Orthodox Rabbinic School Sparks Feud With Graduation of First Class of Women

RCA Blasts Yeshivat Maharat for Breaking With Tradition

Mixed Welcome: The first women graduates of an Orthodox rabbinic school are being welcomed with open arms — by some.
courtesy of yeshivat maharat
Mixed Welcome: The first women graduates of an Orthodox rabbinic school are being welcomed with open arms — by some.

By Seth Berkman

Published May 12, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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An Orthodox umbrella organization has rejected the ordination of three female clergy by a groundbreaking Bronx Orthodox rabbinical school as “contradicting the norms of our community.”

The Rabbinical Council of America, a prominent group that serves more than 1,000 Orthodox rabbis, reacted strongly to the recent graduation of three women from Riverdale’s Yeshivat Maharat, which trains Orthodox Jewish women to become spiritual leaders.

In a statement released May 7, the RCA said it views the graduation as a violation of mesorah, or tradition.

“We feel extremely strongly that there is certainly room for women leadership within the Orthodox community, both educationally and professionally,” RCA President Rabbi Shmuel Goldin told the Forward. “We do not believe, however, that it is appropriate for women to be ordained as rabbis.”

Goldin added that he did not think the school was defying the Orthodox community but rather was “moving in ways that are removing it from the normative Orthodox community. It’s not a question of defiance, it’s a question of direction.”

Sara Hurwitz, dean of Yeshivat Maharat, hit back at the RCA, calling the inaugural graduation “an extraordinary moment of celebration.”

“Our graduates have been rigorously trained and tested, and will be ordained as clergy, qualifying them as decisors of Jewish law and spiritual leaders,” Hurwitz told the Forward.

Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rachel Kohl Finegold and Abby Brown Scheier are scheduled to be ordained June 16 at a ceremony in New York. Finegold was recently named director of education and spiritual enrichment at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, an Orthodox synagogue in Montreal.

The graduates are conferred with the title of maharat, short for Manhiga Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit, which means leader in Jewish law, spirituality and Torah. They are not called “rabbi,” in an apparent nod to Orthodox tradition, which is usually interpreted as barring women rabbis.

The graduation marks a significant milestone for Yeshivat Maharat, which began accepting applications in 2009. There are currently 14 students in the four-year program, which, according to the yeshiva’s website, includes rigorous study of Talmud, halachic decision making, pastoral counseling, leadership development and internships.

The school has also been controversial from the start. In April 2010, the RCA passed a resolution claiming the council “encourages “a diversity of halachically and communally appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women.” But, citing “sacred continuity,” the group rejected the ordination of women.


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