Rabbi Avi Weiss Backs Down From Ordaining Women

It’s seems like an effort to put the rabba back in the hat.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, who is not usually known for backing down from a fight, on Friday announced via a statement from the Rabbinical Council of America that after discussions with officials there, he is rescinding his decision to describe the women who complete his five-year course of study at the new Yeshivat Maharat as ordained rabbas — a feminized form of the title rabbi.

Last spring, he announced that women who completed this course of study, comparable to that which male rabbinical school students receive at his Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, would be called Maharat, for Manhiga Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit, which means leader in Jewish law, spirituality and Torah.

It did not prompt as much of an outcry from the Orthodox world as I had expected it would. But that changed when, in late January, Weiss changed the title of the one woman already bearing this title, Sara Hurwitz, to rabba, saying that the change would “make clear that Sara is a full member of our rabbinic staff” at his Bronx synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

That prompted a huge reaction: denunciation from the Agudath Israel of America and now this from the RCA.

When the Forward went to press this week, a story I wrote described Weiss as being “in negotiations” with the professional organization. Forward Editor Jane Eisner, in her editorial here, welcomed the title “rabba,” saying that, until this point: “Only her gender has disqualified her and threatened her status as a rabbi and the standing of her congregation.”

It looks like that is still true.

The RCA, an organization with about 1,000 centrist Orthodox rabbis as members, published a statement Friday that was followed a letter sent from Rabbi Weiss to RCA President Rabbi Moshe Kletenik. The RCA missive, titled “A Statement on Women’s Leadership Roles and Orthodoxy,” which is not on the RCA’s Web site reads:

It was followed by Weiss’ letter:

An RCA official told me that Rabbi Weiss initiated the discussions with the organization. A call to the first Maharat/Rabba Sara Hurwitz on Friday afternoon was not returned, nor were messages left for Weiss.

It’s interesting that the reaction happened not because of the training that Sara Hurwitz and now other women are getting, and not when the title “Maharat” was created, but only when the title became too close to the term “rabbi” for their comfort.

No one in the centrist Orthodox world is questioning the advanced, proto-rabbinic training itself, at Weiss’ Yeshivat Maharat, at Drisha and even at the bastion of mainstream Orthodoxy, Yeshiva University, which has a Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies.

It’s all about the title and the term ordination being too close for the RCA’s comfort to the language used for male Orthodox clergy.

So the question again seems to be how long it will take for the few women who are trained like men and doing all of the work of male rabbis that a mainstream Orthodox understanding of Jewish law allows, to become a rabbi — or, as it were, a rabba.

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Rabbi Avi Weiss Backs Down From Ordaining Women

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