Controversy escalates over woman’s semicha

Controversy escalates over woman’s semicha

For the Times of Israel June 17 2021

A recent graduate of the Yeshivat Maharat Orthodox egalitarian rabbinical school in New York has been effectively banned from teaching at the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS), whose president is UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.

The disqualification of Dr. Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz, who has won praise across religious denominations for pursuing her rabbinic studies, brings to the fore an ongoing controversy about Orthodox semicha, or rabbinical ordination, for women.

After learning this week that Taylor-Guthartz’s research fellowship at LSJS was revoked — and with it, her teaching role — 30 rabbis and cantors, mainly women, from the Reform and Liberal movements wrote to Chief Rabbi Mirvis to protest against the decision.

Almost 300 more people — including a former president of the United Synagogue, the home of mainstream Orthodoxy, which is under Rabbi Mirvis’s aegis — sponsored an advertisement in London’s Jewish Chronicle saying they were “delighted to congratulate Rabba Dr Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz” on her ordination, and “commend her commitment to an intensive program of learning.” Taylor-Guthartz and those like her would be role models for future generations, both women and men, it said.

The use of the title of “rabba” — the feminine Hebrew form of rabbi — appeared to be deliberate. Taylor-Guthartz, 61, who has taught at LSJS for 16 years, informed the school of her rabbinical studies when she first enrolled at Yeshivat Maharat three years ago.

She said that she embarked on the course “to enhance my Torah knowledge and develop my learning further, so that I would develop higher skills and knowledge to teach at a higher level and provide needed leadership within the Orthodox Torah world in London, and the Jewish community in general.” She said that she had never intended to seek a post as a communal rabbi.

She also offered to drop the title of rabba while performing her duties at LSJS.

Eve Sacks, one of the leaders of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) in the UK, said she could not understand why the college did not accept this offer, or why the Office of the Chief Rabbi (OCR) had taken the stance it had.

Taylor-Guthartz met Mirvis privately last week. The contents of the meeting remained confidential, but it is assumed that Mirvis reiterated his position that women rabbis would not be accepted in the mainstream Orthodox world.

Ordinations of women from Yeshivat Maharat are still largely not recognized in centrist Orthodoxy. Maharat is not the only body that gives semicha to Orthodox women: Israel’s Rabbi Daniel Sperber, Rabbi Herzl Hefter and Rabbi Daniel Landes are all notable cases of educators who have taken that next step.

“The Chief Rabbi very much recognises the strength of feeling about this issue as is evidenced by his ‘postbag’ from right across the Jewish community, in the UK and abroad. While there is strong support for the mainstream Orthodox position on female rabbis, he recognizes that others are upset and disappointed,” said a spokesman for the Office of the Chief Rabbi in a statement.

“It was clear that a continued formal affiliation with a person who, while having contributed a great deal to the institution, had nonetheless stepped beyond the boundaries of mainstream Orthodoxy… would have sent a misleading message about what LSJS stands for — a message which would have compromised its longstanding commitment to Orthodox Jewish education and training, the consequences of which could have been significant and far-reaching for LSJS,” the statement said.

The spokesman said that despite the difficulty in making such a decision “when good and talented people are involved,” the chief rabbi was compelled to uphold the religious ethos of the school and its position within mainstream Orthodoxy, just as he does for all synagogues and organizations under his auspices.

Mirvis added that it was important to constantly explore “the challenge of empowering Jewish women in their learning and religious engagement, and encouraging them to take up leadership roles in our community, in a way that is consistent with our teachings.”

But critics of Mirvis told The Times of Israel that the decision to drop Taylor-Guthartz from the LSJS teaching roster sent a difficult message to young people in the community.

“This anxiety and worry around how this appears means that people have lost access to a wonderful teacher,” said one Orthodox woman who asked not to be named. “LSJS, which is a bastion of Modern Orthodox teaching in the UK — its teaching has been curtailed because of anxiety over what extremists might think. Look at the backlash that the chief rabbi got when he spoke out against bullying of LGBT teenagers. It would have been so easy for him to say, ‘You can’t use your title at the college, but carry on teaching.’”

