Ma’aynot Not Such An Advance For Judaism As All That

The Telegraph breathlessly tells us that the Chief Rabbi has brought a feminist advance into orthodox Judaism. Women are now to take on some of the roles of a Rabbi – something that hasn’t happened in all these thousands of years. The thing being that this isn’t in fact true.

Firstly, the roles aren’t Rabbi like in the slightest. Secondly, this has happened a number of times before in Judaism. So, you know, pretty much a zero score for the Telegraph here:

Rabbis share duties with women for first time, in ‘turning point’ for Judaism

The definition of “What is Judaism?” is more than a bit slippery to begin with. It’s, in one sense, more akin to Islam than it is to Catholicism. There is no one structure, there is no one head, there is no one rule set. There is, that is, no Pope. Each Rabbi, as with each Imam, can and does have a slightly different shading of the rules and righteousness. Sure, there’s a great deal of agreement. But the result is to give a vast panoply of legally – OK, religiously – sanctioned conduct. Which may include female Rabbis even, just as the other end of the spectrum doesn’t.

Something the Telegraph already tells us is true:

Rabbis will share duties with women for the first time as the Chief Rabbi says there is a “real need” within the Jewish community for females to be put in a position to offer others advice. Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis launched his new scheme, known as the Ma’aynot Project for female Jewish leaders, in a bid to create roles for women within modern orthodox Judaism. Female rabbis are not permitted within orthodox Judaism, unlike in more liberal denomination such as Reform and Liberal Judaism. Ten women have now become figureheads within the modern orthodox community and have been endowed with pastoral and educational roles after undergoing training by the Chief Rabbi. The women – known as Ma’aynot…

That they’re known as Ma’aynot not Rabbis tells us something – that they’re not Rabbis for example. It’s also worth mentioning that the presence of a Rabbi is optional in itself. Desired and desirable, sure. But a Jewish community can – and does sometimes – act and function in the absence of one in a manner that a Christian one insisting upon having an ordained minister to perform certain sacraments simply cannot. A Rabbi often will lead prayer but prayer, services, can be held without one. There is no requirement for their presence at a marriage, funeral, there are no sacraments that only a Rabbi can provide.

But note above, Reform and Liberal Judaism do have female Rabbis – as do certain Conservative communities, using a different justification. Orthodox don’t and Orthodox won’t either, because a useful definition of when a community becomes non-orthodox and rather more liberal – or Liberal, Conservative, Reform and so on – will be when they start to have female Rabbis. This being how Judaism has worked for some time now, somewhat fissiparous and entirely unlike any Christian congregation which would never split into the Wee Frees, the Wee Wee Frees and so on.

The other point here being that the job on offer isn’t to be a Rabbi anyway. From another discussion of the same point:

In traditional Jewish societies, the counseling duty was often carried out by the “rebetzin”, the Rabbi’s wife. My guess is that in very traditional (“haredi”) communities this is still the case. There is a reason why these women are being called “Ma’aynot” and not rabbis: It is because they are not rabbis.

The real reason for all of this being that in the modern world becoming the rebetzin is less likely to be seen as a career and life commitment. Oh, sure, to the marriage and all that. But as with the Vicar’s wife being a job, position and lifestyle which it no longer is, so with being the Rabbi’s wife. Thus the communal need for the same function is to be done by someone chosen not just because the Rabbi’s sleeping with them.

Oh, and Judaism will continue to be fissiparous. The Ultra Orthodox will view all those being more modern about this as somewhere between heretic and misguided and all those more modern will view those less far along the modernity spectrum as stick in the muds. As has been happening these recent centuries at least.

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The Mole
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The Mole

Only thing I’d disagree with you here is some of the description of Christian congregations. Amongst the non-conformists you do get churches who shun ordained ministers, and those that split can do so for all sort of apparently ‘minor’ differences.

Jonathan Harston
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Jonathan Harston

I was around at that joyous moment when the Wee Wee Frees schismed and our university chaplain had to decide which to follow. 🙂