Female rabbi works to bring women into leadership positions in the British Orthodox community

LONDON (JTA) – Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz was a teenager when she began to feel Judaism calling her back. Her family had abandoned the synagogue, and by the mid-1970s they were living in Cornwall, about as far away from British Jewish centers as possible.

She wrote letters to Jewish institutions and asked them to send her brochures. She pored over the Jewish entries in the thin pages of an Encyclopedia Britannica. She began to decipher unfamiliar words and learn about Israel. She couldn’t visualize all the traditions yet, and there were things she knew weren’t in the books – right now “it was all theoretical”.

The theory became practical at the University of Cambridge, where Taylor-Guthartz attended synagogue and learned Hebrew. She will eventually live in Israel. She then taught at the London School of Jewish Studies, or LSJS, which is associated with the United Synagogue – roughly equivalent to the modern Orthodox movement in the United States.

Taylor-Guthartz, now 62, burst onto the agenda of British Jewry after being ordained in June by the Yeshivat Maharat of New York. The egalitarian ‘open Orthodox’ yeshiva is where other women like her in Britain go for what the seminary calls a ‘traditional Orthodox semikha. [ordination] curriculum ”for women. Graduates choose their own titles and Taylor-Guthartz chose “rabba”.

Britain’s traditionalist Orthodox establishment reacted quickly, firing Taylor-Guthartz from her teaching post at LSJS, where she had been for 16 years. His fellowship at the school was also revoked.

Maybe it was the end, but something unusual happened: A senior researcher at the school resigned in protest, donors threatened to take their money elsewhere, community figures took to task. wrote critical opinion pieces in communal newspapers and many people spoke angrily behind closed doors. .

The controversy has started a conversation about the extent to which British orthodoxy is willing – or able – to accommodate women who want to see it evolve in a more egalitarian direction.

A letter signed by 30 liberal and reformed rabbis accused the UK’s chief rabbi of maintaining a “Torah glass ceiling above which half of your community cannot climb.” Taylor-Guthartz was even heard on the BBC’s flagship women’s issues radio show, “Woman’s Hour.”

The establishment has moved back. Her roles as a teacher were reinstated – but only after a compromise in which she agreed not to use the title of rabba.

“Despite all the protests that nothing has changed,” she told the Jewish Telegraph Agency, “something has changed.”

Some have suggested that Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, spiritual leader of the United Synagogue and president of the LSJS, was concerned about the reaction of more conservative elements of the Jewish community, both at home and abroad, he allowed a female rabbi to teach in a college. under his supervision.

Like Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks before him, Mirvis is caught between the liberals and the increasingly assertive, larger and influential Ultra-Orthodox community.

Others wrote letters supporting Mirvis, claiming he held the line for a position widely accepted in a range of Orthodox currents. Graduates of Yeshivat Maharat have found positions in the Orthodox world, but rarely in roles that would conflict with the idea that only men can serve as congregational rabbis or ordained clergy. In 2015, the Modern Orthodox Rabbinic Council of America ruled that Orthodox institutions cannot “allow a title involving rabbinic ordination for use by a teacher in Limudei Kodesh.” [Jewish studies] in an Orthodox institution.

British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020 (Raphael Ahren / TOI)

Rachie Binstock, the senior rabbetzin at St. John’s Wood Synagogue in London, defended the Orthodox position during Taylor-Guthartz’s appearance in “Woman’s Hour.”

“The title of rabbi today evokes the head of a community in a synagogue context,” she explained. “It’s problematic for orthodoxy, it always will be, because the synagogue is built as the place of prayer for men. Women and men have different roles in prayer, different expressions of prayer.

Binstock’s title indicates that she is the wife of the Rabbi of St John’s Wood, where she herself is an educator and program director.

“We don’t believe equality is similarity,” she said. “Judaism celebrates difference, and we have many different roles. “

Others noted that Rabbanit Shira Marili Mirvis, the wife of the chief rabbi’s nephew, in April became the first woman to be appointed – although not under the official title of rabbi – as the spiritual and halachic authority, or Jewish legal, from an Orthodox community in Israel.

Taylor-Guthartz says Britain is “10 to 15 years behind Israel and the United States.”

“We are a small provincial community by comparison,” she told JTA in a Zoom interview. “We are very old-fashioned. We are very conservative. We are preserving a conservatism which, in my opinion, is characteristic of Britain in the 1950s, but from which Britain developed. Britain has evolved, but the Jewish community preserves it. “

She hopes to change that.

“It can take a long time,” Taylor-Guthartz said. “It may take a while – it may even take more than my life – but you have to keep moving. You have to keep coming. I think we are at the beginning of this process.

“I believe a lot in the facts on the ground, and there are now facts on the ground that there were not before,” she added.

Taylor-Guthartz, who while in Israel attended an egalitarian Orthodox synagogue that prided itself on a decentralized and democratic model, said he suffered culture shock upon his return to Britain in 1998.

“The communities of London just seemed strange to me,” she said. “They were all very scared of things. I was not used to this.

Dr Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz speaks at the annual Greenbelt Arts, Faith and Justice Festival in the UK in 2016. (YouTube)

Taylor-Guthartz talks about the pioneer women who came before her, and friends encouraged her to think about investigating Maharat. She talks about her dissertation on Orthodox women for her doctorate at University College London, which was recently published.

But there is a story that jumps out at her: Shortly after returning to Britain, a Jewish woman approached her and asked her, “May I pray in my own words and may- I pray outside the synagogue? “

Taylor-Guthartz was devastated.

“I thought it was terribly sad,” she said. “Even before my ordination, people who didn’t feel comfortable going to their rabbi for one reason or another were already asking me questions: I don’t feel like they could ask anyone. ‘a.

“It is very important that there are women who are resources for other women.

The United Synagogue movement has taken a strong stand against allowing women to hold rabbinical positions, even though progressive denominations in Britain have had women in the clergy since the 1970s. For this reason, United Synagogue has been accused of lagging behind other traditional faiths and society at large by opening up to women. The organization only allowed women to become administrators in 2014 after opening the synagogue presidency to them two years earlier.

“It’s such a heavy prehistoric beast,” Taylor-Guthartz said. “I don’t know if he can adapt. He tried, but he’s still catching up.

Still, she is optimistic.

“I think the community is way ahead of its leaders here,” she said. “They are getting a little impatient, and it just seems ridiculous to a lot of people that you can have the best judges and the best doctors sitting in silence in a synagogue where they can’t say anything.”

Taylor-Guthartz says the common reaction to his dismissal from LSJS proves his point.

“What surprised me, and what I think is really important about what happened, was the number of solidly centrist people at United Synagogue who stood up and said it wasn’t was not OK, this is ridiculous, this is crazy, “she said.

Britain’s best-known reformist and liberal Jewish figures, such as rabbis Julia Neuberger, Laura Janner Klausner and Charley Baginsky, are all women. In contrast, British Orthodox women are “invisible both inside and outside the community,” Taylor-Guthartz said.

“A lot of people are very angry and a lot of people have left. There is a silent escape from people because they feel unwanted, ignored, disrespectful, ”she said.

“We need women. You have to talk to women.

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