In their letter to Mirvis, the Reform and Liberal cantors and rabbis said that “despite LSJS’s self-proclaimed principle of ‘maximizing the participation of women as educational leaders,’ there is clearly still a glass ceiling of Torah, above which half your community may not ascend… We see this decision as a blow to our wider UK Jewish community, and especially to recent notable, albeit incremental, progress in women’s leadership and learning.”

In the wake of the row, Middlesex University — the British university which gives teacher training credits to LSJS — is investigating its relationship with the college. A spokesman for Middlesex told London’s Jewish News that LSJS had maintained that they were “bound by [the chief rabbi’s] guidance in the teaching of religious texts and rabbinic authority.”

Taylor-Guthartz told The Times of Israel that an unlikely series of events brought her to the centre of the current controversy. Her father is not Jewish and when her mother remarried when Taylor-Guthartz was seven, the family moved to Cornwall — a place with one of the smallest Jewish populations in the UK.

“We were totally assimilated,” she said. “I didn’t know I was Jewish until I was seven.”

Taylor-Guthartz was sent to a Christian boarding school and became curious about Judaism during the Christmas holidays. She says she devoured the relevant articles in the Encyclopaedia Britannica at Cornwall’s Truro library and learned biblical Hebrew from a teach yourself book she found there.

When she went to Cambridge University to study archaeology and anthropology, the future rabba “reconnected with the Jewish community.” That was the first time, she said, “that I had seen Jews who were not members of my family.”

By degrees, Taylor-Guthartz began studying and observing Judaism. She began keeping the laws of Shabbat and kashrut in her second year of university and attended a Talmud class in her third year, taught by a Chabad rabbi “who didn’t mind having a girl in the class.”

Laughing, she confessed that “I used to have half an hour of remedial Talmud before the class, just to stay with the rest of them. Just once, I asked the right question — I was very proud of myself.”

Today, Taylor-Guthartz counts it as “an enormous advantage” to have learned about Judaism from scratch, which enables her to recognise students who come from backgrounds similar to hers when she is teaching.

After moving to Israel at the age of 21, Taylor-Guthartz took a low-paying job at the Israel Antiquities Authority, supplementing her income by moonlighting as a copyeditor at The Jerusalem Post a few times a week. While there, she met her husband, with whom she shares two daughters. The couple remained in Israel for 17 years before returning to the UK in 1998. Taylor-Guthartz also worked at the Bible Lands Museum and as one of only four archaeological translators in Israel.

Taylor-Guthartz said her time in Israel provided her with fluent Hebrew skills — a necessity for taking part in the Maharat course. She was, and continues to be, very impressed by the fluency of her Maharat student colleagues, and by the confidence of young women in the Modern Orthodox world, she said.

Her path to education began in the UK when Taylor-Guthartz was “amazed” to find herself being asked questions about Jewish practice. One woman in the United Synagogue wanted to know whether “we were allowed to pray outside the synagogue, and are we allowed to pray in our own words,” Taylor-Guthartz said. “I was so shocked that she had no idea.”

Taylor-Guthartz enrolled in a well-known programme for the training of women educators, the Susi Bradfield scheme. She gradually began teaching, while still learning at the same time. Her doctorate, funded by LSJS, was about the religious lives of Orthodox Jewish women in the UK.

That might have been the end of her story had it not been for the tragic death of her friend and LSJS colleague Maureen Kendler in 2018. At the funeral, the then-senior rabbi of the Reform Movement, Laura Janner-Klausner, urged Taylor-Guthartz and other women present to undertake rabbinic ordination at Yeshivat Maharat in Kendler’s honour. Taylor-Guthartz took that step.

After she lost her position at LSJS, she told The Times of Israel this week, “I am so sad at this denial of the opportunity to take my teaching to new heights and to expand access to Torah learning for my beloved students at LSJS. I find it tragically ironic that, having spent three years studying halachah [Jewish law] I cannot share this knowledge in the institution that I have served for so long. The decision is regrettable, but I am determined to continue to teach Torah across the community to everyone who is eager to learn.”

She said she has no regrets.

“It has made me much better equipped, I feel I am a much better teacher, and I can help to fill the unfilled spaces,” Taylor-Guthartz said. “Women will benefit from having another woman with halachic knowledge to turn to. And what I am doing, and other British women on the Maharat course, will offer role models for Jewish women in the UK.”

  • 18 June, 2021