Pardes 360: Why Orthodox Judaism Needs Women Rabbis

Posted by Meesh Hammer-Kossoy on November 8, 2015
Topics: Pardes 360, Women's Issues

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.

Pardes360 is a series of responses to world current events by Pardes faculty in 360 words (or sometimes a few more). The views expressed in the articles are those of the author and do not reflect an institutional stance. To read other Pardes360 articles, click here.

About Meesh Hammer-Kossoy

Meesh is the Director of the Pardes Year Program, where she has been making her professional home since 1999. Originally from Washington, D.C., Meesh has a B.A. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University, and a M.A. and Ph.D. from New York University. Her dissertation explored the courageous manner in which the rabbis of the Talmud created a new criminal punishment system. In 2015, Meesh completed her studies at Beit Midrash Har'el and received ordination from Rabbi Herzl Hefter and Rabbi Daniel Sperber. Click here to read more.

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