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Women ‘rabbis’ in Orthodoxy remains a sensitive issue




The synagogue announced that Kagedan will be joining the “spiritual leadership team”. The news release did not use the word “rabbi”, but instead referred to Kagedan as a “Yeshivat Maharat graduate”.

It went on to say: “Her responsibilities will be ‘to teach Torah, encourage greater love and celebration of mitzvot, provide learning opportunities for adults and children, connect with young families in and around the community and participate in lifecycle and pastoral needs alongside Rabbi Menashe East.’”

Kagedan, a native of Canada, was ordained in June by the New York-based seminary training under the leadership of Rabbi Avi Weiss. Most female graduates there have eschewed the title rabbi, but have instead opted for the title of “maharat” or “rabba”.

Although issues like these are of great relevance in the international arena, the South African Jewish community continues to be more conservative in its appointing of women scholars as rabbis and is yet to contest these topical issues with any urgency.

Ann Harris, a doyenne in the South African community, who is now actively involved in outreach organisation Afrika Tikkun, comments: “There are many women who hold significant leadership roles in the South African Jewish community and who have played pivotal roles for many years already. Mary Kluk, Marlene Bethlehem and Wendy Kahn are women who are very well-respected and have made enormous contributions to our community as they unabashedly address tough issues with great competency and ability.”

Harris’ signature passion and ability to interpret Judaism with clarity and a balanced approach, shed much light on the controversial issue. She dissects the layers without getting into the politics and says: “Regarding women taking rabbinical positions, I believe that the issue is layered and that women who assume scholarly roles in the community can be of tremendous benefit by making a remarkable contribution in the knowledge they can share.

“But, the community needs to be ready to make such an appointment. In Orthodox circles, women who have obtained smicha can enrich a community as educators without crossing into more controversial waters where the more pastoral duties like officiating at ceremonies and pulpit rabbanut are part of the equation. 

“So, the pastoral duties continue to remain in the men’s domain, but women should be recognised for their knowledge and be provided with a platform to share it with their communities.”

There is no doubt a growing need to hear from women scholars as women within the community grow in their desire for advanced knowledge and intellectual stimulation.

Adina Roth, a clinical psychologist who is well known for her empowering batmitzvah programme, commented: “I think it’s widely known that the South African Jewish community is more cautious than Orthodoxy in America.

“In America, women’s and men’s voices in the Orthodox community have clamoured for change and rabbis have listened to their communities. In South Africa, the voices of those who would like a more egalitarian approach to Judaism seem to be in the minority and most people seem content with the status quo.

“We are a rich community in our traditional life and social support systems. But we could do better at embracing diverse voices in our midst. Those voices tend to be marginalised and so those people often leave the community and become non-practising and non-affiliated. I think our community would be greatly enriched by opening up and establishing sincere dialogue with the minority voices.

“I think some South African Jews hear ‘women rabbis’ and they think these are women who have a political agenda. Having met many of these women, I can say I marvel at their sincerity, commitment, love of Judaism, Torah and the Jewish people. I don’t think anyone would give five or more years of their life to the fulltime study of Talmud and halachah in order simply to make a statement.”

Roth drives the point home by saying that if indeed one has undergone a rigorous process of learning, then indeed it should be recognised and the candidate should be awarded a deserving title.

“If someone studied anatomy, pathology, physiology and clinical medicine and then asked to be called doctor, would they be making a statement? Our Sages teach that we should study in order to teach in order to do. 

“The flowering of Jewish women’s learning since the early 20th century is naturally going to lead to women with more Torah knowledge who have more to contribute to the wider Jewish community and so seek ordination or its equivalent.”

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  1. LJ

    Feb 3, 2016 at 12:02 pm

    ‘Why in a supposedly civilised age are we still debating the role of women in society?

    The fact that religious types still seek to oppress women is ridiculous!


