School breaking new ground for women in Orthodox community

Rabbi Jeffrey Fox

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

The academic head of the first institution to train Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and a student at the school will be the guests for a scholar-in-residence program at Bais Abraham Congregation this weekend.

Rabbi Jeffrey Fox and Rachel Kohl Finegold of Yeshivat Maharat, a New York-based organization founded four years ago to confirm Orthodox women as halachic leaders, will visit Bais Abe beginning Friday night with davening and dinner followed by remarks from Fox on the role of personal values in Jewish law. Saturday morning services will feature a drasha by Finegold followed by a lunch and learn on the possibilities and limitations of Orthodox women in religious leadership. A program that evening will focus on the school itself.

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“In recent years, women have been assuming leadership roles in Orthodox synagogues, para-rabbinic roles,” said Phyllis Shapiro, who in 2010 became the local shul’s first female president. “If you think about tasks that a rabbi does there are very few that an Orthodox woman under Orthodox law cannot do.”

She cited teaching and counseling as areas where women were becoming more prevalent.

Fox, a former rabbi of Kehilat Kesher: The Community Synagogue of Tenafly and Englewood in New Jersey and teacher at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Bronx rabbinical school, is a senior rabbinic fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.  He has also been a member of the faculty of the Drisha Institute.

“One of the things that interests me very much, both in my teaching at the yeshiva as well as when I was in the pulpit for seven years were the ways in which individuals and communities think through halachic issues,” said Fox, who at present serves as rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Maharat. “One of the areas this presentation is going to focus on is the role of personal intuition or ethical insight into the ways in which halacha ought to be practiced.”

Fox, 37, said that on a range of issues from the status of women in the shul to how converts relate to family members, halachic mandates can present challenges when combined with more modern sensibilities.

“Jewish law is a system of behaviors and thoughts and feelings that cover every aspect of our lives and sometimes we feel a disconnect between what Jewish law might be demanding of us and how to still maintain observance of Jewish law,” he said. “What do I do when Jewish law feels like it is bumping up against my own ethical intuition? What is the role, if any, of my ethical intuition in halachic decision-making?”

He said he will address some of his remarks to the role of transgendered individuals in Jewish law, a topic that illustrates the complexity of such issues.

“The reason I chose that topic is because it is one of the areas where you have things that would have been science fiction to the rabbinic community of old,” he said. “For those rabbis, they couldn’t have imagined what it meant to have someone go through a surgical procedure to transition from one gender to another.”

Fox’s presentation will cite rabbinic or medieval texts that deal with various questions. He said he will try to present a method by which one might arrive at decisions in such matters.

 “There are times I think we do have to sublimate our ethical intuitions and there are times that our ethical intuitions have a role to play,” he said. “The challenge is to figure out which is which.”

Finegold, one of 15 students presently at Yeshivat Maharat, will be part of the school’s graduating class in June. The 32-year-old is the Dr. Carol Fuchs Kaufman Rabbanit Chair at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation, a Chicago synagogue where she serves as education and ritual director. She is also a founding member of the Orthodox Women’s Leadership Project.

“Some of our conversation will be grounded in questions that arise from the Jewish tradition,” said Finegold, “because male and female roles are different and female leadership might look different than male leadership. I’m hoping to also give some real-life sense in terms of my work at the synagogue, a sense of the impact women have made and can continue to make as leaders of the community.”

Finegold said that while some segments of Orthodoxy have expressed hesitation, most individuals she meets seem open, excited and welcoming of discussion. She recalled an encounter with two women at an interfaith panel discussion. The pair, rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movements, greeted her with enthusiasm.

“They said, we’ve been waiting 25 years for you and we’re so glad you’ve arrived,” she said. “It’s like the Jewish community has been waiting for Orthodox women to step into this.”

Finegold said that she was raised in a very traditional Orthodox household in Brooklyn and felt the urge to delve more deeply into Jewish texts after college. “There was really a revolution in the 70s, 80s and 90s opening Jewish texts to women so that women could now study in a serious way,” she said. “Now that women have achieved a higher level of learning, they want to step into situations where they can use that.”

The issue has been a sensitive one at times for the Orthodox community where females still cannot be ordained as rabbis. In 2010, the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a 150-member rabbinical organization, called for expanded roles for women in the Orthodox world in areas from teaching Torah to becoming shul presidents though it did not advocate ordination.

The issue has local ties as well. Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham was a vice president of the IRF at its founding and now serves on the advisory board of Yeshivat Maharat.

Finegold thinks that Orthodox women are increasingly looking towards greater involvement in shul life.

“They are starting to see this as a career option, which is amazing but there are so few of us in the field that I think we need to create more momentum for that to continue as a viable choice,” she said.

Fox said his school’s placement process has been going smoothly so far with more positions available than there are students to fill them.

“Part of what we are trying to communicate is that everybody benefits by having more people involved in religious leadership,” he said. “We can no longer afford to waste the talent of 50 percent of our community.”

For more information on the program call 314-721-0391 or email [email protected].