I Am An Orthodox Clergywoman, And I Am Changing My Title.
Since my ordination, I’ve been using the title Maharat, the Hebrew acronym meaning halachic and spiritual Torah leader, which was created in 2009 to refer to Orthodox women clergy. A rabbinic title matters. It is a sign of the confidence of teachers, the acceptance of the community, and the weighty responsibility of leadership and religious authority. Now, six years later, I have decided to begin to use ‘Rabba’ before my name, instead of Maharat. Here’s why:
Inhabiting the title ‘Maharat’ has been like doing a delicate dance. In an attempt to carefully balance tradition and innovation, I have found the title to be unsatisfying for those on all sides of the issue of Orthodox women’s ordination. More liberal-minded Jewish feminists may feel it does not sound rabbinic enough, that it shies away from the fact that I have the same ordination as any Orthodox rabbi. Traditionalists, on the other hand, those who object to the ordination of Orthodox women regardless of the title, may feel that the title ‘Maharat’ might be masking some hidden agenda that I have not been honest about, or even, at some point down the line, that I intend to violate halachic norms. Over the past number of years, as the stormy debate swirled around Orthodox women in spiritual leadership, I have kept my head down and focused on doing good work for the community I serve, a vibrant and historic congregation in the rich Jewish landscape of Montreal.
Over these six years, I’ve become somewhat attached to the title ‘Maharat’. I have grown accustomed to the way my congregants call me Maharat Finegold, or Maharat Rachel (note that I pronounce my name “Rakhel”, the Hebrew way) as a sign of our closeness. I love hearing the non-Jewish synagogue staff greet me with “Good morning, Maharat!” as if it were a Hebrew word like any other, not an invented acronym only a decade old. I love being greeted by our preschoolers, some with those adorable early speech patterns, “Hewwo, Mahawat Wachel!” For a three-year-old, it is quite a mouthful! I love the way our teenage boys and girls casually call me Maharat, and the fact that some of my colleagues affectionately call me “Maha” for short.
And yet, the title has also created some confusion. It is hard for people, even native Hebrew speakers, to know what the word means, and sometimes even to remember it. When people joke that they call me “Maharaja,” I know they mean it endearingly, but it reminds me that this word still feels foreign to their Jewish life. I sometimes feel more like a “Maha-what?” – always needing to explain myself and my place in the synagogue leadership.
If being a Maharat has been a delicate dance, then six years after my ordination, I feel I no longer need to dance quite so delicately. Members of my community fully accept my presence as part of the clergy, and as a halachically observant Orthodox woman. They know that I can officiate a wedding, but will not sign as a witness on the ketubah. They know that when I officiate a funeral, I will not count myself as one of the ten required for the minyan for the recitation of Kaddish. They have heard my sermons, attended my classes, benefited from my programming for young families, and have been my Bar and Bat Mitzvah students. The time is ripe for me to move toward a title that is more rabbinic to the ear, and more familiar to the tongue. I make this change with the support of my synagogue leadership, and with the confidence that it will help me carry out my job more effectively.
Upon receiving rabbinic ordination six years ago, I was not bestowed a title by my ordaining institution. I was part of the first class of Yeshivat Maharat, the first institution in the world to ordain Orthodox women as clergy, and the question of what title would appear before my name was a sensitive one. Just a few years earlier, Sara Hurwitz, the first woman to be ordained by Rabbi Avi Weiss, was the subject of a fierce debate regarding her title. When, in 2009, she utilized the title ‘Maharat’, a Hebrew acronym that was created for her, there was little notice from the Orthodox establishment that she had become clergy. It was only when she subsequently began using the title ‘Rabba’ some months later, that the storm of backlash from several Orthodox institutions began. In 2010, as the controversy unfolded, many of the debates around whether Orthodox women belonged in the rabbinate focused on the question of their title. So in 2013, when the yeshiva ordained its first class of three graduates, it would not bestow titles; this decision would be a personal one for each graduate to make, together with the community she would serve. That policy has continued to this day.
In the months prior to ordination, I was in negotiations with Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal. During those months, I turned to the synagogue leadership to discuss what title would appear before my name. This community was taking a risk on me. They would be the first congregation in North America to hire an institutionally-ordained Orthodox woman as part of the clergy. The rabbi and lay leadership were modeling the way in which one could remain true to tradition, and yet march boldly forward into the modern world. As they took this courageous step, they needed to ensure that this monumental change would be accepted, and that my title would not be divisive. And so, although there were several options as to what my title might become (Rabba, Rabbanit, Maharat, to name a few), the synagogue leadership felt the Maharat title would be best. A title that sounded completely new would help people avoid any preconceived notions about welcoming a woman to the pulpit.
