What’s Next For Women In The Maharat Era?


This post is part of a series on International Women’s Talmud Day, which will be celebrated on May 13th. Learn more about how you can get involved by visiting the website or Facebook page

In 2002, as a student in Midreshet Lindenbaum, I had a serious conversation with some of my sober-minded friends about the way forward for Orthodox feminists.

“I won’t be able to become a rabbi,” said one of them, “but maybe my granddaughter will.” I remember agreeing with her quite vividly. It does not seem so long ago that partnership minyanim were new, women’s tefillah was surprisingly controversial and female halachic authorities were borderline fantasy. Things always seem unimaginable until they’re not.

I could become a rabbi. Yet, much to my surprise, I don’t want to.

But only fifteen years have elapsed, and Yeshivat Maharat is now a viable option for me. I could become a rabbi. Yet, much to my surprise, I don’t want to. I love working in the Jewish community, but I studied enough Talmud at Midreshet Lindenbaum to know that it is not my favorite subject.

I have always struggled with suggestions that feminism requires women to try to be like traditional men. Since Judaism recognizes a particular segment of study as authoritative, in order for women to have authentic positions of leadership, they often need to be willing to immerse themselves for years in a specific corpus of Jewish law, just as the men do.

This is true of both paths towards female spiritual leadership that are currently available to women – Nishmat’s Yoetzot Halakha Program and Yeshivat Maharat (as well other ordination tracks that exist).

What professional roles exist for women to be religious leaders without immersing themselves in Talmud?

As we open the doors to higher halachic education for women, we reinforce the idea that true Jewish leaders are people who have studied halacha in great depth. A few dozen women have taken this path and they have made our community richer. But their path is not for everyone.

So what’s next for women who don’t want to become Maharats or Yoatzot? What professional roles exist for women to be religious leaders without immersing themselves in Talmud? Are there other possibilities for what female religious leadership could look like?

Lay leadership is a great avenue for many women (and men!) with an assortment of vocations. But by definition, these people have day jobs. We need them to balance our shul budgets and run our shul committees, but their professional lives will limit the time they can spend leading our community.

Instead, let’s ask what professional options can exist for women who love Torah and the Jewish community, and want to toil “in the needs of the community.”

Read more posts about International Women’s Talmud Day! 

Here are a few career paths that seem available to women today, and challenges within those respective fields:

Academia is a recognized path to knowledge, with a long, established tradition. Everyone knows what ‘professor’ means, and many great institutions of learning have programs where women can study Torah, Jewish history, culture, sociology (or even Talmud). They can become experts in a broader range of disciplines than most rabbis. The academy is a clear choice, but it is open to few, requires many years of commitment, and delivers a specific, highly uncertain set of job prospects at the end. It is not a vehicle to mass leadership. It is also not, at its core, a religious pursuit.

Torah study at the few institutions who offer high-level learning for women (Drisha, Pardes, GPATS, etc) is a good first step. However, Torah study itself is not a profession. These institutions don’t confer high-level degrees and don’t have a title to confer on their graduates, and their graduates do eventually have to go work in the world. These institutions are in particular places, unlike the small Kollels and rabbinical schools for men that can be found all over. In this area of online learning, access for prospective female leaders not at liberty to travel or move to Jerusalem or NYC will be a frontier to conquer to activate potential leaders everywhere there are Jewish communities.

Teaching Torah has long been a career option for women. These women were always known by the title of “Morah” or “Mrs.” even when their non-semicha’ed male colleagues were called ‘Rabbi’ as a formality. There are women who want to teach Torah in Jewish day schools. They will, presumably, find jobs. In contrast, women who want to teach Torah to adults mostly find themselves in the poorly remunerated gig economy. We can’t offer these women full-time jobs, and in our society, when they don’t have “Rabbanit” or “Dr.” before their names, their Torah seems less authoritative. We don’t yet have a good option for these women to achieve professional credentials and job opportunities.

Reading Torah – When I became a bat mitzvah, it was almost unheard of for women to learn to leyn. This has fortunately changed. Women who wish to leyn need access to resources, teachers willing to teach women, and opportunities to use their new skill to serve the community. The proliferation of partnership minyanim in many locations is a boon – an on-ramp for prospective female leaders and an opportunity for them to grow their skills. However, leyning Torah is not a career. Professional cantors are rapidly on the decline, and while there are enough Orthodox minyanim out there that a young man who is good at leyning could scrape together a partial income from being paid to leyn, this simply is not a paying job for women.

Rebbetzins are an important part of many Orthodox communities, but a career path should not be defined solely by one’s marriage. We don’t want to be telling our young ladies to marry rabbis so they can have the vocation they want. We should build ways for women to do this work even if they are single, or, G-d forbid, married to hedge fund managers.

As our community continues to focus on college students and millennials, campus professionals have clearly defined roles to teach, run programming, and serve as leaders for their community. This is one area where there is potential for growth and leadership for women who don’t fit in any of the previously defined boxes. Right now, many of these jobs go to the aforementioned Rebbetzins who are 50% of a campus educator couple. Setting aside the issues of title, (which is a large issue indeed), female leaders may emerge here as long as positions are created that don’t require a rabbi husband.

My granddaughter could be a Maharat, or a Rabba, or a rabbi – but maybe she could be some other kind of religious leader I don’t yet have the vision to comprehend.

Let’s say a “Hodu La’Shem” for our Maharats, Yoatzot and first wave of female religious halachic leaders. Now, let’s ask which potential female leaders we have failed to develop. Perhaps it is time to define a second wave of non-homogenous leaders: Women who have both knowledge – of Torah, of Jewish thought, of Jewish history, or Jewish education – and also roles where they can contribute meaningfully to the Jewish community on a professional level. My granddaughter could be a Maharat, or a Rabba, or a rabbi – but maybe she could be some other kind of religious leader I don’t yet have the vision to comprehend.

Aliza Libman Baronofsky teaches at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD. She taught Tanach and math to middle and high school students at the Maimonides School in Brookline for 11 years. Aliza is the creator of www.chumashandmath.blogspot.com, a repository of interdisciplinary lesson plans she has designed and implemented.

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