Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman of Ohev Sholom in Washington D.C. called the Orthodox Union’s recent ruling barring women from serving as clergy “unfortunate” in an exclusive interview with JP Updates.
“There are wonderful women out in the field doing wonderful work,” said Friedman, who has served as maharat of Ohev Sholom for three-and-a-half years.
In its ruling, issued last month, the O.U. stated that “the sanctity of the synagogue demands a particularly enhanced level of modesty – as illustrated by the requirement of a mechitzah. This elevated demand for the separation of genders is incompatible with a woman presiding over a male quorum.”
“There definitely is a divide currently between those who agree and those who don’t agree,” Friedman acknowledged. “Some people who were not supportive of the ruling feel distanced from the O.U.”
Thankfully, in her own community, Friedman said she has experienced “nothing but support.” And community interaction, rather than global precedence, is what matters to Friedman. She said maharats like her are “not seeking to create global Orthodox change. We just want to do work within our community.”
A maharat and a traditional male rabbi essentially share the same responsibilities, Friedman said, namely to support and help people on their spiritual journey. At the same time, Friedman expressed a progressive stance on both men and women serving as leaders of a synagogue.
“Generally, having both men and women serving as spiritual leaders of a congregation will enhance its accessibility because there are sensitive pastoral cases that some individuals feel more comfortable bringing to a woman,” Friedman said. “These are questions relating to, but not limited to, niddah.”
Friedman said she was raised Orthodox, with a father who was an Orthodox rabbi himself. However, the opportunity for that position in Orthodox Judaism simply “didn’t exist” until the establishment of Yeshivat Maharat in 2009 by Rabbi Avi Weiss. Friedman was one of the school’s first graduates.
Open Orthodoxy, a term coined by Weiss in 1997, is distinguished from mainstream Modern Orthodoxy in having “a greater openness and receptivity to building open communities,” Friedman explained, in addition to being “more pluralistic.”
At the end of the day, Friedman said, “you’re still Orthodox.”