Report: “Not Everybody Is Ready for an Orthodox Rabba”


avi-weissThe following report appears in the Wall Street Journal:

Enthusiastic applause greeted Sara Hurwitz when she stepped to the podium last month to address a gathering of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance in New York. Two months earlier, Ms. Hurwitz’s mentor, Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, had given her the title of “rabba,” or female rabbi, making her the most visible woman to join the Orthodox clergy. “The community is inspired, electrified and supportive of women functioning in rabbinic roles,” Rabba Hurwitz told the audience. That support, however, is far from universal.

In February the Agudath Israel of America, an ultra-Orthodox organization, blasted Rabba Hurwitz’s title as a “radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition” that “must be condemned in the strongest terms.” Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz warned, “We cannot allow someone whose guide is 20th century feminism . . . to hijack and attempt to redefine Orthodoxy.”

Rabbi Moshe Kletenik, president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), a centrist group of Orthodox rabbis, told me, “A woman cannot be ordained as a rabbi or serve in the role of a rabbi based on our tradition.” Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, a vice president of the RCA, went further, likening the idea of female clergy to “pagan ideologies.”

The uproar threatens to formally splinter the long-volatile Orthodox movement into liberal and conservative factions. “The two wings are moving further and further apart,” says Brandeis University historian Jonathan D. Sarna. “The issue of women is a very significant divider, and it will take all the diplomacy that can be mustered to keep Orthodoxy from splitting.”

The Reform movement began ordaining women in 1972 and the Conservative movement followed suit in 1985. The vibrations from those advancements have now penetrated Orthodoxy. “It is no longer possible to say that women should be disqualified from religious leadership because of their gender,” says former RCA president Rabbi Marc Angel. “The reality has changed. We have to open doors for highly trained and educated women.” Blu Greenberg, a prominent Orthodox feminist, has long advocated the ordination of women. In a 1984 essay she presciently wrote: “It seems but a matter of time that a woman, who is as well-versed in rabbinic sources as a male . . . will say to herself: ‘Why not me?'”

Rabba Hurwitz, a soft-spoken 33-year-old, is that woman. After graduating from Barnard College, she spent three years at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in New York, followed by five years of private study with Rabbi Weiss. She mastered rabbinic texts and halacha, or Jewish law. She passed the relevant tests.

In March 2009, after months of deliberation, Rabbi Weiss invented a title for her, “maharat,” which is an acronym of the Hebrew words for halachic, spiritual and Torah leader. He declared her a “full member of the clergy, leading with the unique voice of a woman,” and installed her on the rabbinic staff of his congregation. He also made her dean of Yeshivat Maharat, which opened in 2009 and bills itself as “the first institution in Jewish history to train women to be fully integrated into the Orthodox community as spiritual leaders and halachic authorities.”

Her title failed to catch on. “People didn’t know what maharat meant,” Rabba Hurwitz says. “Rabba is a more respectful and accurate description of who I am and what I do.” Speaking about the controversy, she adds: “I understand that people are concerned. This is new, but nothing I am doing is outside the framework of Jewish law.”

Rabba Hurwitz concedes that there are certain functions that an Orthodox woman cannot perform, like sitting on a beit din, or religious court. But such tasks, she says, “don’t impact the day-to-day functioning of a rabbi.” She can, moreover, do some things that a male rabbi cannot, like be a reassuring presence on the female side of the barrier, or mechitzah, that separates men and women in an Orthodox synagogue; and she can field intimate questions that some women are more comfortable asking another woman. “All of that,” Rabba Hurwitz says, “adds to the community.”

She says she has no intention of fracturing the Orthodox movement. And at least for the moment, a schism has been forestalled. In a March 5 letter to the RCA, Rabbi Weiss wrote that it is not his “intention” to ordain more women, a pledge that Rabbi Kletenik says “firmly establishes as public policy” that women cannot be Orthodox rabbis. In its own statement, the RCA declared its commitment to women assuming “appropriate leadership roles,” but failed to specify what those roles might be. Rabbi Kletenik says the details will be hashed out at next week’s RCA annual convention in Scarsdale, N.Y.

