Progress, But Not Equality


Published April 08, 2009, issue of April 17, 2009.
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The ground shook beneath the Jewish world a few weeks ago at a synagogue in the Bronx. It happened quietly, not part of any noisy revolution — the person at the center of this historic change hardly looks or sounds like a rabble-rouser, not with her covered hair and modest demeanor, and her frequent praise of the mentors and authority figures in her life.

But Sara Hurwitz’s conferral ceremony represented an earthquake of sorts, a fundamental shift in at least one small but influential sliver of the Orthodox Jewish world. The ground didn’t dramatically split wide open, but it trembled just enough to remind us that progress sometimes comes to those who are patient and willing to compromise, even if those compromises are difficult to accept.

After years of serious study and service to her community, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Hurwitz was given the brand-new title of Maharat — an acronym signifying one who is a public leader, halachic decider, spiritual guide and Torah scholar. In the words of her mentor, Rabbi Avi Weiss, she is “a full member of the clergy, with the distinct voice of a woman.” Were she a man, she’d be a rabbi. Were she a Reform, Reconstructionist or Conservative Jew, she’d be a rabbi. But Hurwitz really wanted to stay in Orthodoxy’s fold, a decision both comfortable and challenging.

Now 32 years old, the South African-born Hurwitz felt a calling to the clergy from the time she began to think about a career, and at first thought she had nowhere to go with that passion as a devout Orthodox Jew. But women have started to make inroads into a community that for thousands of years has reserved the right to study Talmud, to lead public worship, to rule on Jewish law and to perform the countless other tasks associated with power and leadership for men, and men alone. There are now serious houses of learning for women, in the United States and Israel, an important stepping-stone for those who aspire to leadership within an Orthodox world that prizes intellectual pursuit.

Hurwitz’s conferral ceremony — a sly way of avoiding use of “ordination” — has drawn harsh reaction in the Orthodox world. “After witnessing the quick disintegration of the Conservative movement’s allegiance to halakhah since its acceptance of women rabbis, how can we view this development in Orthodoxy with anything but pain?” cried out one blogger. While there is debate over whether Orthodox interpretations of Halacha actually prohibit women from the rabbinate, there’s no doubt that the religious establishment has done all it could to squash the idea and turn away the few women with the chutzpah to apply to Orthodox seminaries over the years.

But there are questions and doubts from the other side of the mechitza, too. Hurwitz’s not-quite-a-rabbi role omits two important tasks that only men are allowed to perform — leading a public service and serving as a witness. The rationale is that these aren’t necessarily rabbinic roles, since non-rabbis (who are men) may perform them. But anyone who has been to an Orthodox service on a Saturday morning knows where the action is. And it’s not in the proverbial balcony.

This refusal to grant full rights to women bothers those outside the Orthodox world, and also within it. Writer Blu Greenberg, who has advocated for years that her fellow Orthodox women be allowed to become rabbis, spoke eloquently at the conferral ceremony about the grand achievement of the day, and the work left undone. “I would be less than candid were I not to acknowledge that even this joyous day has its moments of qualification, that I and many others… had hoped that the new credential this day would have been ‘rabbi’, as Sara has shown herself to be qualified both in her learning and her leadership,” Greenberg said.

Equality in this case isn’t just about self-fulfillment, important though that is. It’s about deepening the leadership pool of the community. Anyone who has heard a woman chant Torah with perfect attention to detail and meaning; who has seen a woman rabbi help a congregant in need; who has witnessed the intellectual breadth and excitement of women scholars bringing new light to ancient texts; anyone who has experienced these attributes knows that the Jewish community is strengthened when all its members can offer their gifts.

Sara Hurwitz understands the compromise she has made. “No doubt the title ‘rabbi’ is best suited for the job description,” she told the Forward. “What’s more important to me is that I do the job. For me, it’s not making a statement. I love what I do. It’s a natural calling.”

While women are populating the rabbinical schools that accept them, rabbinical leadership remains a defiantly male enclave. Newsweek’s latest annual list of America’s 50 most influential rabbis has only six women on it. Maharat Sara Hurwitz wasn’t ordained in time to be included. Let’s hope she is next year.

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