Why Orthodox Jews in Israel Can Ordain Women as Rabbis, but Those in the Diaspora Won't

There is a crucial difference between Orthodoxy in Israel and abroad; the former is experiencing an evolution, whereas the latter is stifled by the threat of other denominations.

Emil Salman

A friend of mine recently completed the rabbinical program at the Jerusalem Orthodox center Har’el, and invited my wife and me to attend his ordination ceremony. It was a moving ceremony and quite an exceptional one, for two women joined the two men receiving Orthodox semicha (ordination).

In the Modern Orthodox world, it is common for women’s education to be equal to men’s. What's uncommon is for professional opportunities to be based on educational credentials. Until now, Modern Orthodox women’s institutions that grant professional degrees have struggled with what title to give their graduates: yoetzet halakhah (advisor of Jewish law), rabbanit (a term commonly reserved for the wives of rabbis), maharat  (an acronym for female leader of Jewish law, spirituality and Torah), rabba (the feminine form of the Hebrew word "rabbi") and others. On this evening, this coeducational institution ordained all four graduates as rabbis, with intentional gender neutrality.

Emil Salman

It is no coincidence that the Har’el Beit Midrash, situated in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem, became the first Orthodox institution in Israel to ordain women as rabbis. Rabbi Herzl Hefter, the head of the beit midrash, half joked to me that it’s as though Katamon-Baka-Talpiot, our Bermuda Triangle of neighborhoods in Jerusalem, is under a “kipat barzel,” Iron Dome, free from the divisive scrutiny of religious authorities and thus open to exploring creative halakhic alternatives, particularly with regard to the role of women in Orthodoxy.

In this context, I view his decision to ordain these Orthodox women as female rabbis as an Israeli phenomenon; one that is part of an evolutionary, grassroots process that is emerging from a religious, socially liberal moral center, and growing in resonance. This is crucially different from the Diaspora experience, where there is an ongoing tension between Orthodoxy and the other denominations of Judaism, based on substantial differences in interpretations of halakhah (Jewish law). Confronted by the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements having female pulpit rabbis, the Orthodox camp has always responded by condemning the ordination of women as rabbas.

Practical implications in Israel and the U.S.

The practical implications of ordaining women as female Orthodox rabbis vary between Israel and the Diaspora. In Israel, the Chief Rabbinate exercises absolute control over most religious functions (marriages, divorces, conversions, etc.). In the Diaspora, on the other hand, these functions are traditionally performed by a pulpit rabbi or beit din (rabbinical court). The Chief Rabbinate of Israel excludes all Conservative, Reform and even some Modern Orthodox rabbis from participating in the system – and it is doubtful that they will welcome female Orthodox rabbis into their ranks. As such, the Rabbinate is unlikely to make a big deal about the newly-minted rabbas: with their limited power, they do not threaten the system.

Another difference is that in Israel, semicha is recognized as a professional educational degree, and, like a Master's degree, can afford those who hold it employment benefits, like a pay rise. (As an aside, last year, seven prominent rabbis were reportedly convicted of falsifying records and taking bribes for awarding unearned semicha to police officers and others who lacked the necessary qualifications to hold the title.)

Also, there are relatively few pulpit rabbis per congregation in Israel compared to in the Diaspora. This is because many Israelis who attend synagogue have extensive Jewish ritual education. At the Jerusalem synagogue I pray at on Shabbat, there are more rabbis than non-rabbis; all of us have professional backgrounds and share the responsibility of running the synagogue. With the pulpit position currently an anachronism in Israel, the point of contention with female rabbis is basically a non-issue here. Rabbis in Israel, whether male or female, are integrated throughout our society – via their work as teachers, lawyers, doctors, soldiers and even politicians.

In last week’s Torah portion, G-d tells Moses, “Shlach lecha anashim,” send out for yourself people (anashim, unless specified, is usually gender neutral). Moses chose 12 princes of Israel to be  spies. Ten of them returned with an evil report on the land of Israel, and, as a result, a generation died in the desert. The Kli Yakar, the famous 16th century Torah commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Luntchitz, writes that the problem originated with Moses understanding anashim as men. According to the Kli Yakar, Moses should have sent out nashim (women) because they love Eretz Yisrael more than the men.

In the accompanying Haftorah reading this past week, Joshua sent out two unidentified anashim as spies. It is through their successful mission that we were merited with entering Eretz Yisrael. Perhaps these anashim were nashim?

Shortly before the ordination ceremony at Har’el, someone remarked to Rabbi Hefter: "So, I hear you're giving semicha to women." Hefter replied, "No, I am giving semicha to people." 

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.