NY Mag Report: “The Rabbi and the Rabba”


avi-weissBy Abigail Pogrebin

Where is the drumroll?”

Rabbi Avi Weiss looked ebullient. He was facing the congregation on a Sunday morning in March of last year, at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, the synagogue he founded nearly 40 years ago. His white yarmulke was bobby-pinned to his white hair, a broad smile lifting his jowls. In a few minutes, he would ordain the first woman in American Orthodox Judaism.

This so-called conferral ceremony honoring Sara Hurwitz, a 32-year-old mother of three, was unprecedented, and everyone in the room knew it. Orthodox rules strictly delineate gender roles in all aspects of life, especially in synagogue, and these divisions go a long way toward defining what Orthodoxy stands for. Avi Weiss is not one for subtle gestures, yet even he recognized that this ordainment would require an unusual level of political finesse. He had picked his protégée’s title cautiously, choosing not to dub her rabbi-too loaded an honorific-but rather a new designation he’d invented: maharat, a Hebrew acronym, he explained, which stands for a legal, spiritual, and Talmudic leader.

Someone drummed on a chair, obliging Weiss’s request. “The authority of Torah will rest upon her shoulders,” Weiss proclaimed dramatically, “to spread the knowledge of God throughout the land.” Large hands planted firmly on the lectern, Weiss gazed like a father at Hurwitz, who sat smiling back, dressed in a plain black suit, cloche hat, and pearls. “Sara, what you have achieved today is distinctive. It’s set apart.” He told his audience how well versed Hurwitz had become in Jewish law-Halacha-as if to anticipate any questioning of her bona fides. “Sara, under the tutelage of Halachic experts, has studied the established traditional rabbinic texts that are required to become a religious leader and, based on her mastery of these texts, is assuming a full religious leadership position in a synagogue.” With open hands, he gestured to her. “We bless you as you rise and come forward to join me in officially becoming part of the religious leadership of Israel and officially becoming a full member of our clergy!”

The crowd cheered.

“You have risked so much to stand behind me,” Hurwitz said to Weiss in her acceptance speech. “It is my dream that young Orthodox girls will be able to say, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a maharat and serve in the capacity of female Orthodox rabbi.’ ”

No one seemed to flinch. In fact, in the weeks that followed, it appeared that Weiss had accomplished something else unprecedented: a significant challenge to Orthodox rabbinical codes that had avoided waking the lions of the Establishment. This is not how he typically conducts business. Though described by his congregants as soft-spoken and gentle, he has, over the past three decades, built a career out of confrontation. He is known for his unrelenting political activism, championing causes from Soviet Jewry to clemency for Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. Few can keep track of the number of times he’s been arrested, threatened, and lambasted. Within the Orthodox community, Weiss has been equally disruptive, agitating for what he calls an “open Orthodoxy,” which he believes can be inclusive without breaching the tradition’s stringent parameters.

This morning’s ceremony appeared to represent a quieter radicalism-no news conferences, no protests. Perhaps, even, it was a glimpse of a new Avi Weiss: as crusading as ever, but, at 64, grown wise to the benefits of diplomacy.

Those in the congregation who knew Weiss best knew better.

Six years after having first discussed with Hurwitz the outsize notion of her studying to be accepted as an Orthodox rabbi, Weiss approached her ordination at a loss for what to call her. His longtime friend Blu Greenberg, who founded the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, convened a kind of focus group to help him figure it out. On two separate evenings at her house in Riverdale, Greenberg invited about two dozen prominent Jewish women-and a few men-to eat poached salmon and wrestle with the question of what title Hurwitz should be granted and whether Orthodox Judaism could accommodate her ordination.

Everyone present agreed that Hurwitz represented something seismic. “I think everybody was in amazement that she had achieved this,” says Reform rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, who attended a meeting. Hurwitz had put in three years of learning at Manhattan’s Drisha Institute, then repeated the course work under Weiss’s supervision, this time with an eye toward psak: being equipped to weigh in on intricate questions of Jewish law. “Sara completed everything,” Ellenson continues. “She bucked the system. So what happens next? Do you let her in?” Some were afraid that by ordaining Hurwitz, Weiss would jeopardize his synagogue’s funding; others expressed concern about the impact on “his boys,” as some refer to his students from the already-controversial yeshiva he created. But after hours of discussion, the group was largely in accord: Hurwitz should be named rabbi, or, failing that, rabba.

