Welcoming the ‘Rabba’


Published March 03, 2010, issue of March 12, 2010.
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Was it the name? When Rabbi Avi Weiss ordained a woman last year and gave her the made-up honorific of “Maharat,” the mainstream Orthodox world wasn’t pleased, but neither was it furious. Just as much criticism came from those who thought the compromise title was disingenuous, even demeaning. If Sara Hurwitz was to act as a rabbi in her Bronx synagogue, why not call her that?

Eventually, Weiss did. Sort of. In late January, he changed Hurwitz’s title to “rabba,” a feminized version of rabbi, that more clearly identified her in public and retained, in Weiss’s words, a “distinct woman’s voice.”

But the men who stand for religious authority in the ultra-Orthodox world don’t want to hear a woman’s voice expounding on Torah, Halacha or spirituality — especially if her title is suspiciously similar to theirs. Weiss’s move was categorically denounced by Agudath Israel of America’s governing rabbinic council, the Council of Torah Sages, which suggested that his synagogue can no longer be considered Orthodox. The Aguda’s counterparts in what’s left of the Orthodox mainstream were upset enough to enter into negotiations with Weiss over the issue.

No one has disputed Hurwitz’s qualifications (five years of intense rabbinic study) nor her performance. Only her gender has disqualified her and threatened her status as a rabbi and the standing of her congregation.

This can be viewed as an intra-family dispute, in which one group of Jews is resisting the inclusion of women that the rest of American Jewry have already embraced. Don’t like it? Switch synagogues.

That’s what Hurwitz was essentially told during her long, lonely course of study. But she didn’t want to be a Conservative Jew; she wanted to remain within the Orthodox tradition, and she isn’t the only one. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance strongly rejected the Council of Torah Sages admonition as a political move designed to put pressure on those who are more open-minded. “It is also an attempt to pressure Modern Orthodoxy to pull back from the noble and fully halakhic strides it has made in this generation by welcoming women’s spiritual and intellectual gifts for the sake of our people,” JOFA stated.

Those aren’t crazy left-wingers speaking. Those are the voices of proudly practicing Orthodox Jewish women who are struggling to shape tradition to fit modern needs and opportunities, the way Jewish tradition has always done. We don’t allow slavery anymore. We don’t stone disobedient children. Forty years ago, some Orthodox synagogues in America had mixed seating. We change. And those who advocate this welcome change deserve our support.

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