Dina Najman has devoted the last 15 years of her life to studying and teaching Jewish law and ancient Jewish texts. But as a committed Orthodox Jew, she never saw herself leading a synagogue one day.
“I never thought it was actually possible,” she said.
But next month, Ms. Najman (pronounced NIGH-man), 38, a wife, a mother of three and an expert in Jewish bioethics, will become the spiritual leader of Kehilat Orach Eliezer, a small Upper West Side congregation. She will not be called rabbi; instead, she has been given the title of rosh kehillah, or head of congregation. It is the highest position in the community, and she will be performing many of the functions of a rabbi, within certain limitations that have been laid out by the congregation’s leaders in an effort to abide by Jewish law.
The appointment is a milestone for advocates of an expanded role for women in Orthodox Judaism, but one bursting with the kind of contradictions and tensions that come with trying to reconcile modern egalitarian impulses with fidelity to ancient religious texts that often defy them.
“We think that the larger community benefits when women have more opportunities and there are more opportunities for women,” said Robert Sacks, co-president of the congregation. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not trying to be very careful to adhere to Jewish law.”
“For us, the law comes first,” he said.
The congregation is not technically affiliated with any Jewish movement, but it functions essentially as a modern Orthodox community, seeking to adhere closely to halakah, or Jewish law. (American Judaism’s three major movements — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — are largely distinguished by their degrees of adherence to Jewish law.) As a result, while Ms. Najman will be the spiritual leader, because she is a woman she will not be allowed to lead services or read from the Torah, except in certain narrow circumstances. Laymen from the congregation will do these things.
Nor will she be counted toward the minyan, the quorum of 10 men needed to start prayer, or preside over certain events like baby-naming ceremonies and weddings.
What she will do, however, is deliver sermons, answer questions about Jewish law from congregants, teach classes on Jewish texts and counsel people, all traditional rabbinical functions.
Although justifications rooted in Jewish law and tradition have kept women from Orthodox pulpits up to this point, the congregation’s previous leader, Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, who retired last year, told synagogue members that a woman could occupy the position they were looking to fill, provided they established certain boundaries.
It is difficult to assess the broader impact of Ms. Najman’s appointment in the Orthodox world, the only major Jewish movement that does not ordain women as rabbis. The congregation is on the leftward fringe of the Orthodox movement. Kehilat Orach Eliezer, which is about 15 years old, has intentionally avoided affiliating with any movement so that Jews from a variety of theological backgrounds can feel comfortable attending, but most members identify themselves as Orthodox.
The group, which meets in rented space at a youth hostel on Amsterdam Avenue between 103rd and 104th Streets, has enjoyed a reputation for being at the forefront of a number of innovations in the role of women in Orthodox services. Although the congregation has a traditional barrier dividing the men and the women during prayer services, its leaders make a point of putting the prayer stand in the middle, so the prayer leader has equal access to both sides. The Torah scroll is passed around on the women’s side, as well as the men’s side. Women are permitted to lead certain prayers.
The congregation was also one of the first in the Orthodox world to consider letting men and women read from the Torah together, but in the end decided to allow it in only certain very limited circumstances, outside of regular services.
In part because of its progressive spirit within the confines of Orthodoxy, the congregation was at one time a prime destination for Orthodox Jewish young professionals who flocked to the Upper West Side. But it has struggled in recent years, dwindling to just 40 or 50 during Sabbath services.
In some ways, the congregation’s members have found themselves caught between their liberal and conservative impulses, with some members frustrated that it is not moving fast enough to include women and leaving to join other, more egalitarian congregations. The congregation was not trying to make any kind of political statement with Ms. Najman’s hiring, said Simon Feil, the congregation’s other co-president. She was simply the best out of a field of candidates that included both men from traditional Orthodox rabbinical backgrounds and women, he said.
Many observers of the Orthodox scene will probably discount the significance of Ms. Najman’s appointment, because of the uniqueness of the congregation that hired her, said Daniela Weiss, executive director of Drisha Institute, a Manhattan organization dedicated to educating women in Jewish texts.
But Ms. Weiss placed Ms. Najman’s appointment alongside a number of other advances for women in Orthodoxy. Indeed, propelled by an explosion in Jewish learning for women, they are now teaching Talmud classes, acting as advocates in Israel’s rabbinic courts and functioning as primary authorities on questions of family purity law. In Israel recently, a woman was even ordained by an Orthodox rabbi, although she does not occupy a pulpit and many in the Orthodox world do not recognize her status. And, in New York several years ago, a handful of women were hired as congregational interns by Orthodox synagogues.
“I can’t help but think that each progression is going to inform the other,” Ms. Weiss said.
Not everyone sees Ms. Najman’s appointment as progress.
Those who are pushing for female rabbis in the Orthodox movement are sowing the seeds of schism, said Rabbi J. David Bleich, a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University, the flagship institution for the Orthodox movement.
“A lot of people focus on the now without being terribly concerned about the future,” he said. “That’s being shortsighted.”
Although he said he agreed that as a matter of Jewish law a woman might be able to play the roles the congregation has delineated for Ms. Najman, he said the crucial question was one of competency.
“There is right now no real program that would enable a woman to become competent, certainly no formal program,” he said, adding that he saw no need for such a program.
But Rabbi Dov Linzer, the academic dean at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Manhattan rabbinical school that falls on the more liberal end of the Orthodox tradition, and who has known Ms. Najman for years, said he considered her eminently qualified.
“She can do a better job than a large number of rabbis just coming out of rabbinical school,” he said.
Ms. Najman lives in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, but will occupy an apartment within walking distance of the synagogue two weekends a month. She has studied at Drisha and at Nishmat, a Torah study center for women in Jerusalem. She has also taught extensively on Jewish law. Over the years, she has developed a special interest in bioethics and researched questions of Jewish law for the Halachic Organ Donor Society.
But she is a bit of a reluctant pioneer. She easily summons memories from when she was younger and was turned away from a Talmud class at a synagogue because of her gender. She also treasures the paradox in a more recent incident when she was the only woman at a weekday prayer service and the men had to consult her about what to do next.
Even so, the actual title she holds, whether it be rabbi or not, is less important to her, she said, than the substance of the work.
“It’s not about male versus female,” she said. “It’s about perpetuation of Jewish education.”