Click here to read the full, slanted New York Magazine report on the Maharat/Rabba debacle brought about by Avi Weiss.

{NY Magazine}

{Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. Only those modern Orthodox (almost conservative) Jews accept Avi Weiss and his “Maharat”. Really frum Jews consider this an aberration from the truth.

  2. Is quoting a Reform “rabbi” of female gender supposed to add clout to Avi Weiss’ actions?
    Quoting her immediately makes null and void any questions that some may still entertain regarding Sara Hurwitz. I thought Avi Weiss was smarter than that.

  3. if people with megaphones were outside Avi Weiss’s house (no I wil not call him Rabbi), he would have backed down long ago…..

  4. Why do you say that this report is slanted?
    It is simply the way a Goy would look at a truly religious person who actually believes in a GOD and in a higher authority.

  5. Why do we publicize the work of this Rasha? We only lend him credence by talking about him as if he is relevant. Let’s focus on what we need to do in the nine days – be misabel on the churban, strengthen ourselves in Bain Odom Lachaveiro and soon when moshiach comes he will deal with these people.

  6. Moshe Emes U’Toraso Emes. America is infamous in helping those who wish to water down Yiddishkite. Just another issue that Klall Yisroel has to deal with. The “FEEL” good religion is protesting Convert Law in Israel. Those who support Weiss, will support any change. Emes Yiddim strive to reach higher levels. While others get bored, so they start thinking of ways to modify Yiddishkite. It doesn’t work that way. EMES always prevails.

  7. #7 (chaimz) – You talk about strengthening Bain Odom Lachaveiro and at the same time you call another Yid a rasha? I love you AND I love Avi Weiss.

  8. “Can Rabba Sara Horowitz SHLITA be Masadur Kedushin?”

    and if so, can she be chazzon for Kabbolos Shabbos for the ufruf? And will she lead the zimmun for the seudas chassanoh and possibly get one of the sheva brochos?

  9. #7 CHAIMZ. We are protesting in public a public bizoyon hatorah which is very much our obligation, especily in the nine days.

  10. The important point to note from this article is that they met over poached salmon. (I am sure they did not check for tolayim) I wonder who cooked it, does it pas for Blu Greenberg to cook, or did she get Yitz to do so?

    Ms. Pogrebin is well known “Jewish Feminist” who apparently never really understod the secret to Jewsih feminity. In fact this is an indicator to how deep Ms. Huruwitz’s understanding is, how deep a scholar she is, as she too has not been able to understand the basic concept that so many of the N’shei Chayil hunderstand and emulate. Vdal

  11. Re comment #7 –

    It’s pretty ironic that in the space of 3 sentences you manage to call another yid a rasha and then call on us to strengthen ourselves in bein adam l’chaveiro…Public criticism, especially of someone who, whatever his faults, has been devoted to the klal for decades, should be left to those who have the shoulders to do so. You can disagree, strongly, with his actions, without using such language.

  12. To all of you bleeding heart leftists. There is no contradiction at all in calling Avi Weiss a Rosha and also calling for a deeper Ahavas Yisroel. Pinchos also killed someone! and yes he was rewarded with peace. he brought true peace into this world.
    Avi Weiss is a devisive and polarizing person and yes a Rosha who wants to undermine Yiddishkeit in the way that we have Bemesorah for 2000 years.

  13. Where is the drumroll?”
    RASHA!!! Why joke? Why make light of this situation Mr. Weiss? I know why. Because you knowingly are mocking all Orthodox Jews!
    Where is the drumroll?”

  14. To all “ohavei” Yisroel;
    Even if you really love a Rosho, does that take away his rishus and title?
    Your love doesn’t make a Tzaddik out of him. HE IS STILL A ROSHO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  15. It’s interesting that this sect that promotes ordination of women wants to be thought of as Orthodox but also takes pains to offend the Orthodox.