‘Every Title Is on the Table’ as Advisers at Women’s Yeshiva Consider Degrees

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Published October 08, 2010, issue of October 22, 2010.
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A new debate looms over what to call Orthodox Jewish women trained in rabbinic texts and serving the Jewish community as religious leaders. And the ‘R’ word has once again reared its disruptive head.

Yeshivat Maharat, the institution that is training women to work as Orthodox religious leaders, has formed its first advisory board and tasked that board with deciding what to call the yeshiva’s graduates and what to name the degree they will earn.

“Every title is on the table, including ‘rabba,’” said Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, the yeshiva’s rosh yeshiva, or academic head, referring to the title that the yeshiva’s founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss, conferred on pioneering Orthodox spiritual leader Sara Hurwitz last February.

But soon after, other Orthodox rabbinic leaders forced Weiss to promise not to use that title or the term “ordination” for any more women trained in rabbinics and spiritual leadership. In a telling indication of just how sensitive that matter remains, Fox later called back to tell the Forward: “None of us wants to enter into a debate about titles with or without an R and two Bs in them. It’s just a waste of communal energy.”

On its website, Yeshivat Maharat describes its mission: “to train women to be fully integrated into the Orthodox community as spiritual leaders and halachic authorities.” Fox noted that women studying at Yeshivat Maharat, which was established in 2009, would not graduate for another three years.

Just how distracting the issue of what to call such women has been was made evident last March after Weiss changed Hurwitz’s title to rabba, having originally ordained her as maharat,” a Hebrew acronym meaning leader in spiritual matters. The Rabbinical Council of America, the professional organization of centrist Orthodox rabbis of which Weiss is a member, took Weiss to task, and he agreed not to ordain other women as Orthodox rabbis either personally or institutionally through Yeshivat Maharat, where Hurwitz now serves as dean.

At its annual conference the following month, the Orthodox rabbinic group followed up with a resolution formally rejecting the title and further stating, “We cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of title.”

The RCA did not invoke Halacha, or Jewish law, as the basis for its position, but instead referred to upholding “sacred continuity.”

In the wake of the RCA flap, a number of Orthodox rabbis expressed strong support for Yeshivat Maharat and its mission, Fox said, which led to the formation of the advisory board. The board will counsel the Midtown Manhattan-based yeshiva on policy matters.

Of the advisory board’s 21 members, 15 are Orthodox rabbis. Most of these are RCA members, including Weiss, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of the B’nai David-Judea congregation in Los Angeles, and Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Chicago’s Anshe Sholom-B’nai Israel Congregation.

Israeli rabbis Daniel Sperber, Mendel Shapiro and David Bigman are also on the advisory board, as well as Hurwitz of Yeshivat Maharat and the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where Weiss is senior rabbi and she is a member of the clergy. Blu Greenberg, founder of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, is also a member.

Asked how his group would respond to a decision by Yeshiva Maharat to confer the rabba title on its graduates, should that be its advisory board’s recommendation, the RCA’s president, Rabbi Moshe Kletenik, said, “Rabbi Weiss has made a very clear commitment in writing not to use that title, and we have a clear policy that women are not to be ordained and titles the equivalent to ‘rabbi’ not be conferred, and we would expect our members to abide by that.”

Pressed further about the possibility, Kletenik said, “We really don’t like to delve into hypotheticals, but if the situation arises, then we would deal with it through our established processes.”

Weiss, when contacted by the Forward, said that notwithstanding the statement he signed, “The issue of title… has to evolve from the students as well leaders” of Yeshivat Maharat. “It’s a nonissue right now anyway,” he said. “We’re in the beginning stages of [Yeshivat] Maharat, and the focus has to be on training women.”

The issue’s continuing sensitivity appeared evident when Fox called to amend his earlier remarks to the Forward after Weiss contacted him following the latter’s interview.

“I’m aware that Rabbi Weiss made the commitment to the RCA not to use the title rabba, which is why we’re leaning on the advisory board members and leaders to come up with the right title,” Fox said in his follow-up call.

One advisory board member, Rabbi Marc Angel, objected to the RCA’s influence on internal Yeshivat Maharat discussions.

“The RCA should not be intruding into decisions of other institutions,” he said. “If RCA members have an opinion that differs from that of the RCA governing board, that doesn’t disqualify them from being a member of the RCA. Orthodoxy can’t be defined by a self-directed inner group.”

Angel, rabbi emeritus of Manhattan’s Congregation Shearith Israel, founder and director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, and a former RCA president, added: “To say that women can’t have any title that in any way resembles religious leadership, that’s a mistaken attitude. Women are taking positions of leadership, and the phenomenon won’t turn back. If the RCA has better suggestions as to what titles women should have, let them offer them.”

Contact Debra Nussbaum Cohen at dnussbaumc@forward.com


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