The Birth of a Female Orthodox Rabbinate

When I was ordained as a rabbi, a little under two years ago, my husband hosted a lovely party at which he and friends and colleagues and teachers and one of my daughters offered poignant tributes and blessings. But my own mother, the only member of my family of origin in attendance, was not expected to speak. A descendant of European Orthodoxy, she had been lukewarm about my ambition. So we were surprised when my eldering mother rose to take the floor.

My husband and I exchanged anxious glances as she began to tell our assembled guests of her own grandmother, Theresa Freimann, a formidable woman, wife of the “parnas,” the administrator, of the Jewish community in Frankfurt during the Nazi period. She demonstrated Theresa’s grandeur with a story of how Theresa, a hospital volunteer, stopped Nazi officers from commanding Jewish nurses to remove their shoes and walk barefoot through the snow from one hospital building to another. Theresa aroused the Nazi conscience.

With this introduction, my mother continued: It was the tradition, in her family, to respect one’s elders and Theresa, in particular, commanded great respect. When entering a room, Theresa always went first, seating herself first, speaking first, served first, in each course of a meal. Still, when she learned that my mother was pregnant with me — the first grandchild, the first great grandchild — Theresa ushered my mother into the room ahead of herself. My mother told our gests of her discomfort: “Oma!” she said, “You go first!”  And then she shared my great-grandmother’s reply: “No, Ruth; you must go first. You might be carrying a rabbi.”

This week the Rabbinical Council of America, the world’s largest organization of Orthodox rabbis, issued a statement opposing the ordination of women and banning their service as religious leaders in any form. This, despite Israeli Orthodox ordinations of women and despite the ordination of three cohorts of women by New York-based Yeshivat Maharat, and their placement in prominent Orthodox congregations and institutions across North America.

READ: With Resolution Against Hiring Women Rabbis, RCA Votes for Confrontation

My mother’s validation, by way of the anecdote she told in celebration of my own ordination, took my breath away. It took away the breath of everyone present; the room went quiet. It had taken her the six years of my studies to bring this story forward. And beyond my frustration that I had not been offered this legend of encouragement along the way, I understood the power of a gestating affirmation. I understood that confirmation does come to birth when fully formed. I understood that it is a mother’s role, or dare I say a woman’s nature, to hold a thing and let it grow till it is ripe, till it pushes it’s way forward. And just as it was womanly for my mother to let her applaud ripen, it was, perhaps, womanly of me to wait for it.

READ: Black, Female and Almost a Rabbi

This week’s announcement feels to be an  un-natural inhibition of the effortless, spontaneous expansion of womanly authority and domains of wisdom-sharing and care-taking. Orthodox women may rise up and fight, of they may simply hang on. But even patient waiting will bring the leadership and rabbinates of Orthodox women to acceptance, because the idea is gestating. And, thank God, women know how to keep growing, on the inside, till the time is right.

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