The news that the leading Orthodox advocate for female spiritual leadership reversed his decision to embrace the title “rabba” seemed at first a major setback for Orthodox feminists.
But supporters of the expansion of women’s roles in the Orthodox community have found cause for celebration in what they see as an unprecedented nod to women’s leadership by the Modern Orthodox establishment in the course of a debate over the term. In a statement, the Rabbinical Council of America, the organization of centrist Orthodox rabbis, referred to its commitment to “the assumption of appropriate leadership roles within the Jewish community” by women.
“I think it bodes very well,” said Blu Greenberg, founding president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and a leading figure in the movement. “The fact that it was a recognition by the RCA of women’s leadership roles and talents in synagogues means a step forward, and in a certain sense a breakthrough.”
The controversy didn’t start out looking well for Greenberg and her allies. In late January, Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder and president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the left-leaning Modern Orthodox rabbinical school, announced that Sara Hurwitz, a spiritual leader at the Hebrew Institute, would use the title “rabba.” That title is widely used in Israel by Reform and Conservative rabbis as a feminine form of the Hebrew word “rav,” or rabbi.
A representative for Weiss said the rabbi was traveling and unavailable to be interviewed for this story.
Previously, Hurwitz bore the title “maharat,” an acronym denoting a leader in Halacha, spirituality and Torah. She is the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, a new institution founded by Weiss to train more female spiritual leaders.
“We thought [‘rabba’] would be a better description of what I actually do, and a more respectful description of what my functions are,” Hurwitz said.
The new term raised objections throughout the Orthodox Jewish community, eliciting condemnations by the ultra-Orthodox Council of Torah Sages and more moderate figures.
“To confer ordination on women is a breach of our mesorah, of our tradition, and it is unacceptable within an Orthodox synagogue,” said Rabbi Moshe Kletenik, president of the RCA. “The title ‘rabba’ seems to say rabbi, and it certainly gives the indication of ordination.”
Critics refrained from pointing to specific halachic issues with Weiss’s decision, but some saw the term as crossing a boundary.
“The ordination of women as rabbis is distinctively identified as elements that are present within the Conservative and Reform movements,” said Rabbi Saul Berman, a professor at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women who is close to Weiss. “Anything that sounds like the ordination of women, even if it takes cognizance of all of the halachic constraints, is going to raise a lot of questions as to whether a barrier then is not being broken.”
On March 5, Weiss announced that following a series of conversations with the RCA, he would not bestow the title “rabba” on any other women.
“He wisely said that peace in the community is more important to me than fighting for this word right now,” said Rabbi Marc Angel, another close ally of Weiss and a former president of the RCA.
In a letter to Kletenik that was distributed by the RCA, Weiss wrote, “It is not my intention or the intention of Yeshivat Maharat to confer the title of ‘rabba’ upon its graduates.” He did not use the term “ordain” in his letter, although the term has been used in the past by Yeshivat Maharat to describe what happens upon the completion of studies there.
Hurwitz said that she will continue to use the title “rabba,” but that her synagogue is debating that usage. She also said that Yeshivat Maharat would amend its materials and exclusively use the term “confer” rather than “ordain.” She maintained that there is no practical difference between the terms.
In Weiss’s letter, which was distributed with the RCA statement referring to “appropriate leadership roles” for Orthodox women, Weiss listed the roles for which graduates of Yeshivat Maharat had been trained, including pastoral counseling and answering questions of Halacha. Kletenik said that the RCA planned to discuss at its conference in April which leadership roles it considers appropriate for women.
That discussion comes at a time when Yeshivat Maharat is one of a growing number of Orthodox institutions of higher Jewish learning for women. Others include the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and Yeshiva University’s Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmudic Studies.
“At this point in time, the quality and quantity of Jewish education available to Jewish women far exceeds anything that has been available to Jewish women in the whole of Jewish history,” Berman said.
With that expansion comes heightened expectations. “On the one hand, I do feel the disappointment [of] women who have worked for a title and a certain certification,” Greenberg said. “But I also feel, in the context of this entire enterprise, it’s going to work in their favor…. Ultimately we have to keep our eye down the road, as well as on today.”
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.