Who's That Woman in the Pulpit?

Shmuel Rosner
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Shmuel Rosner

NEW YORK - She waits patiently for the end of the service before going up to the synagogue's pulpit. This is the policy and she respects it. Women are not allowed there until the service has been completed. This is how it was before her, and this is the custom now. Some people around her don't get it - they think that she ought to propose a change. But Elana Stein Hain is not in any hurry. "Caution" is the key word in a conversation with her that took place recently in Manhattan's Upper West Side. This caution "is the only way for me to be effective," she said.

She is part of a new fashion that is getting quite a lot of attention in modern Orthodox circles in America, an offshoot of one of the few trends that are occurring almost simultaneously in America and Israel - the Orthodox women's revolution. Or to use plain English: women taking key, quasi-rabbinic roles in synagogues. They are almost rabbis, but not really. Or maybe really, but just not called by that name. They deliver sermons, but they cannot lead prayers, nor can they officiate at weddings. But maybe at other ceremonies: for example, funerals.

Elana Stein Hain is one of these young women. The Jewish Center has hired her to serve as a "resident scholar." She teaches, counsels and delivers sermons on Sabbaths and holidays. However, as noted, only after the entire prayer service has been completed. Not like a rabbi, who delivers his sermon between the shaharit and musaf services, or between the kabbalat Shabbat and aravit services. This is an Orthodox synagogue, after all.

And she is comfortable with this role, even with the limitations that Orthodoxy imposes on her. "I respect the system, and therefore I am also prepared to accept things that aren't exactly the way I would like them to be," she said. In any case, she herself is far from a revolutionary. Indeed, she believes that it is necessary to "preserve the differences between men and women," because "men are more gender-neutral" - a statement that is almost scandalous in its conservatism. She laughs at her congregation affectionately: When they hired her for this position, "they thought they were very cutting-edge," religiously speaking. But Stein Hain knows that they are in truth very traditional. They have not broken any barriers. Were it up to her, it is doubtful that they ever would.

Breakthrough or not?

The women who serve in Orthodox synagogues in New York - and one in Chicago as well - come from similar backgrounds. They all studied in the Talmud program at Yeshiva University or at institutions of learning like Drisha in New York or Nishmat in Jerusalem. Sara Hurwitz is a "religious mentor" at the Hebrew Institute in Riverdale, in the Bronx. Lynn Kaye has been given the position of "rabbi's assistant" at Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan and is defined as the "director of Jewish life and learning," a bombastic title for a role that is very similar to that of a rabbi. Among them are women who are revolutionary and those who are less so, women who are ambitious and those who are less so. Their roles are perhaps another step in a slow revolution, but there are those who believe that it is the last step.

In any case, the Orthodox women's revolution is above all a revolution of learning. This is what brought them in the first place to insist on a more central place and a more active role in their communities. Rivka Haut and Adena Berkowitz, who recently finished editing a bencher (booklet containing the grace after meals and other songs and prayers) entitled Shaarei Simcha ("Gates of Joy") that is intended primarily for women, noted this week, "Thirty years ago, women who participated in women's tefillah [prayer services] were considered beyond the mainstream. All this has occurred in about 30 years! A major accomplishment indeed."

But the yardstick for measuring the size of the achievement is subjective. Where Haut and Berkowitz identify a breakthrough, Samantha Shapiro sees a kind of stasis that borders on insult. She, too, was initially enthusiastic about the new generation of learned women, but about a month ago, writing in the American magazine Slate, she described women's roles in synagogues as follows: "It now seems a little sad to me that women devote their intellect, time and passion to Torah and to the system of Jewish law without being formally recognized by that system, and often being seen as a threat to it."

Stein Hain does not especially like that article. She also does not look like someone who is aiming to threaten her congregation. Rather, she is trying to avoid any suspicion of threat. Like her, others are also careful not to step on any toes. Kaye, who like Stein Hain is a graduate of the Talmud program at Yeshiva University, is happy with the title that has been given her. Even if she would like to see a woman hold the title "rabbi," she would certainly not want this to happen before the congregation is ready.

Thus both women are very aware of the degrees of caution they must exercise - which are not identical. Each synagogue has its own capacity for encompassing change, or the appearance of change. Ben Harris of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported three months ago, for example, that Hurwitz will be given a new title at her synagogue - morateinu, our teacher. This reflects a promotion - but a limited one. And that brings us to the real question: Are we talking about a stage on the way to full participation, one station before "rabbi," or is this the last stop?

"The next step? I don't know if there is one," said Stein Hain. There are women who are prepared to say that they want more, but not necessarily to a newspaper.

Only in New York - and Jerusalem

The "next step" is Dina Najman. In her case, the disguise has almost been cast aside. Berkowitz and Haut pull her out as the clearest, most outstanding example of women's advancement in the Orthodox Jewish world: a woman who is "head of the congregation" at Kehilat Orach Eliezer (familiarly known as KOE), located in the same fashionable area of Manhattan. This week, someone who is very familiar with American Orthodoxy scoffed that there are only two places in the world where a woman can fulfill a function in an Orthodox synagogue: in Jerusalem's Katamon neighborhood and in New York's Upper West Side.

When Najman was appointed to the position a year and a half ago, The New York Times devoted an article to her. She was the first, a pioneer. However, her appointment was helped by a fact that was usually buried deep inside the media reports: Her synagogue does not officially belong to any organization of Orthodox congregations. It is free to do whatever it chooses, and the Orthodox are free to disown it.

And some of them have definitely done so. Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel of America, for example, wrote that this synagogue is "pointedly - and significantly - unaffiliated." Najman can walk around with a self-made Orthodox label - and certainly her self-image, education and observance of tradition are all Orthodox. But the label will remain controversial.

In any case, Najman's congregation has not flourished since she was appointed to head it. It has been caught in a predictable trap: For someone who is Orthodox, it is too permissive, and for someone who is not Orthodox, there are more liberal options - for example, congregations where there is total equality between men and women. Thus the narrow crack between Stein Hain's cautious conservatism and Najman's less cautious conservatism defines the border between what is already permitted - even if not prevalent - and what is still outside the establishment.

This is territory from which Stein Hain distances herself as much as she possibly can. It is almost dusk in Manhattan, and she excuses herself to recite the evening prayers in the depths of the Starbucks branch at the corner of Columbus Avenue and 86th Street. Afterward, she will walk to her synagogue, barely five minutes away. And she will also have her picture taken, on one condition: that the photograph look like a woman who is on the pulpit to deliver a sermon. Only a man, after all, is permitted to pray there.



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