Just the other day Yair Rosenberg and Yedidya Schwartz published a list of interesting Israeli rabbis. One, Rabbi Benny Lau, is the Rav of the congregation to which we belong (tho I admit I go to other synagogues in the neighborhood, too). For whatever reason they omitted to mention the biggest story about him this year, the fact that he brought about the appointment of a woman as his colleague.
The Ramban congregation in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Katamon prides itself on being a mainstream orthodox synagogue with a difference. Unlike some of the congregations in its vicinity which have an agenda above orthodoxy, most famously the egalitarian Shira Hadasha, say; and unlike the many "regular" orthodox places in its neighborhood which simply do their thing with little intention to make any statements (Ohel Nechama, say, or Nitzanim, to mention two of the larger ones); and quite unlike the Erloi Yeshiva around the corner, which is solidly Ultra-orthodox - Ramban under the Rav Benny thinks hard (and publicly) about what it's doing. About a decade ago we had a three-year discussion about the role of women on Simchat Torah. We never moved as far on Bat Mitzvas as some progressive orthodox shuls have. We like to tell ourselves that since we're not revolutionaries, when we do decide on some change it's because that's where the mainstream is moving to.
This year we decided to hire a woman as the Assistant Rabbi, or perhaps the Spiritual Leader, or maybe something else. There was a long complex and multi-layered process in which anyone who cared to voice an opinion was encouraged to do so, with considerable disagreement as you'd expect from any group of opinionated Jews. Till this day there is still disagreement about what the job is meant to be and how we got here; but since last month we've got Rabbanit Carmit Feintuch on the job.
Here's an interview with a fellow about the appointment; here's Rav Benny writing about it; here's the Jerusalem Post reporting on it.
I'm here today to report on some personal initial impressions of my own, a month or so later.
First, there's the irrefutable fact that Ms. Feintuch represents something new in Jewish history: an orthodox talmida chachama. True, over the centuries there have been rare Jewish women who knew as much about the ever-growing library of thousands of books which made up the full repository of Jewish culture up until the modern era. But they were always alone in their society, if not alone in their century. Carmit Feintuch, probably 40-ish, I'd guess, is of the first generation where there's an entire cohort of highly educated women fully conversant in that library. I'm an old codger, true, but as recently as when I was younger, they didn't have those sort of women, nor the institutions where they could learn and then teach. Now we do. Young girls as eager to study all the traditional texts as their brothers, and men and woman scholars to teach them. Since books and learning are totally central to traditional Judaism, this is probably the single most important development in contemporary Judaism, a change which will reverberate for many centuries and one to be pinpointed as beginning towards the end of the 20th century.
(Well, perhaps not the single most important development: that would be the return to Israel and the creation of sovereignty. But those two were essential for this one, and all three are closely tied together).
Second, Rabbanit Carmit truly is a scholar. For lack of precedents I don't know if she's called a talmidat chachamim, or a talmida chachama; we'll have to wait and see how the language deals with the new reality. Just this afternoon I found myself arguing with a fellow congregant about the lecture she gave this morning, as to how learned she is - the mere fact of the discussion proving my point, as my interlocutor wasn't saying she's not learned, but rather he was kvetching that she wasn't using her knowledge to best effect. I decided not to plea for his patience by saying that she's only been at it for, what, 20 years, and her entire group not more than 30, while the menfolk have been at it for 2,000 - because that would have weakened my position. As recently as 15 years ago it would have been inconceivable for me to have a discussion with a rather conservative-minded orthodox man critical of a woman scholar for not being as totally in control of her Torah materials as any other rabbi.
Finally, the most interesting thing about Rabbanit Carmit's talks before the congregation are not that she knows so much, but the way in which being a woman and a mother (of six) seem to give her a different perspective on the same texts. The other day she took a refrain often used in the Rosh Hashana service - Hayom Harat Olam - and built her talk around the obvious but often-overlooked fact that the words mean, literally, this is the day of the conception of the world. Though she never said as much, conception is a thing women can talk about better than men. She simply demonstrated it, by talking about theological aspects of conception. This morning both she and Rav Benny, in two separate talks, took note of a rather minor aspect of Yom Kippur, a miracle whereby a red cord in the Temple used to turn white at the climax of the day's service. He used this to talk about social matters; she used it to talk about the personal ability to reach for communication with God.
Perhaps the novelty will wear off. Perhaps it's not a woman thing at all, merely a Carmit thing. It's early days, and I don't know how all this will appear a year later, or three. Yet no matter how things play out at the Ramban synagogue in Katamon, there's some major change afoot. The traditional Jewish conversation in those 30,000 books has been going on for more than 2,000 years; bringing into it the half of the community which wasn't part of it cannot but change its tone and content in unpredictable but significant ways. At the very least, it will be a richer conversation.