Why Orthodox Judaism Needs Women Rabbis

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Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy, left, and Rahel Berkovits at their ordination ceremony, where they became the first Orthodox women in Israel to receive the title 'rabba,' June 10, 2015.Credit: Emil Salman

I never needed a title.  For more than fifteen years, I have happily taught Torah alongside Orthodox rabbis with titles while being referred to by my first name. This is what the Rabbinical Council of America, North America's Orthodox umbrella grouping, calls “halakhically and communally appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women” (in its recent resolution banning the Orthodox ordination of women)

In my innocence, I always felt respected for what I knew and who I was.  My secular PhD in Talmud advanced my career, and years of traditional learning and my fear of Heaven marked me as a religious leader. I provided religious, spiritual and halakhic guidance when approached—that was my job regardless of my title. What would a title change?

When Rav Herzl Hefter, founder and Rosh Bet Midrash of the Har El Bet Midrash, opened the gates of learning halakha to me, I jumped at the unique opportunity to learn Torah with a great scholar. His commitment to back it up with tests and a title was secondary at most.

I was completely shocked when many of my longtime students congratulated me with “Now you can be my rabbi.” I thought I already played that role—isn’t a title just a matter of semantics?  Since my ordination six months ago, I have been even more shocked by the dozens of calls that I have received from students and community members suddenly seeking out guidance in light of my new status. Some of these calls are questions that would have otherwise been referred to a “proper rabbi” had I not been available or to me even without a title. But a great majority of them, I suspect, are questions that might never have been asked despite the piety of the inquirer.

Asking a question of a rabbinic authority requires a great deal of trust—personal and halakhic.  I have always understood that the person asking has to feel that s/he will be understood deeply, sympathetically and non-judgmentally. It is obvious that women can do that for other women (and sometimes men as well) in ways that men simply cannot. S/he also needs to feel that the person who answers his/her question has the backing of traditional authority. Now that I see how differently my students and fellow community members relate to me, I can understand why the RCA is so obsessed with titles.  I thank Rav Hefter and Rav Daniel Sperber (the Israel Prize laureate and Har El advisor) for their trailblazing vision, and I feel honored by the trust of the many men and women who turn to me for halakhic guidance.

I join the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance in their bewilderment as to “which part of our mesorah the RCA believes dictates that women Torah educators, scholars, and leaders be given less respect for performing precisely the same work as their male counterparts.”  But as I now discover, without a title, I wasn’t actually able to perform precisely the same work as my male colleagues.

So I add a further challenge: given that there is much work “in the service of our collective mission to preserve and transmit our heritage” that can only be done by women, and that titles, with all of their imperfections, are a valuable tool in making that work possible, why does the RCA want to impede us?

The strength of our tradition has always rested on the ability of our leaders to meet the needs of their generation. I pray that the RCA will not make themselves irrelevant through their gravely out-of-touch pronouncements.

Rabbi Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy received semicha from the Har El Bet Midrash (a rabbinic studies program for men and women in its third year) in June 2015, teaches at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, and has also taught at Drisha and Midreshet Lindenbaum.