Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.
Life

Yeshivat Maharat and the Deafening Silence of the Orthodox Establishment

One of Sara Hurwitz’s sons recently said more, related to the recent conferral of her new title of Maharat, than many others publicly have. Four-year-old Zacharya told her “only boys can be rabbis.”

Hurwitz laughed it off — explaining that her kids don’t get to see her working in her position of leadership at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, since they’d have a hard time not interrupting her, and saying “he doesn’t hear women being called ‘rabbi.’”

And he still won’t, since his mother, at her conferral in March, was given the title Madricha Hilchatit, Ruchanit v’Toranit, or Leader in Jewish Law, Spiritual Matters, and Torah.

More recently came the announcement of a new training center being started by her mentor, Rabbi Avi Weiss, who in the fall will begin the Maharat Yeshiva The goal of the four-year program is to prepare other women for rabbinic positions in synagogues, schools and on university campuses.

While controversy about the title Maharat buzzed, briefly, through the blogosphere news about this new yeshiva seems to have prompted little more reaction than discussions over kiddush in some synagogues.

There has been no public reaction from the Orthodox Union (with which the Hebrew Institute is affiliated) or the Rabbinical Council of America the professional group with which Rabbi Weiss is affiliated (though surely there are RCA members who would like to see that change for the politically outspoken rabbi).

The Agudath Israel of America, an organization representing the “black-hat,” right-wing Orthodox community, has no Web site to check, since their rabbis say that frum Jews should not be using the Web. Nonetheless, nothing seems to have been said by their lead spokesman, who is often quick to condemn the liberal denominations and liberalizing movements within Orthodoxy.

Is this silence from the Orthodox establishment illustrative of perhaps the most dangerous reaction of all to this new move toward ordaining Orthodox women as rabbis? Does their apparent indifference indicate just how marginal they consider the step?

Blu Greenberg a long-time leading voice of Orthodox feminism, told The Sisterhood, “I thought the reaction was going to be negative and I told Rabbi Weiss he was opening himself up for criticism with this. … But it has been such a strong and positive reaction,” to the conferral of Maharat Hurwitz and the yeshiva announcement.

Rather than indifference on the part of Orthodox institutions, she said, “there’s a certain amount of caution here. Every time they have come out with strongly negative or harsh statements in the past [as when she founded the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance 12 years ago] it has redounded to the benefit of the organizations they’re criticizing.”

In fact, said Hurwitz, who has twin 4-year-old sons and a 9-month-old son, “There is a lot of excitement. Women are really interested in having an institution where they have an actual potential career path. … It’s exhilarating, quite honestly, to talk to these women and realize that we might be fulfilling a dream they’ve had. The women say ‘I’ve always wanted to be an Orthodox rabbi.’ “

When asked what she thinks of the title Maharat, she hesitates.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” she says after a pause. “I think it’s a nice compromise. It allows women who are involved in the more centrist Orthodox communities to have more acceptance. If they had the title rabbi, they wouldn’t be taken seriously at all.”

The challenge, she said, is whether the title will come to mean rabbi — and “that’s really up to us.“

A message from our editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren

We're building on 127 years of independent journalism to help you develop deeper connections to what it means to be Jewish today.

With so much at stake for the Jewish people right now — war, rising antisemitism, a high-stakes U.S. presidential election — American Jews depend on the Forward's perspective, integrity and courage.

—  Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.