The 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.”