Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

Change Comes Slowly to Orthodox Synagogue Life

March 11, 2014

By Lila Kagedan

I have learned that change comes ever so slowly to Orthodox synagogue life, but it does happen. When I was 12, my shul launched a search for a new rabbi. My father, who was on the search committee, gave me an important job. He had me prepare questions to quiz the job candidates based on the weekly Torah portion. I diligently chose the toughest questions. I felt like my voice mattered as part of the committee in an Orthodox synagogue that seldom saw, much less heard, the voices of women in the community.

Ultimately, this rabbi became my teacher in several different educational settings and we butted heads to the say least. We argued over my ability to do rituals and celebrate my bat mitzvah in the manner in which I wanted. We argued about learning Talmud in high school. We argued about the role of women in the synagogue, politics, and we continued to argue about parsha questions. We pretty much argued for more than a decade. Then, I readied myself for what I thought would be the biggest argument of all: when I revealed to him that I had been accepted to get smicha /ordination as a student at Yeshivat Maharat.

While I saw this as the ultimate compliment to his years of teaching me as I was truly committing myself to a life of service and learning, I knew that there were limits and this would be the "last straw." I decided that year on Rosh Hashana to casually mention my course of study after shul one evening. When I did, he didn’t really react. It was clear to me that I had crossed a line and that was that. It saddened me that he could not see my commitment to study as a positive, but I had long lived in a world where women's learning was of little interest so I certainly was not shocked.

A few weeks later he said to my youngest brother, possibly jokingly or maybe he was testing the waters, "So your sister is going to be a rabbi" It was clear to me that this was a positive step and I decided to pursue as many halachic conversations with him in casual short ways after services as possible when I visited home. I was never certain where he stood on the matter of ordination and we never discussed it.

This past Thanksgiving/Chanukah, this very same rabbi invited me give a talk at the shul on halacha and ethics relating to inclusion for differently abled persons. I was shocked. No woman had ever spoke about halacha in the shul setting before. I thought he disapproved of my studies and me. The invitation had been a simple email, no drama or pomp, just a simple and direct email invite.

When he introduced me at the lunch prior to my talk with over 100 people in attendance, he used the most complimentary of terms to describe my studies and I returned the compliment by introducing myself as his longtime student. It was an amazing, groundbreaking moment for the shul, but most all, it just felt normal. As the audience filed out of the room after the talk, the rabbi came up to me and challenged a few of my points and we talked some of them through. I thanked him for the invitation and told him that I would be sending him an invitation to my ordination ceremony when the time came. We both wished one another a Shabbat Shalom and I thanked him for being my teacher for several years.

Change can happen when you least expect it and in the most surprising ways. Patience would not have achieved this goal. The passage of time would not have brought me to this place. What brought me here was more than a decade of facing the issues and pursuing these goals. That's what yielded these results. It would turn out to be a season of milestones for women in the shul of my childhood. After years of advocacy, women danced with a Torah for the first time on Simchat Torah and will read from the Megillat Esther on Purim. Now it is time to focus on what we want to do next.

Lila Kagedan in a student at Yeshivat Maharat and a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. Her beloved father, Ian Kagedan referenced in this article, passed away Feb. 17. May his memory be a blessing.

As part of a collaboration between the HBI's Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law and the School of Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, supported by the Bridging Voices Program of the British Council, we present a series of invited reflections on the intersection of Gender, Religion and Equality in Public Life from activists and scholars around the world. Contributors have been asked to reflect upon the ways in which conflicts over gender, religion and participation impact their work and inform their understanding of events in the news. They are particularly asked to consider how religious norms around gender shape civil policy making, adjudication and women’s capacity to fully participate in public political and ritual life.