But the issue remains very divisive. Two weeks ago, three young Orthodox women created an online petition that declares it “distressingly clear that the RCA has no intention of supporting women’s entrance into Jewish leadership.” The petition, which calls on the RCA to empower women, has received more than 1,000 signatures.

Regardless of the RCA’s deliberations, Rabba Hurwitz’s example will continue to challenge Orthodox tradition. Near the end of our conversation she read an email that she recently received from a female college student: “Even though I don’t have any desire to enter the rabbinate, knowing that women can and have done so has changed the scope of my Judaism and made it a much more potential-filled space,” the email says. After a moment of silence, Rabba Hurwitz says: “I never intended to be a trailblazer, but now that I’m in this position it feels like a gift.”

{Wall Street Journal}

{ Newscenter}


  1. If Rabba Hurowitz wished to influence young Jewish girls she can most certainly have taught in many fine seminaries and schools. Does she intend to give a pulpit speach to a mixed crowd. Will she be on the other side of the mechitza? The only reason she is doing what she is doing is to further an agenda which is opposite of the very orthodox teachings she professes to have mastered. I wish she will how much influence she can have by remaining true to actual Torah values.

  2. will she stand in front of a mechitza on the mizrach vant? how will the chazan know when she finishes shmoneh esrai? will they shake her hand ”gut shabbos”
    How will she do ‘Koirim on yom kippur?
    will she say shelo ohsani rav at shachris?

    Gut Shabbos
    Gut Grief

  3. nope, she will say (on yom kippur) visalachta l’avonaynu ki raaba hu! question is more on “Rabbi Weiss” though his male students are more problematic b/c people think that they truly are “rabbis” sadly they too leave lots to be desired.

  4. Why is Ms. Hurwitz still using the term Rabba if Rabbi Weiss convinced the RCA that she will NOT be a Rabba, but rather, a religious, learned spiritual presence, but without the inflammatory title.

  5. rom
    “Rabbah, Maharat: the Rebbe’s take
    Aveira Goreres Aveira! . By replacing the term Rabbah with Maharat, they try to circumvent the long standing Halachik opposition to having woman serve at the pulpit. The only resemblance this Rabbah, Maharat replacement has with our holy Torah, is the classic Talmudik case of ‘Hamachlif Para Bachamor’. Rebbe’s letter
    By Yechiel Cohen,
    “3 Nisan 5770 (18.03.2010)
    By the Grace of G-d

    Winnipeg 9, Man., Canada

    Blessings and Greetings:

    I am receipt of your letter of_, as well as the previous correspondence. It surprises me somewhat that you ask my opinion on a question which I have already replied to you long ago; inasmuch as you press the subject, I will again give you my unequivocal opinion. It is:

    The primary function of the Jewish woman is to be the Akeres Habayis (foundation of the Jewish home), namely to establish and conduct her home in accordance with the Torah, Toras Chaim, and the Mitzvoth, whereby Jews live. And to the extent that it does not conflict with the Jewish sense of Tznius (modesty), the Jewish woman is also expected to participate in charitable activities in support of worthy institutions, etc., and the like. It is altogether not within her sphere, nor should it be her aspiration, to be (G-d forbid) a Rabbi. This stand has been firmly established in various authoritative Jewish sources. As a matter of fact, the more familiar a Jewish woman is with the Torah world outlook, and the more versed she is in her knowledge of the Torah in this area, the better she should realize that it is not her province to be. “”

  6. Unfortunately, dispite the little bit of “Orthodoxy” that they claim to know and adhere to, these people are quite ignorent of the wonderful role and exalted position and deeply fulfilling task of a woman in the true Torah realm. The Chareidi communities must do whatever they possibly can to bring these people into some appropriate settings were they can see what women do in true Torah observance. Then, Im Yirtza HaShem, they will have no need at all for these shallow meaningless affronts of trying to copy everything that the men do.

  7. There will always be those who want to change the Halocho but profess their interest to be countered within the Community of those who follow the rubric of Torah MiSinai.
    I feel saddened that Ms Horowitz was mislead by a Rabbi into believing that her many years of studious endevour was to be crowned with a pseudo rabbinic title.
    The RCA should have more moral fortitude and ask the rabbi to withdraw himself from their organization but if he does not he should be expelled.