Interview with Ruth Balinsky Friedman

I have always been curious about the different roles that men and women play within Jewish Orthodoxy. Why can’t a woman be a rabbi? Can she study the same texts as a man? Are there roles that woman can play in Orthodox services?

To begin to understand some of these complexities I met with Ruth Balinsky Friedman, a member of the inaugural class of Yeshivat Maharat, a pioneering institution that trains Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halakhic authorities. What follows is a discussion of her journey to Maharat, her hopes after graduation and her thoughts on feminism. 

Natalie Bergner: How did you find yourself studying at Maharat?

Ruth Balinsky Friedman: I went to Barnard and graduated in 2007. I had a feeling that I wanted to get involved in religious leadership studies but I didn’t know how to do that because in 2007 Yeshivat Maharat didn’t exist. So I went to Drisha, an amazing institute that has year-long intensive learning programs for women on the Upper West Side. From 2007 to 2008 I did the mid-level Beit Midrash program. Actually, on my first day there I thought, “I’m going to need to stay another year.” I rarely have such intuitive feelings. I ended up staying another year and did their Scholar’s Circle Program. That was around the same time that Yeshivat Maharat came into existence. It became clear to me, through my studies at Drisha, that I was on a path to spiritual leadership, broadly speaking. I decided to join Yeshivat Maharat and am now a member the inaugural class, one of the three members graduating next year. 

NB: Was your family supportive?

RBF: Yes. I am extremely grateful to have a very supportive family. My dad is an Orthodox rabbi, and he is excited that I am doing this. Similarly, my husband and his family are very supportive. It is definitely helpful to have that network. 

NB: What does the acronym Maharat mean? 

RBF: It is an acronym that stands for: Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit, which means one who is a leader in Halakhah (Jewish Law), spirituality and Torah. It references the various areas in which spiritual leaders engage the community and bring Jewish values to the community. 

NB: And who came up with the acronym? Is it difficult to explain to people?

RBF: I was not involved in the process of coming up with the title. But I know that when [our Dean], Rabba Sara Hurwitz, was going to be ordained, in March of 2009, they wanted to find a title that would describe what she did. They felt at the time that Rabbi wouldn’t necessarily be the best choice. After much deliberation this was the title that they settled on and I think that people appreciate it. 

NB: And what was the reason that Hurwitz couldn’t be called a rabbi? Is there a difference between what she studies and what men who are becoming rabbi’s study?

RBF: In terms of studying, Orthodox women study the same things and we have similar pastoral counseling programming and leadership training as men. But the title reflects a difference in religious roles. There are still certain roles that Orthodox women can’t fill. Specifically, leading services or serving as a witness on a legal document—an example of that would be serving as a witness for a marriage ceremony. So, in that respect, there are still differences between what a female and a male orthodox spiritual leader can do. 

NB: Do you notice the incoming classes at Maharat expanding?

RBF: My class is very small at just three people. Maharat intentionally grows slowly because we have limited resources and don’t want to overwhelm the system. But there is definitely a lot of interest in the program.  

NB: Do you ever struggle be understood by people who believe it isn’t fair that you, as a woman, can’t become a rabbi, and by people who believe that you shouldn’t be studying at a place like Maharat to begin with? Do you feel caught in a tug of war?

RBF: There are definitely people who adhere to both sides. I am personally very happy about the place that Maharat is in now. We are all doing what we love, what we feel we were put here to do and that our work is important.  There will always be those tugs of wars and there will always be people who wish that things were different, but that is the case with almost anything in life. We just try to move forward, to do what we are doing and work with the communities that embrace our presence. 

NB: Do you have a vision of what your leadership role will be when you graduate and what job positions are available to you?

RBF: [Laughs] That’s a good question, one I am getting a lot right now. Part of the process will be waiting to see what positions people will offer to women. I am leaving my options open for now. I will say that I am very interested in education, particularly adult education, but not necessarily exclusively. I love working and engaging with people, so I am hoping to find my own place within that world. 

NB: And if you wanted to have a role within the Synagogue, in services, would that be available to you?

RBF: There are certain communities that use a participatory minyan style, which means a service in which the woman doesn’t lead any of the core prayers, but can lead, for example, Kabbalat Shabbat.  I personally don’t have a desire to participate in prayer leadership, but there are some women who do and who are able to find their role. 

NB: Has Maharat been categorized as a feminist school? And do you and your classmates consider yourselves feminists?

RBF: I would assume people classify us as feminists. I would infer that people believe that we are the next step in putting [Orthodox] women in the public sphere and encouraging women to take positions of spiritual leadership within the community. I absolutely identify as a feminist. Unfortunately, that word has gained a lot of negative publicity in recent years. When I hear my high school students say, “Don’t worry, I’m not a feminist,” as though it’s not a good thing, I try to go out of my way to tell them that that word isn’t bad and it shouldn’t have a bad connotation. Any woman who believes that she should be paid the same as a man is a feminist. I think that we should try to put a more positive spin on that word. 

NB: You just mentioned that you try to encourage girls to embrace the feminist label or to not see it in a negative light. Do you find yourself inspiring girls to take on more leadership roles, making them aware of the increasing number of leadership roles that are available to them? 

RBF:  Yes. Actually, for three years I have been teaching in the Dr. Beth Samuels Drisha Summer High School Program. I am still in touch with one of my students from the first summer. We were just talking the other day about how she can find her role of Jewish leadership.  I sense a lot of excitement and energy coming from generations younger than my own about women’s participation and spiritual leadership, which is inspiring to see. 

Natalie Bergner is a summer intern at Ma’yan

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