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Orthodox Jews Gear Up For First Women Leaders


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, the barbershop guys will give us a fresh cut on the week's news. But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today our guest is a woman who is forging a new path in faith leadership. Ruth Balinsky Friedman is just two days away from being one of the first graduates of a program that's training women to take on leadership positions within the Orthodox Jewish tradition. She joins us now to talk about what that means. Not just to her but to Orthodoxy on the whole. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us and congratulations.

RUTH BALINSKY FRIEDMAN: Thank you, and thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Well, first of all how are you properly addressed?

FRIEDMAN: So as of Sunday, I will be going by the title of Maharat Ruth.

MARTIN: So Maharat Ruth - and that means what? I think most people understand the term rabbi. So it's not the same as rabbi, or is it?

FRIEDMAN: Great question. So maharat is a Hebrew acronym, in Hebrew, that stands for four Hebrew words. It's Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit, which translates to a leader in Halacha in Jewish law, in spirituality, and in Torah, and in Jewish teaching.

MARTIN: And how is your position different from that of being a rabbi? I mean, I think people know that rabbi really means teacher.


MARTIN: But people understand it as being kind of the leader of a congregation of the Jewish faith. In other traditions there are women rabbis and they go by the term rabbi. So can you help us understand what's distinctive about your role?

FRIEDMAN: So, I will be performing a whole array of tasks in the synagogue. I will be beginning a position of maharat at Ohev Shalom, The National Synagogue, in Washington, D.C., starting in August. And I will be doing teaching within the community, working on Shabbat related activities, and really having a hand in the involvement to facilitate all different aspects of the synagogue's activities.

MARTIN: Is there anything you will not be asked to do?

FRIEDMAN: Within orthodoxy, women do not participate in three areas. Women do not lead services, nor count in a quorum for prayer - those required for communal prayer. And then also serve as witnesses to religious transactions, such as a marriage. That limitation on women's roles does not affect the position of leadership. It is not necessarily common or certainly required that the rabbi of a community be the person to lead services. So, the fact that women do not participate in those areas does not limit the role of a spiritual leader of the community.

MARTIN: Who's been fulfilling this role now? I mean, presumably, in the practice of Orthodox Judaism, as in the practice of other, you know, orthodox religious traditions, men and women have different spheres. And sometimes worship is done together, sometimes worship is done separately. But, presumably, there's been a need for study now, there's been, presumably, a need for questions that are particularly sensitive for women. Who fulfills this role now in orthodoxy?

FRIEDMAN: Sometimes the wife of the rabbi would often serve as, like you said, the female presence - answering questions that may be sensitive to women and that a woman would want to share with another woman. Many communities, especially in 2013, we see often that the wives of rabbis nowadays are very busy with their own professions, and that is a role that is certainly sometimes still present but changing in many ways.

MARTIN: So, I was going to ask you that - is it that the wives of rabbis are not as interested in playing this role, or is it that congregations desire that a person fulfilling this role have the kind of training that a rabbi has?

FRIEDMAN: I think the way that Yeshiva Maharat is different is that we seek to formalize that position. In other words, it's wonderful if, you know, there are wives of rabbis in the community and women who are educated and who want to get involved - that's fantastic and that should not stop. But what we also want to do is to provide a comprehensive training for women who do want to serve formally in these capacities, who do want to be employed by the synagogue, and to really be fully prepared for that role. And what we've seen is that synagogues, like I said, they really - they desire that. They crave that presence.

MARTIN: We do understand that, though there is some controversy about Yeshiva Maharat and the position in general. That there are some people within orthodoxy who still don't think it's appropriate for people to be trained in this way or to serve in this way. I'm wondering why that is, given that, as you've mentioned, that women have served informally in this role - often the wife of the rabbi, the rebbetzin, has served in that role. Why do you think that there's this pushback?

FRIEDMAN: So Orthodox Judaism operates within the parameters of Halacha of Jewish law. At Yeshiva Maharat, we do not do anything that is beyond the confines of Halacha, of the Jewish law because, like I mentioned, we do not lead services, for example. So we do not step out of that role. However, in many communities - have not had - many orthodox communities, I should say, have not had that formal position of a woman serving as the spiritual leader of that congregation. And there are certain communities and individuals who feel that that is a break from tradition, and that that is doing something new and something that orthodoxy has not had be such a common thing so far. And therefore, that that - it's a deviation from what the community has done until now.

MARTIN: Do I have it right that your father is a rabbi?

FRIEDMAN: Yes, he is.

MARTIN: And you're graduating on Father's Day. So, nice present for him I hope. I hope he still gets to play golf or whatever he does.

FRIEDMAN: Well, I'm making him fly to New York City.

MARTIN: Right, exactly. Do you mind if I ask how does he feel about this new undertaking of yours?

FRIEDMAN: Thank God, he has been very, very supportive. He, probably like all good parents, was a little nervous at first about how it would impact my life. But he has been nothing but supportive and eager and excited.

MARTIN: What kinds of concerns does he have?

FRIEDMAN: Well, when I started, it was four years ago. I was 24, I was not married, I was younger, and just worrying that this - it was an immensely positive decision for me. And, like I said, I've never regretted it for a second. But any good parent worries about their child when they're going to do something new. But it was only mild concern, I don't want to overplay that.

MARTIN: You are married now, right?

FRIEDMAN: I am married now, it did not cause much of a hindrance.

MARTIN: Though he was worried that you wouldn't find a partner? That people would be...

FRIEDMAN: It says something...

MARTIN: What? That people wouldn't accept you or that what?

FRIEDMAN: In the orthodox communities, they say that you're a student at Yeshiva Maharat. Like I said, I've been very supported by the community but it's still, you know, to say I'm the first woman in the program to train orthodox women to be spiritual leaders does speak strongly to my character.

MARTIN: Well congratulations.

FRIEDMAN: Thank you.

MARTIN: And happy Father's Day to your dad.

FRIEDMAN: I will tell him you said that.

MARTIN: That was Ruth Balinsky Friedman. She is the soon to be maharat at Ohev Shalom - The National Synagogue, in Washington, D.C. She joined us from our bureau in New York. Soon to be Maharat Ruth, thank you so much for joining us.

FRIEDMAN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.