Maharot say RCA motion won’t change their roles

Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold
Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold FILE PHOTO

The two women who use the title “maharat” and serve Montreal’s Orthodox Jewish community say the latest resolution by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) reaffirming that women shouldn’t be ordained as rabbis or maharot won’t change what they do.

Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold, who serves Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, and Maharat Abby Brown Scheier, who also serves the Montreal Jewish community as an educator, are two of the first three graduates of Yeshivat Maharat who inspired a similar statement from the RCA when they were ordained in 2013.

That motion followed one passed three years earlier by the RCA, the largest international organization of Orthodox rabbis, in response to the founding of the New York-based yeshiva, the first Orthodox rabbinical school for women.

The 2010 resolution said the school was “a violation of our mesorah (tradition)” and that the RCA “regrets that the leadership of the school has chosen a path that contradicts the norms of our community.”

In 2013, when three women graduated from the program for the first time, the RCA reaffirmed its opposition to the idea of female Orthodox rabbis.

The most recent resolution, passed late last month, stated that “due to our aforesaid commitment to sacred continuity, we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.”

Maharat Scheier told The CJN, that despite the resolutions, she’ll continue to serve her community.

“The community has responded so well and only encouraged what we’ve been doing. That’s my experience. The resolution doesn’t change anything for those who are out there and those who see the impact of what the women are [doing],” she said.

“The fact is that there are 22 women enrolled in the school at the moment, as well as 11 graduates… My position is that we’ve seen how in just the past three years, the response has been so positive in the community… we expect that this will be the case in the future as well.”

Maharat Finegold said this latest resolution doesn’t say anything different from the ones passed in 2010 and 2013, but it suggests the RCA is “uncomfortable with the growth of support [for maharot] and they’re uncomfortable with the fact that these are women who are squarely within the Orthodox community. I grew up going to Orthodox day schools and Orthodox camps, and I very much consider myself an Orthodox woman.”

In a poem she posted on her Facebook page, Maharat Finegold wrote,  “I have answered the call to serve my people. To use my spiritual and intellectual energy to teach Torah and enliven the spirit of the Jewish nation. I have answered this call despite the questions, the hesitations, the ambiguities, the many distractions.

“I am here. Does that make you afraid? Does that make you wonder what I might do next? Does my presence threaten to topple the edifice of the Mesorah?… People often ask me, ‘Why don’t you just become a Conservative Rabbi? Wouldn’t it be easier, simpler? No, it would not be easier to deny who I am, to refrain from speaking my truth, to ignore the path of my Torah, in order to make things simpler for all of us.”

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, spiritual leader of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto and the RCA’s northeast vice-president, explained that the resolution was voted on by 900 members of the organization and it was a very close vote.

“The margin of difference was about 20 rabbis. It was pretty much divided. But not because there is a division of opinion about whether women should be ordained. There is general consensus that that is not part of the Orthodox tradition. The reason why there was a difference of opinion was that [some questioned whether] this was a productive resolution or not… We just view the resolution as a bit of a distraction,” Rabbi Korobkin said.

“I acknowledge that within the Orthodox community, some of the most effective leaders within the Orthodox Jewish community are women – as teachers, as principals, as yoetzot halachah, as board members, as shul presidents and so forth. It is really only the issue of a formal rabbinic ordination that this resolution addresses.”

Rabbi Korobkin said he would rather focus on where members of the Jewish community can find common ground and work together.

To me, it is not a helpful resolution. It is still certainly a reaffirmation of what Orthodoxy stands for, which is very traditional gender roles for men and women and part of those carefully assigned gender roles are that men should be the religious leaders on the pulpit, and women should take other roles of leadership such as the educators and head mistresses of schools and so forth,” he said.

“That being said, the vast majority of the officers of the RCA felt that this was not a helpful resolution to be brought forward at the current time.”

In a statement to The CJN, Rabbi Chaim Strauchler, spiritual leader at Toronto’s Shaarei Shomayim Congregation, who sits on RCA’s executive committee, said, “Female leadership is crucial to the past, present and future of our community. This leadership will continue to evolve through the life work of great women committed to the process of Halachah and to the social dynamics of a living breathing community.”

Although the resolution has no direct impact on the maharot currently working in Orthodox communities, Maharat Finegold said, “I think it does raise the question of how comfortable will people feel in the future making new hires. But I think there is also a deep desire. I talk to people all the time who say, ‘We really need a maharat in our community.’ And there just aren’t enough of us to go around.”