Blazing a trail in Judaism: 32-year-old poised to be first ordained female clergy at Orthodox synagogue
CHICAGO — For a dose of girl power, 12-year-old Shayna Lopatin and her friends at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel look to contemporary superstars like Hillary Rodham Clinton and Lady Gaga.
But unlike other Orthodox Jewish girls their age, those at Anshe Sholom have a trailblazer in their own lives: Rachel Finegold. At 32, Finegold is about to become the first ordained woman hired as clergy at an Orthodox synagogue. In June, she will leave Anshe Sholom, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Lakeview, to join the clergy at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal.
Though she will go by the title maharat, a Hebrew term, like rabbi, that means “spiritual leader,” Finegold has shattered — or at least cracked — the glass ceiling that has barred Orthodox women from becoming clergy for centuries.
“There is no Jewish law on the books that says a woman cannot be a rabbi,” said Finegold, who serves as the director of ritual and programming at Anshe Sholom. “It simply hasn’t been done before.”
Finegold and two other women make up the first class to graduate from Yeshiva Maharat, a modern Orthodox seminary opened in New York City in 2009 to train and ordain women as clergy. As Finegold prepares to move closer to in-laws in Montreal, U.S. synagogues are courting two other women from the school.
But the traditional Orthodox Jewish establishment does not recognize the ordination of women. The Rabbinical Council of America has reiterated its duty to uphold Jewish law, thought, tradition and historical memory.
For that reason, the assembly said it could not “accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.”
Finegold said there long has been a diversity of practice in Judaism. For example, the Reform movement in the U.S. ordained its first female rabbi in 1972, the Reconstructionists in 1974 and Conservatives in 1985. That spectrum holds true within the Orthodox community. Modern Orthodoxy teaches that there are elements of Jewish law that can develop and change, but not all of it. More traditional Orthodox Jews apply a stricter interpretation.
“I think the women’s issue tends to be the litmus test for some people in terms of where on the spectrum a particular community lies,” Finegold said.
The emphasis on semantics also can vary. Though the term rabbi or “rabba” bothers some, Finegold will serve the same function as a rabbi with a few small exceptions.
Orthodox Jewish prayer services require a minyan, or minimum, of 10 men. Though she may organize that service, even round up the 10th man, she cannot be counted as one of the 10. She also may not serve as a witness or judge in Jewish legal proceedings. So while she can officiate at a wedding, she may not sign the couple’s marriage contract.
“The more important conversation is about function, not about title,” she said. “I will be functioning as a full member of the religious leadership. Call me whatever you want. We’ll figure it out later. This is so new.”
Raised Orthodox in Brooklyn, Finegold graduated from Boston University with a bachelor’s degree in religion. She studied for three years at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, a program for women who want to deepen their knowledge of Torah and Talmud. Her twin brother graduated from Yeshiva University around the same time and became a rabbi.
“We learned a lot of the same stuff, and then he became a rabbi and I didn’t,” she said. “That was the very first time in my life that something struck me like, ‘Hmm, that’s unusual.’ There wasn’t any sort of anger or resentment. It was just an awareness I’d never had before.”
But even without ordination, Rabbi Asher Lopatin hired her at Anshe Sholom in 2007 to play a major role resembling clergy. She has delivered monthly sermons and regularly reads from the Torah. She also leads a women’s Shabbat service.
“The key thing is to recognize women that are religious spiritual leaders,” Lopatin said. “Women need the self-confidence in their leadership, and a clear clergy title I do think is very important.”
Without the opportunity for recognition, some women have gone elsewhere. Finegold has watched friends abandon rabbinical callings to become teachers, secular lawyers or CEOs instead.
“How sad is that for the Jewish world to lose a leader?” Finegold said. Not to mention, those women still feel the sting when they walk into the shul on Shabbat, she said.
“Women are Ph.D.s, CEOs and running for president and then they have to bifurcate their identity when walking into a synagogue where they don’t feel like full participants,” Finegold said. “That can be hard. When women participate in every other area of their lives, this feels like a glaring omission.”
Other women have left Orthodoxy to seek ordination in more progressive branches of Judaism. That was never an option for Finegold, she said. She loves the “minute-by-minute awareness” of Orthodox Jewish life.
“It’s who I am. It’s what I believe — 99 percent of me,” she said. “Then there’s this one piece that seems to be a struggle.”
Rabba Sara Hurwitz, who in 2009 became the first woman ordained to serve the Orthodox community, opened Yeshiva Maharat later that year to speak to that 1 percent. She said it also fills a pastoral need. Women sometimes feel more comfortable seeking pastoral or legal guidance from other women.
“There is a thirst in the Jewish community for spiritual leadership with the distinct voice of a woman,” said Hurwitz, who caused a furor when she chose a title that resembled rabbi. She said people assume women are trying to encroach on traditionally male roles. But she sees it as a partnership.
“I see this as the inevitable next step,” Finegold said. “If you open the books to women, they are going to eventually want to share that knowledge. They’re going to want to use their talents and abilities in the noblest way.”
Shayna, Lopatin’s daughter, met weekly with Finegold to prepare for her bat mitzvah Saturday. An aspiring actress, Shayna loves Anne Hathaway and Amy Adams. She also looks to Finegold as inspiration.
“I think it’s really cool that nowadays women can be rabbis and women can be president,” Shayna said. “She’s a good example of what a Jewish woman should be. She has all this knowledge and a great personality. Even if I don’t become a rabbi, I want to learn.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services