Last year’s Maharat graduation ceremony / Robert Kalfus
Two dramatic moments punctuated yesterday’s graduation ceremony of the New York-based Yeshivat Maharat, the rabbinical academy for Orthodox women, which ordained its second class of women who will serve Orthodox communities as poskot — halakhic decisors and advisors. They were granted the title “Maharat,” and acronym for Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit, “one who is teacher of Jewish law and spirituality.”
The first moment was that of Maharat founder and former dean Rabbi Avi Weiss, who, in the course of his remarks to the graduates, twice invoked the word “semikha,” the normative ordination granted to those who have completed the prescribed course of study in mainstream yeshivot or with respected rabbinic authorities. “Semikha,” in the context of Maharat and like academies, is a hot-button word to the Jewish religious establishment, especially to the institutional structures of the Modern Orthodox communities — and especially to the Rabbinical Council of American (RCA) — which do not accept the ordination of women in the Orthodox communities.
The use of the word “semikha” is a sensitive matter. The RCA and other Orthodox rabbinic bodies view with dread the idea of granting the semikha ordination to women. (Forget about women; the RCA will not permit male musmachim (ordinees) of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Avi Weiss’s Open Orthodoxy yeshiva, to join the organization, thereby depriving YCT graduates of the “union-card” necessary to assume pulpits in many Orthodox communities.)
The Maharat curriculum, however, is modeled on those of mainstream yeshivot, and would seem to pass muster, at least educationally, in the Modern Orthodox world. Included in Maharat is intense study of the first section of Yoreh De`ah, the volume of authoritative halakhic text that addresses the intricate questions of the manifold aspects of kashrut — standard fare for semikha in yeshivot. In the words of YCT faculty member Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, “You could superimpose Chaim Berlin on Maharat without rough edges.”
Notwithstanding Yeshivat Maharat’s formal curriculum, which, in its emphasis on intensive study of Talmud and of the classic halakhic codes, looks like any mainstream yeshiva, Maharat uses a carefully crafted formulation for ordination. Instead of the standard “Yoreh Yoreh” formulation used to signify that graduates of yeshivot are deemed qualified to decide halakhic questions of Issur v’Heter — “what is permitted and what is not” — Maharat uses the locution “L’horot halakha b’Yisrael … b’heter hora’ah l’rabbim”—to teach and decide normative practice in Israel … in matters of what is permissible for the people.” It’s a nuanced formulation, one that is designed to avoid trouble and obviate problems. It may look like “Yoreh Yoreh,” but it ain’t.
All the more reason to note that Avi Weiss was planting the “semikha” flag in hotly-disputed territory. To this observer, Rabbi Weiss’s use of the term had nothing to do with the normative aspects of the question and everything to do with the political — and in this he was spot-on.
Related to and deriving directly from the semikha question was Rabbi Daniel Sperber’s impassioned advocacy of full participation of women in the Orthodox community in the arena of normative decision-making. Rabbi Sperber, an Israeli rabbi and scholar who is the leading authority on minhagei Yisrael — quasi-halakhic religious practice — serves Maharat in a senior rabbinic capacity. More dramatic and possibly of greater impact than Rabbi Weiss’s “semikha” were Rabbi Sperber’s comments. He surprised the crowd by offering extemporaneous (that is, not in the printed program) remarks on the participation of women in the public ritual of the synagogue, and by extension in halakhic decision-making.
Rabbi Sperber noted, “The argument [against ordination of women] has been that it is a breach of tradition.” But, argued Sperber, “Innovation is the hallmark of Jewish halakhic tradition. The petrification, the stagnation, of halakhic tradition — that is the breach of tradition. The very word halakha — from halakh — means ‘to progress.’”
Rabbis Weiss and Sperber got it precisely right.
Jerome Chanes, a Forward contributing editor, writes about American Jewish religion and public affairs, arts and letters, and history. He is a senior fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center.