Rabbi Maya Leibovich

JERUSALEM (WOMENSENEWS)–Rabbi Maya Leibovich is teaching a visitor about the long-ago time when the Torah, the holy book of Judaism, was written.

“In those days, a man was perceived as ‘connected to God’ while his wife was perceived as a possession, as another object in his house that had to serve him,” she says. “Of course there were some daring women who protested against this injustice and demanded to study the Torah just like men.”

As an example of such a daring woman, Leibovich brings up Yentl, the Isaac Bashevis Singer story of the Jewish girl who disguises herself as her dead brother so she can study to become a rabbi. However, the story of Leibovich is not fiction, and thus, even more compelling for some.

While female rabbis are more common in the more liberal United States, only five other women in Israel are rabbis and they are U.S.-born. Only two Israeli institutions–Hebrew Union College and the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, both in Jerusalem–accept women in Rabbinic studies programs.

Following her ordination, Leibovich became the rabbi of Mevasseret Zion, a Progressive synagogue and community that began as six families seeking a more egalitarian style of worship. After meeting in each other’s homes for Friday night services, they realized they needed a spiritual leader and recruited Leibovich, who at the time was still studying for her ordination.

Before the establishment of Mevasseret Zion in 1993, all the 40 synagogues in Mevasseret, a major suburb of Jerusalem, were Orthodox. Women could not participate in any of their services, much less lead worships.

Leibovich says that after she began working as a rabbi, threatening letters and telephone calls from radicals in the Orthodox community poured into her office and anti-Reform graffiti spread around town. Orthodox rabbinical students staged demonstrations calling for the expulsion of her and her community.

Despite the hostility, the synagogue stood its ground and grew, so much so that in 1996 Leibovich applied to municipal authorities for a lot in which to build a new synagogue in Mevasseret. Orthodox council members pressured the mayor to refuse her. While her building-permit request was pending, the kindergarten that belonged to her community was fire-bombed and burned down. She hired security services to protect her official buildings.

Wisdom is the Best Strategy

Unbowed, the 56-year-old Leibovich, a scholar and married mother of four children, defended herself with “wise moderation.” She began a dialogue with the mayor of Mevasseret, Eli Mouyal, and drew a delegation of Reform rabbis from the United States to her side at a council meeting. There, delegates pressed the cause of Progressive Judaism and, back in the United States, publicized the severe problems Leibovitch was having. In 1997, under the international spotlight, the council approved a plot of land for the synagogue.

“In just struggles like this, wisdom is always your best strategy,” Leibovich says. “Not power or any kind of violence. I could easily have involved the media, spoken loudly our truths and made lots of fuss. Taking this route would have probably gained us lots of publicity and more donations. But the goal is to open doors, have the support of the general public, let the people in the street respect our community and our way of life and defuse any kind of hatred around us.”

Now a skeleton stands on the lot, the bare bones of the fanciful, optimistic-looking building, with a sweeping canopy-style roof, that should ultimately emerge. With construction funds exhausted and the project at a standstill, Leibovich is now often traveling in the United Sates and Europe, appealing to Progressive Jewish groups for funding to complete the project.

The community that started as six families has now grown to 180 families. Hadas Dickmann, the community coordinator of Kehilat Mevasseret Zion, the congregation and community of Mevasseret Zion, credits the growth to Leibovich’s popularity.

“Maya has an exceptional charisma, an essential trait for any spiritual leader,” she says. Leibovich herself credits her popularity to her accessibility to students and community members. “This is because I am a woman,” she says. “Unlike male rabbis, I don’t see myself as a mediator between my community members and God.”

Leibovich looks back at the time when she faced the most resistance in a scholarly way.

“I feel that the dark, primitive rules of old times were reflected in the hostility of my opponents. Those male rabbis, and their students who rejected my presence in Mevasseret, felt threatened by the fact that a woman can serve as a rabbi. They were intimidated by the possibility of a woman stealing their honor and undermining their status.”

Opponents Still Disapprove

Despite her success, many of her opponents seem unmoved.

Roi Lachmanovich, the spokesperson of Shas, the Orthodox party that staunchly opposed Leibovich, says that according the pure Halacha, or set of Judaic laws, women are not allowed to wed, to judge or teach Torah to men. They are allowed to teach Torah to women, though.

“Reform female rabbis, think that teaching Torah is superior to other tasks in Judaism such as praying, or counseling, or raising kids. Therefore they fight for climbing to the top of hierarchy. We, the Orthodox groups see all these activities totally equal in their religious and spiritual value, but according our tradition there is a clear division of functions: Men study and teach Torah while women get other ultra important tasks like educating the kids. We do not perceive the women’s religious tasks to be inferior to the men’s. Therefore there is no need for women to aspire to the allegedly higher position of a rabbi or a Torah-teacher.”

Recognizing the intensity of her opposition, Leibovich is often circumspect. For instance, she stepped aside to let a male member of her community represent her synagogue on the municipal council to shield the mayor from the political heat her own presence there would have caused. However, she expresses unalloyed opposition to the exclusion of women from religious service.

“Men do not have monopoly on the holy books or on spirituality,” she says. “The Bible belongs to women as well and they are entitled to study, interpret and teach its contents.”

Anat Cohen is a reporter living in Jerusalem.

For more information:

Kehilat Mevasseret Zion (community of Mevasseret Zion):