Let’s be honest: one important reason this title was chosen was because it didn’t sound like the word “rabbi”. I believe we all made the right decision, and that the title ‘Maharat’ allowed my more traditional-minded congregants to open their minds and hearts to me, to focus on what I could do in the community, without getting mired in the debate around female Orthodox clergy. It made it clear to them that I would respect and adhere to the tenets of Orthodox halacha, which guide my life and the life of our synagogue. The title, in addition to the support and acceptance of my senior rabbi and the other clergy, helped to smooth my entry into synagogue life. The word Maharat was so new, so different, that it allowed people to encounter me for who I was, and what I could bring to the community.
Some other realities helped advance the congregation’s acceptance of my role: For several years before I was hired, the senior rabbi had made an effort to speak about and to normalize the idea of women receiving ordination. Women’s success in leadership is so dependent on the support of male allies. Furthermore, the rabbi’s wife, Rabba Abby Brown Scheier, a sought-after educator in our community, was ordained at the same time as I was, and began to use the title ‘Rabba’ a couple of years ago. Although that title did not directly involve a decision within the synagogue leadership, it certainly brought the title ‘Rabba’ closer to home, and to familiarity in our congregation and around the city.
Over the years, as more women have been ordained by Yeshivat Maharat, they have chosen a variety of titles. This has allowed for these women to serve diverse communities, acknowledging the unique sensitivities inherent in each one. With thirty-four graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, and several institutions in Israel also granting ordination to Orthodox women, it has become clear that Orthodox women can express full spiritual leadership within the bounds of Orthodox halacha and can be fully accepted and embraced by the communities in which they serve.
In the history of Orthodox women’s ordination, I am a transition figure. I made my way through my initial education without ordination, and worked in Chicago as clergy for six years, serving in the capacity of assistant rabbi. I was one of a handful of women, in those years, serving as clergy without ordination, without a title, and without a larger institutional context for this work. When the buzz around Sara Hurwitz’s adopting the title ‘Rabba’ erupted, I was already enrolled in Yeshivat Maharat. The future was uncertain. It is amazing how much has changed in the twelve years since I started this work. Though there is still debate about the place of women in the Orthodox rabbinate, this debate does not focus on halachic arguments, but rather around the issue of mesorah, of what is comfortable and acceptable within the tradition. These are much more subjective arguments, about what is the norm, and what is an acceptable role for women in leadership. In these areas, I’ve seen, with my own eyes, individuals who moved from skepticism to acceptance to a full embrace of my role. One older gentleman, who was once opposed to the idea, told me recently, “You’ve changed my mind.”
Several colleagues around North America have used the title ‘Maharat’ for years and are very happy owning this title, knowing that their communities understand and embrace it. For me, however, I had always hoped for a title that started with an “R”, something that could be a feminized version of the word “Rabbi”, which would recognize that I can fill a rabbinic position without compromising my adherence to the halachic parameters for women. In 2013, when I was hired, it was clear that the community was not yet ready for this, so I put the title issue on the back burner and instead focused on the work I would accomplish and the impact I could make. Now the community is ready, and so am I.
As I begin to utilize my new title, I wonder how it will feel and sound to my community. And, to be honest, I worry. I worry that my colleagues to the right, in yeshivish and Chabad and other right-wing Orthodox communities, who have always offered me only support and respect, might begin to turn away from me. I worry that I will lose the trust and acceptance of those with whom I’ve worked to build relationships. I worry that the term ‘Rabba’ might alienate some young women, who are excited by the idea of serving as clergy, but for whom the title sounds uncomfortable.
And yet, Maharat or Rabba, I am still the same person I was before. There are already many women using this title, so I will be in good company. And over time, I’m sure my preschoolers will run over to me, just like before, give me a hug, and say “Hewwo Wabba Wachel!” And all will be right in the world.
Rabba Rachel Kohl Finegold serves as clergy at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal. She is a graduate of the Drisha Scholars Circle, has been a CLI fellow, and was ordained as part of the inaugural class of Yeshivat Maharat.