On Feb. 1, the Georgia House of Representatives made history.
As part of its daily gathering ritual, called Chaplain of the Day, Rep. Esther Panitch introduced Rabbi Miriam Udel, a female Orthodox rabbi, to lead the opening prayer.
Udel’s husband, Adam Zachary Newton, and their son Emmanuel, were also in attendance. In her introduction, Udel thanked Emmanuel for coming. “He is missing PE, the most fun part of the first grade morning, and who is generally supportive of his rabbinic Mami. But he was disappointed to learn that ‘Chaplain of the Day’ has nothing to do with Charlie Chaplin.”
Although other U.S. houses of congress around the country have had convocations led by women rabbis, those spiritual leaders were from more liberal streams of Judaism. Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbinical seminaries have been ordaining female rabbis for decades. Udel, however, was ordained in 2019 at the first Orthodox yeshiva to ordain women as clergy, Yeshivat Maharat, which was only founded in 2009.
Amanda Shechter, a spokesperson for Yeshivat Maharat, confirmed that this was the first time an Orthodox woman rabbi has led a prayer for a legislative body.
A rabbi and a scholar
Udel is not only an ordained rabbi. She’s also an associate professor of Yiddish language, literature and culture at Emory University. In 2020 she published the book Honey on the Page: A Treasury of Yiddish Children’s Literature, which won the Judaica Reference Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries.
In her talk to the congressional house, Udel spoke about the upcoming Torah portion this Shabbat — a special day in the Jewish calendar called Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of song. She also described the discussion by Talmudic rabbis about the courageous ways that the Israelites managed to survive and thrive even after Pharaoh’s genocidal decree that all baby boys be drowned in the Nile.
The rabbis’ conclusion, said Udel, was that it all came down to the efforts of women. As one rabbi put it: “In the merit of the righteous women of that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt.”
Udel felt it was especially auspicious that she was asked to speak on Feb. 1. “It was incredibly meaningful to get to speak about the Exodus story on the first day of Black History Month,” she said.
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