Friday, January 11, 2008

Hartman rabbinic ordination of women: not such a big deal

This J-Post article is setting the blogosphere abuzz about Rabbi David Hartman's decision to offer Orthodox rabbinic ordination to women at the Shalom Hartman Institute. The popular press rhetoric is certainly the rhetoric of egalitarianism. Rabbi Donniel Hartman, co-director of the institute and son of David Hartman, is quoted as saying:
"The classic distinctions between men and women are no longer relevant. People who come to the Hartman Institute to study are committed to making gender equality in Judaism a reality."

Now, here's the description of the program:

Melamdim also offers an optional Rabbi-Educator track – the first rabbinic ordination program of its kind. Tailored to the distinct professional needs of rabbis who serve as North American community high school educators, the track is open to students of both sexes and all denominations who are interested in pursuing an MA degree, teaching career and rabbinic ordination at the same time.
Target Population
The program is open to individuals of all denominations from Israel and North America, who satisfy the following criteria:

  • Hold a BA either in Jewish studies or in Bible, Talmud or Jewish Philosophy

  • Have a good knowledge of Hebrew

  • Have a knowledge of classical Jewish texts

  • Commit to fulfill the program’s considerable study and work requirements

  • Commit to work as a teacher in a Jewish high school for at least three years after graduating from the program

It looks like it's offering the status of rav hamaggid, the lowest level of ordination which entitles the bearer to hold the title of "rabbi" and to teach. It does not confer the status of halachic decisor. It does not automatically allow one to perform the functions commonly associated with pulpit rabbis (which was the focus of the Conservative teshuvot in the 1970's and 1980's). One can argue that this status is not an equivalent of nor a modern replacement for "traditional" (Talmudic?) rabbinic ordination.

In Modern Orthodox circles, many high schools already allow women to be taught Talmud, a few more allow women to teach Talmud to men. Most already have women teaching some subjects, implying that they do not consider teaching high school to be serara (holding a position of communal authority), so, they do not have to face that halachic boundary. Judaic studies teachers who hold the title of "rabbi" are probably paid at a higher level for their advanced degree, which is a path toward career advancement previously not open to women. If a high school were to accept Hartman's ordination of a woman, they may then be forced to pay her at an equal rate to men who hold the same type of degree.

Even so, women who graduate from the program would have a second-class status, even as a rav hamaggid. They could function as high school teachers (the intent of the training in the program), but they could not function as pulpit rabbis, the other career path for a rav hamaggid, because their activities are still restricted by Orthodox interpretations of halacha.

In sum, this may affect teachers' pay and titles (and we aren't even sure if the title "rabbi" will be conferred on a woman), but it doesn't look like there's anything truly ground-breaking coming out of it.

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I think you are wrong in your assessment of the importance of this, but I hope that all of the Modern Orthodox world sees this as as an irrelevant point and not such a big deal as you see it.

Ultimately, doing something like this functions to break down a barrier: the taboo of a woman being called "rabbi." If you really think that people will be ok because, after all, it's not such a big deal, then Orthodoxy has a chance of making it all the way. After all, although you imply that it's not such a big deal because "[i]t does not confer the status of halachic decisor," R. Aviner, quoted in the article, says precisely the opposite: "Aviner added that there was nothing in Judaism that prohibited learned women from answering questions about Jewish law." What R. Aviner himself said was that "he opposed giving women the title 'rabbi.'"

I think this is really valuable - if women can "get a foot in the door" so to speak by getting past the name barrier, the other parts can finally work themselves out on their own terms, their own halakhic terms, without having to deal with the "rabbi" taboo anymore.
Again, I think you need to parse popular press quotes. "Answering questions" about Jewish law and psak halacha are different animals. Yoatzot Niddah already answer limited questions of halacha, but they are cannot make new decisions. (The same is true of a man with a rav hamaggid-level rabbinic ordination).

Also, it is not at all clear that SHI's "ordination" will even result in women holding the title "rabbi" (see Ner-David's quote from the article).

That is why the halachic justifications that come out of SHI will be key. If they argue that, from the perspective of halacha, "it's not such a big deal because they're just giving a new title to female high school teachers" then they simply move the "glass mehitza" to a new place that isn't very much higher than it was before they started out.
My daughter is currently studying at 'Hartwoman' (the Girls' High School) and I am just happy that Hartman is somehow managing to be post-denominational without having to leave the Israeli Orthodox Establishment. Aviner can grumble all he likes, the girls that used to go to 'Evelina' [which is phasing out into Hartman] are mainstream traditional Orthodox anyway, not Hardal (Haredi Leumi).
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