Semicha for woman rules her out of London School of Jewish Studies

Semicha for woman rules her out of London School of Jewish Studies

For the JC June 14 2021

An Orthodox Jewish female teacher who is about to receive rabbinic ordination has been told she can no longer teach at the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS).

Dr Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz, 61, has taught at LSJS – whose president is Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis – for 16 years and is said to be one of the college’s most popular lecturers. She teaches courses on Jewish prayer, the Bible and archaeology, the Mishnah, Midrash, world religions, Jewish history, and several sessions of the ground-breaking Tanakh Bashanah programme on the Bible.

Three years ago, she decided to enrol on the semicha (rabbinic ordination) course at New York’s Yeshiva Maharat, and is due to graduate on June 15. It remains, controversially, the only Orthodox institution granting rabbinic ordination to women, but it is not recognised by most mainstream Orthodox authorities — including that of the Chief Rabbi and the United Synagogue.

Dr Taylor-Guthartz maintains 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.

The only formal notification that Dr Taylor-Guthartz has received from LSJS has been an email from chief executive Jo Greenaway, seen by the JC, telling her that “you can no longer use the title of LSJS Research Fellow” and asking if she is still planning to teach two outstanding classes before the end of the academic year. (She has agreed to do so.)

In its formal statement, LSJS said: “Dr Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz is no longer a Research Fellow at the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS).”

“The chair of trustees, Gary Phillips, said: “On behalf of all LSJS trustees, I would like to thank Dr Taylor-Guthartz for her many years of service and we wish her all the best for the future. She is a wonderful teacher who will be much missed by both her students and colleagues at the college.’”

The JC understands that the academic did not have a formal job contract at the college, but that she was told late last year that she was among those lecturers with the honorary title of Research Fellow. Now, with the removal of the title, she can no longer teach at LSJS.

Dr Taylor-Guthartz says she told LSJS at the outset of her Maharat studies what she was doing, and offered that once she graduated, not to use the title of “rabba” — one of the titles used by those receiving ordination from Maharat — while she was teaching.

But it is understood that the college made it clear that it followed the “hashkafa” (worldview, or guiding philosophy) and rulings of the Chief Rabbi. In 2018 Chief Rabbi Mirvis made a public statement which he has now reiterated. The statement said: “The Chief Rabbi very much recognises the importance of strong female role models in our community. Indeed, there are many leadership roles which he actively encourages women to take up, ranging from synagogue chair to Ma’ayan. The established position of mainstream Orthodoxy across the world and the longstanding position of the Chief Rabbi (first quoted in the Jewish press as far back May 2018) is that the role of ‘Rabbi’ (or any equivalent position conferred by ‘semicha’) cannot be one of these.”

Dr Taylor-Guthartz said: “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 halakhah (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.”

On Tuesday, Dr Taylor-Guthartz had a meeting with the Chief Rabbi. Both parties agreed that their discussion remained confidential but observers believe that the Chief Rabbi reiterated his ruling that ordination for a woman from Maharat was not compatible with teaching at LSJS.

Dr Taylor-Guthartz founded the successful Pop-Up Beit Midrash in 2019 to provide Jewish teaching by the best available local teachers to the entire Jewish community, particularly millennials, taking it online after the start of the pandemic. She hopes to expand this and assist in building other educational projects. She has taught in many synagogues and communities, including Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, Kinloss Synagogue (as part of Chief Rabbi Mirvis’ adult education programme), and Yeshurun Synagogue, Edgware.

  • 18 June, 2021