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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

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.

The RCA said that they “cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title,” it said.

Despite the dispute, the newly minted spiritual leaders are finding warm welcomes at their new synagogues and among some circles of Modern Orthodoxy.

Congregation Shaar Hashomayim’s Rabbi Adam Scheier and President Joseph Paperman welcomed Finegold to the synagogue: “Rachel’s appointment breaks exciting new ground for our congregation,” they told The Canadian Jewish News. “It is consistent with the evolution of Modern Orthodoxy.”

Scheier is married to soon-to-be Yeshivat Maharat graduate Abby Brown Scheier. Ruth Balinsky Friedman, the third graduate, will begin a full-time clergy position after graduation at Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue, in Washington.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom said he is excited at the prospect of bringing in Friedman.

“I feel there’s too much at stake for our people to not utilize 100% of the population to reach and teach and guide as much of the Jewish population as possible, especially in the community I live in,” he said. “We need a female presence in our mission in trying to reach as many Jews as possible.”

He also rejected the RCA’s objections to women serving as spiritual leaders.

“Every single thing that she’s going to be doing in our shul is 100% in accordance with Orthodox interpretation of Halacha,” Herzfeld said.

Friedman is currently a congregational intern at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where she works with Avi Weiss, senior rabbi and the founder of Yeshivat Maharat.

In January 2010, Weiss conferred the title of rabba on Hurwitz and made her a full member of his rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute.

Shortly after, Agudath Israel of America and the RCA strongly criticized the action. Weiss, an RCA member, announced in March 2010 that he would not name female graduates at Yeshivat Maharat as rabbas, a move that some at the time viewed as a response to pressures from the RCA.

Finegold has said that she will go by the title of maharat at Shaar Hashomayim.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, leader of Chicago’s Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel, where Finegold is currently the education and ritual director, told the Forward that the ordination of women is long overdue.

“Nothing Yeshivat Maharat is doing is a break from the mesorah,” Lopatin said. “Women in roles of communal and religious leadership has been a long tradition — just ask any rebbetzin. But Yeshivat Maharat will now professionalize and formalize the role in a way necessary for today’s Orthodox Jewish world.”

“All Jews, Orthodox or otherwise, should welcome the Torah these women will teach and the Yiddishkeit they will instill in the communities they serve.”

Contact Seth Berkman at berkman@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.