  2. Simeon

    Feb 4, 2016 at 3:58 pm

    ‘Ok LJ, You be at shul tomorrow morning, and every morning, at 6am with all the men. 

    Equality for all.’

  3. Harvey

    Feb 8, 2016 at 12:13 am

    ‘Simeon has missed the point entirely and his sarcastic response is puerile’

  4. Mordechai

    Feb 8, 2016 at 2:59 am

    ‘In reply to LJ: I recommend that you research the reasons for the role of Jewish men and women – it has nothing to do with the civilised age and the role of women in the civilized age. In addition I must add that the so called \”civilized age\” in the secular world is not so civilized, and certainly not the model to follow’

  5. nat cheiman

    Feb 8, 2016 at 11:03 am

    ‘We Jews love a good fight.

    NU!? give the ladies their own shul and leave us guys alone.  ‘

  6. LJ

    Feb 8, 2016 at 12:38 pm

    ‘First of all Simeon I am a man.
    \nSecondly please do me a favour if you are not mature enough to debate me without being sarcastic please sit at the kids table.
    \nMordechai I can engage with you because you actually are trying to engage.
    \nI believe that in any age we should be striving for equality. If a woman is devout, and wants to become a rabbi why stop her. If her faith is the same if not more then a man why should she be prohibited?’

  7. Simeon

    Feb 9, 2016 at 8:39 am

    ‘Okay LJ, an adult question:

    Are you religiously observant (by orthodox standards?). I’m not asking if you go to shul or help old ladies across the street and give charity, I’m asking if you are halachically observant, the obvious things like kashrus, davening 3 times a day, tefillin daily, Shabbos, mikva for your wife, yarmulka, tzitzis etc.’

  8. LJ

    Feb 10, 2016 at 9:58 am

    ‘I am not Simeon. Does this make me a bad person? Or unfit to point out flaws when I see them? Or were you merely then going to point out that until I start behaving as you I should refrain from commenting. I am sorry to tell you you are in for no such luck old boy.  

    I know traditionally, women are not generally permitted to serve as witnesses in an Orthodox Beit Din. This is a problem

    Women cannot become Rabbis in the eyes of Orthodoxy. This is a problem.

    Women are seen as such an integral part of the religion and yet they cannot ascend above their rank or station how is that honouring them?

    We cannot pretend that this is not a problem. In my opinion if a woman wants to serve G-d and be more involved surely that should be seen as empowering and more of a blessing?


  9. Simeon

    Feb 11, 2016 at 1:22 pm

    ‘Precisely correct LJ, I am going to tell you that since you are not an Orthodox Jew, you have no place, and indeed a temerity to speak about what is or is not good for Orthodoxy.

    You have about as much authority to speak on brain surgery, apple farming or water purification, as you do on Orthodoxy. This despite the fact that you may know a few surgeons, farmers or engineers, or perhaps even read an article or two or visited a farm or a hospital.

    You are not qualified to speak on behalf a movement whose dictates you do not observe.

    Your opinions are based on your secular worldview, which is completely understandable, but also completely meaningless.

  10. LJ

    Feb 12, 2016 at 7:50 am

    ‘Well Simeon I will make life incredibly easy for you.

    I am an orthodox Jew

    Not a religious Jew but an orthodox one

    However I can see that arguing with you would be like playing chess with a pigeon. It will not matter how good my game or argument is you are still going to jump on the board, knock over all the pieces and strut around triumphantly anyway.

    I find it incredibly sad that you believe religion tells you to keep your mind closed.

    Well I personally would rather have a mind opened by love and equality then a mind closed by faith

    Take care little drone


  11. Simeon

    Feb 14, 2016 at 3:15 pm

    ‘Orthodox but not religious? Huh? How exactly does that work?’

  12. david

    Feb 19, 2016 at 1:31 am

    ‘It doesnt work,it proves your point that he knows nothing about orthodoxy yet he tells you how to be orthodox.’

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