked,” he said.

The Rabbinic Panel’s Ruling

The Board’s decision was based on the recommendations of the rabbinic panel the OU convened last year to answer two questions: Is it halachically acceptable for a synagogue to employ a woman in a clergy function, and what is the broadest spectrum of professional roles within a synagogue that women can perform within the bounds of halacha?

In response to the first question, the panel’s view was clear in its February 2017 statement: “We believe that a woman should not be appointed to serve in a clergy position.” As for the second question, the panel found it “appropriate for women to assume the following non-exhaustive list of professional roles within the synagogue setting in a non-clergy capacity” as teachers, scholars-in-residence, executive-level synagogue staff, counselors, and mentors.

While the OU did meet with leadership from all four synagogues over the past year, the rabbinic panel did not contact Beth Sholom nor Ohev Sholom as part of their decision-making process. “One of the critiques is that a lot of the rabbis on the panel weren’t necessarily engaged in the community so it wasn’t a good representation of Orthodoxy. It existed in a bubble,” said Maharat Friedman, referring the fact that six of the seven rabbis on the panel are affiliated with Yeshiva University and based in New York or New Jersey.

The Path Forward

All four women currently employed as clergy at OU-member synagogues graduated from Yeshivat Maharat, an Orthodox seminary for female clergy founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss. “The ordination of women has unquestionably been a positive development for Orthodox Judaism,” said Rabba Sara Hurwitz, president and co-founder of Yeshivat Maharat. She does not see the OU’s statement as a barrier to success for future graduates. “We continue to receive inquiries from community leaders and organizations that have expressed interest in employing our graduates and anticipate that our graduates will find meaningful work in prominent shuls, day schools, and Jewish organizations long into the future.”

Over the next three years, Beth Sholom hopes to build upon the rabbinic panel’s recommendations of what women can do to strengthen female leadership roles in Orthodox Judaism. “It is our shul’s intention to try our best to implement the rabbinic panel’s psak (ruling) within our shul,” Rabbi Antine said. “The rabbinic response says women can do a lot of things … if you put all of those things together in a job description, it is basically the job description of any maharat. We all have the same orthodoxy and need to make this work together.”

Maharat Friedman agreed that a focus on unity is key. “I just hope that we’re all able to remain part of one broader community. That would be nice. It would be a shame if the relationship ended.”

 By Malka Goldberg