Orthodox Yeshiva Set To Ordain Three Women. Just Don’t Call Them ‘Rabbi.’
The first graduating class at Yeshivat Maharat may not have the title, but they do have jobs at Orthodox synagogues
On June 16, three Jewish women will be ordained as Orthodox members of the clergy in the inaugural graduation ceremony of Yeshivat Maharat, which bills itself on its website as “the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as Spiritual leaders and Halakhic authorities.” But even though Yeshivat Maharat also claims to be “actualizing the potential of Orthodox women as rabbinic leaders,” its female graduates will not be granted the title of “rabbi.” Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Abby Brown Scheier will instead be ordained with the title of “maharat,” a Hebrew acronym for manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit toranit, or female leader of Jewish law, spirituality, and Torah.
While the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements of Judaism have been ordaining women since 1972, 1974, and 1985, respectively, the Orthodox community has resisted this development, except in a few unofficial cases in Israel. Orthodox women have completed courses of study in Torah and Jewish learning but they have typically been granted nonclerical titles, such as yoetzet halakha—halakhic adviser.
Sara Hurwitz, dean of Yeshivat Maharat, was the first Orthodox woman to be ordained in the United States. In 2009, Hurwitz received smicha from Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of both Yeshivat Maharat and the Modern Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah as well as leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx, and Rabbi Daniel Sperber, a professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University and president of the Ludwig and Erica Jesselson Institute for Advanced Torah Studies. Originally, Hurwitz was also ordained with the title maharat, but Weiss changed her title to rabba—a feminization of rabbi—in February 2010, incensing the Orthodox rabbinical community. Weiss is known as a figure who courts controversy, but the brouhaha in this case was short-lived. By March, the Rabbinical Council of America issued a statement about “discussions” that members of the Orthodox RCA had with Weiss: “We are gratified that during the course of these conversations Rabbi Weiss concluded that neither he nor Yeshivat Maharat would ordain women as rabbis and that Yeshivat Maharat will not confer the title of ‘rabba’ on graduates of their program.” Hurwitz continues to use the title of rabba, but no future graduates will have that option.
But the battle isn’t merely semantic; it’s about what roles women will be permitted to perform in Orthodox institutions. On May 7, 2013, the RCA reissued its 2010 statement, noting: “We cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.”
“Historically and traditionally, women haven’t served as clergy,” Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA, told me in a recent phone interview. “In addition to the halakha, there are broader implications for the community. Traditional rabbinic roles have not been in the domain of women.” While the RCA takes no official position about whether ordaining women is halakhically permissible “in the strict sense,” Dratch noted: “Even if it were permissible, it might not be good policy,” calling the ordination of Orthodox women “divisive” and “premature.”
Sperber, who administered the smicha exam to next week’s graduates, acknowledged: “The question of the title is a difficult question. On the one hand, people live by titles. Institutions live by titles. Many positions require a title—a B.A., for example. On the other hand, they are politically explosive. So, it must be a gradual process. I think it would be good to give full respect to the women for what they are and know and have accomplished without challenging the Orthodox establishment. Which is exactly what the word ‘maharat’ is intended to do.”
This is also how the new maharats feel. “I am a member of the clergy,” said Kohl Finegold, “but I don’t use the word ‘rabbi’ in my head. People get caught up with the title, but for me, it’s about the function, what I do.”
Friedman agreed: “We don’t focus on the title of rabbi; we focus more on the work we’re doing.”
Perhaps an indication of the readiness of Orthodox congregations to accept these maharats lies in this fact: Three women from Yeshivat Maharat have already secured jobs. While the maharats won’t count in a minyan and can’t be a witness at a wedding, as male rabbis do and can, the positions that have opened for these women are positions that are open only to clergy and that require smicha.
“This is not about title,” Weiss emphasized. “It is about a degree—about women having earned the right to be poskot (decisors of Jewish law) and spiritual leaders.”
“The issue of women’s rabbinic leadership, regardless of title, is not primarily a debate over Jewish law, but over the power to define and control the franchise of ‘Orthodox Judaism,’ ” Rabbi Josh Yuter, who leads Lower Manhattan’s Orthodox Stanton Street Shul, wrote to me. “This explains why none of the Orthodox organizations have challenged the maharats at the level of their competency, or attempted to compare their competency to graduates from comparable institutions.” Indeed, no one I spoke to from the Orthodox institutions that disapprove of ordaining women—regardless of the title granted—questioned the individual graduates’ credentials.
Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the Agudath Israel of America, wrote to me: “The essence of the Jewish Mesorah, or religious tradition, is that there are distinct normative roles for men and for women. The goal of achieving, as Yeshiva Maharat endorses, ‘a pluralistic community, where women and men, from every denomination, can enhance the Jewish world’ by assuming positions of public leadership is not only antithetical to the concept of tzniut (modesty), which expresses the essence of a Jewish woman’s role and strength, but also to the very idea of Orthodox Judaism, where communal practice is determined by the community’s rabbinic elders, who have spent their lives immersed in the selfless and deep study of Torah and in personal self-control. Judaism is about obligations, not needs,” he added. ”Hundreds of generations of Jewish women have somehow managed without assuming roles in Jewish society dissonant with tzniut. And hundreds of thousands of Jewish women in our own day do not feel disenfranchised in any way by the lack of female rabbis (whatever name they’re given).”
Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s Theological Seminary, made a similar argument (quoting Saul Lieberman) in a 2011 article in the journal Hakira titled “Women Rabbis?”—arguing that tzniut, for women and for men, was the main issue. Rabbi Kenneth Brander, David Mitzner Dean of Y.U.’s Center for the Jewish Future, told me: “Y.U. does not endorse the ordination of women. We follow the tradition and the protocols which are in line with the tradition of Orthodoxy. We’re into creating opportunities, not titles.”
Brown Scheier, one of the new maharats, has a different take on tzniut, citing Piskei Uziel, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1948 to 1954, who wrote about the question of women in positions of leadership: “It is common sense that in any serious meeting and meaningful conversation there is no question of lack of modesty. … And sitting in the proximity [of women] when involved in communal affairs, which is work in holiness, does not lead to lightheartedness, (i.e., immodesty). For all Israel are holy people, and her women are holy, and are not to be suspect of breach of modesty and morality.”
Hurwitz, who says she is “connected to the rabbinic system,” emphasizes that having female leaders doesn’t go against the tenets of Orthodoxy: “This is my community,” she said. “I think there is a space for women to lead within Orthodoxy. … When people say we’re not Orthodox—it’s not a real accusation. We know we are Orthodox.”
A lot has changed since Hurwitz was ordained—in particular the founding of Yeshivat Maharat in 2009, which attracted other women to follow in her footsteps. “She didn’t want to be alone,” said Brown Scheier. “When I heard what [Hurwitz] had done in 2009, and that they were starting a yeshiva, I was really inspired by her, by the shift and change that she had brought.” In addition to the three women graduating next week, the yeshiva currently enrolls 14 women in its four-year program.
As for the debate over titles, Hurwitz noted simply: “We are living up to the promise we made to RCA. We want to respect their leadership.”
The title, it seems, was not as important to the students who enrolled in the yeshiva as the Orthodox environment: “I could have gone to any number of places—Hebrew Union College, JTS—and they would have called me rabbi,” said Kohl Finegold. “But it’s not my community. It’s not how I identify.”
Two graduating maharats have already found employment as spiritual leaders (the third graduating maharat, Brown Scheier, wasn’t seeking employment), as has Rori Picker Neiss, who is still in her third year.
“It feels so different from 2009,” said Hurwitz. “We spent all this time traveling, garnering support. There’s a palatable excitement from the community.”
The jobs these women will be starting are not merely advisory roles but clerical roles that require smicha.
“This is a pastoral role,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., which recently hired Balinsky Friedman. “She will be teaching Torah, working with people, and deciding questions of Jewish law. She has been through formal training that qualifies her to do this, and she has already begun to answer halakhic questions for members of the community.” Friedman’s salary, he said, will be comparable to that of an assistant rabbi exiting rabbinical school.
Rabbi Adam Scheier of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim of Montreal recently hired Kohl Finegold. “We met her in the course of our search for an assistant rabbi,” he said, “and decided to expand our search, with the really overwhelming and enthusiastic support of our community as well as the administration.” Shaar Hashomayim is the biggest Orthodox congregation in Canada, with 1,400 families. Kohl Finegold’s responsibilities will include speaking from the pulpit and answering halakhic questions, as well as giving classes, making hospital visits, and visiting the homebound. When I asked Scheier if he thinks of her as a rabbi, he responded, “I think of her as a maharat. It’s a new model, and we’re excited by that newness.”
Scheier got some flak for a speech he made on Shavuot about hiring Kohl Finegold, in which he stated, “We are unapologetically Orthodox, and we are unapologetically modern. … This is a not a break from tradition. If you look closely enough, the women have been there all along. It’s just now that we’re recognizing their presence, and it’s just now that we’re stepping aside just a little bit to create a place for that voice to be heard in our Beit Midrash, from our pulpit, and from the other areas of Jewish life which are not halakhically limited to men, but have been traditionally perceived as the domain of men.”
Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham in St. Louis recently hired Picker Neiss. “We needed someone to guide the community, not just educate them,” Schafner explained. “Half of my congregation are women. To hire another male rabbi—it just felt like something was missing. She will be basically an assistant rabbi. She will essentially do what I do, playing many roles.” Shafner believes that Picker Neiss will have a wider range of outreach than she would if she were male. But beyond that, “Rori just fit the bill,” he said. “Bais Abraham is very passionate because it is Orthodox, but it’s also very laid back, and Rori was like that too—open-minded and laid back, but also very engaged.”
“They wanted someone who could fit a lot of roles,” Picker Neiss said. “And they said, well, we already have a male. And they thought, a woman would be able to do the work that this community needs. I think it was more about community-matching than about me being a woman.”
“How could the Orthodox world not be ready for this? They are hiring!” said Brown Scheier, who will continue in her nonclerical role as educator after graduating (“One pulpit rabbi in the family is enough,” explained Brown Scheier, whose husband is Congregation Shaar Hashomayim’s Rabbi Adam Scheier, about not pursuing a rabbinical role). “That says a lot about opening up the conversation. People have already been so supportive of me. To people who meet these women, it’s just so obvious that they are passionate to teach Torah and that they are and should be leaders.”
For now, the demand has exceeded the supply of maharats, with shuls and universities from Connecticut to Maryland to Florida contacting Hurwitz to request female leaders.
“The maharat graduation represents the mainstreaming of this movement within Orthodoxy,” said Elana Maryles Sztokman, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. “It is so important to have women in leadership positions. And it’s important to note that they are not starting this path today. There’s a handful of women out there who have been in quasi-rabbinical roles. The difference here is the publicness of it, the critical mass, and the legitimacy of it.”
Hurwitz concluded: “Now men and women from every denomination can help shape and serve the spiritual needs of the Jewish community.”
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