Orthodox Schism Over Role of Women Widens After Graduation of Maharats

Despite Enthusiasm, Opposition Remains Unyielding

Gang of Four: New graduates from the groundbreaking Yeshivat Maharat join Rabba Sara Hurwitz, whose 2009 ordination helped blaze a trail for the women who are now joining the ranks of Orthodox religious leaders.
robert kalfus
Gang of Four: New graduates from the groundbreaking Yeshivat Maharat join Rabba Sara Hurwitz, whose 2009 ordination helped blaze a trail for the women who are now joining the ranks of Orthodox religious leaders.

By Anne Cohen

Published June 20, 2013, issue of June 28, 2013.
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The dust has settled after the June 16 graduation of the first class of female maharats from a groundbreaking Orthodox rabbinical school.

But controversy over the role that the newly minted religious leaders from Yeshivat Maharat will play in Orthodoxy — along with 14 more students in future classes — appears to be just getting started.

The graduation of Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rachel Kohl Finegold and Abby Brown Scheier certainly marks a milestone for women in the Orthodox movement. The maharats received enthusiastic support from more liberal Orthodox groups, and strong backing from leaders of other mainstream Jewish denominations, which already accept women clerics.

During the graduation ceremony, Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of the controversial Bronx rabbinic school, stressed the will for female leadership in the Orthodox community.

“Clearly, we’ve identified a need,” he told the crowd, adding that congregations have come “seeking the voices of women in religious leadership.”

Still, the joy on graduation day could not paper over the strong and united opposition to the move by mainstream Orthodox Jewry. With no obvious way to bridge the differences between those who want institutional change and those who resist it, the dispute over women clerical leaders threatens to open a painful rift within the Orthodox world.

“We cannot accept the ordination of women as members of the Orthodox clergy,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the Rabbinical Council of America. “We do not accept the ordination of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of title.”

For some, the change is welcome and practically important. All three women maharats have secured jobs at synagogues, as has a fourth woman, Rori Picker Neiss, who is still in her third year at the seminary now located in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.


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