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Could It Be, Orthodox Women Rabbis? Not Exactly.

There’s been lots of hype surrounding the announcement of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s new ordination program that would ordain Orthodox women as rabbis. But the Orthodox she-rabbi is really just a byproduct of the program, not the point of it. The non-denominational program is intended to train a new crop of Jewish educators, to teach in Jewish day schools, not to take on pulpit positions. In bestowing the title of rabbi on its graduates it will be invoking the original sense of the word — teacher.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, co-director of the institute and the son of its founder, Rabbi David Hartman, told the Jerusalem Post, “We think the title ‘rabbi’ is important because in the Jewish tradition, the highest level of educator was given the title rabbi, which literally means teacher. Today, the top-tier educators seek the title of rabbi to reflect their status as well.”

And, the thinking goes, women who have the same high level of knowledge should get the same title, and the same status that goes with that title. Makes a lot of sense. But that title, as treated by the Hartman Institute program, is more akin to Doctor for a Ph.D. than for an M.D. Just as one wouldn’t trust one’s English professor to take out one’s tonsils, one isn’t meant to trust these rabbi-educators with decisions about Jewish law:

“This is a smicha [ordination] program that is not built around the classic learning of Jewish law, rather on the ability to communicate the central ideas of Judaism in an inspiring and meaningful way for the next generation of youth,” Hartman continued.

That is, the Institute’s rabbi graduates will have no authority in Jewish law or ritual life. Which is why the ordination can be non-denominational and why the modern Orthodox (but very liberal and feminism-friendly) Rabbis Hartman can get away with “ordaining” women. Still, the move has caused quite the uproar in some circles, and could certainly be a stepping stone toward full ordination of women as Orthodox rabbis (whether or not that’s one of the Institute’s ulterior motives — wink, wink ;-).

But is it good for Orthodox women? Samantha M. Shapiro ponders this question in Slate and points out the tough spot in which Orthodox women who seek the highest levels of Talmudic knowledge and, God forbid, the title “rabbi,” find themselves (that spot’s often called “between a rock and a hard place,” but in this context something like “between the bimah and the mechitza” seems more fitting). Shapiro makes the excellent point that, in Orthodox circles, women can often make more inroads into positions of responsibility and authority by not being called “rabbi.” For a woman, bearing the title is too brazen, too out-of-step with the status quo, for the community to be able bestow its trust and respect in her. It’s like walking into shul in a red halter dress (or with a big scarlet R around your neck). No matter how fervently you say your prayers, no upstanding Orthodox mother’s gonna want her son to marry a floozie like you. You have to be more subtle and modest to get what you want. Make them think you’re a good girl. Then you can pull out the handcuffs on your wedding night.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman