My ordination as a rabbi is hotly contested, but it doesn’t bother me

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Last month I travelled from Melbourne to New York and received my ordination as a rabbi. If I was a man this would be routine, as Australia does not have any rabbinical schools and most local rabbis are ordained overseas.

Had I been born male, there is no doubt I would have chosen a career as a rabbi. However, because I am female, my ordination is hotly contested and not widely accepted in Orthodox Judaism.

Nomi Kaltmann at her ordination as a rabbi in Riverdale, New York, in June. Credit: Jane Halsam

Until recently, Orthodox Jewish women could not become rabbis. In 2009, the first Orthodox Jewish woman was ordained as a rabbi in New York. Her name is Rabba Sara Hurwitz, now my friend and mentor.

After her ordination, Hurwitz founded a rabbinical school called Yeshivat Maharat along with her rabbi, Avi Weiss, to ordain Orthodox Jewish women. In 2023, 64 women from around the world have graduated from Maharat, and a further 100 are in training.

Judaism is an ancient religion. Things move slowly. I have deep love and reverence for the tradition I was raised in. My family observes Orthodox Jewish law. Our home is kosher, and we keep the Sabbath.

In my immediate family there are many rabbis. My great-great-grandfather was granted a special visa to migrate from Europe to British Mandate Palestine in the 1930s, allowing him to survive the Holocaust.

In 2019, I became the first Australian woman to enrol in the rabbinic ordination program. I woke up at 5.30am to join my classmates as we delved into ancient texts in the Talmud and in Halacha (Jewish law). My four years of study culminated last month, when I travelled to the United States with my newborn daughter to receive my ordination.

The traditional Jewish name for rabbinic ordination is Semikhah. According to Jewish tradition, Semikhah began when the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai and was conferred on a line of men that could be traced directly back to Moses.

Semikhah symbolised that a man had exceptional knowledge of Jewish law which authorised him as an arbiter of that law.

In the 21st century, most rabbis are ordained after they study at a yeshiva for a few years, completing tests that ensure their knowledge of Judaism’s foundational concepts such as Sabbath, dietary laws, family purity, mourning and conversion.

In Hebrew the word “rabbi” means teacher, so while no rabbis can claim that they are part of the original chain of men leading back to Moses, there is continuity of study. For women, my ordination symbolises a radical break in tradition.

Many of my fellow Orthodox Jews won’t recognise my ordination, but that doesn’t matter to me. While I won’t be able to do everything that a man in Orthodox Judaism can do (such as count towards a quorum for prayers, or serve as a witness in a Jewish court of law), my ordination proves that women are integral to the future of Jewish leadership in Australia.

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