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The Maharat Movement

A telling sign that the first-ever graduation ceremony for Yeshivat Maharat was going to be different from other rabbinical ordinations came in an email message sent several weeks before the June 16 event. “We will be offering child care during the ceremony!” it read. This was clearly a ceremony created by women for women, reflecting both the values and the aspirations of organizers who are politely but firmly challenging the entrenched Orthodox establishment.

“We want young families to think that they can celebrate with us,” explained Sara Hurwitz, dean of Yeshivat Maharat, who in 2009 became the first Orthodox woman to be publicly ordained in the United States. “We want the kids to see that this is what the Orthodox community will look like here on out.”

And that is now the core question. Is this what the Orthodox community will look like in the future?

The distance traveled since Hurwitz became the first woman to take on the title of maharat — a Hebrew acronym for female leader of Jewish law, spirituality and Torah — and then, more controversially, rabba, has been profound. Her elevation four years ago was a quiet revolution that produced a loud and consistent backlash, one that left even her indefatigable mentor, Rabbi Avi Weiss, forced to compromise. In the short term, the Rabbinical Council of America, representing mainstream Orthodox rabbis, got its way. Hurwitz would be the first rabba, and the last.

But in the longer term, Weiss and Hurwitz have seeded a more gradual and penetrating change. Over the past four years, they have created a community of supporters around the country, strengthened by a rabbinic advisory board and tapped into a deep hunger on the part of Orthodox women who crave a leadership role and are willing to prepare for it as seriously as their male counterparts. As a result, three women are graduating from Yeshivat Maharat, with a fourth close to joining them. All who want jobs have them. Fourteen women are in the pipeline, and the yeshiva is fielding requests from synagogues and college campuses for interns.

“Everything builds on something that came before it,” Blu Greenberg, a longtime leader of Orthodox feminism, told the Forward. “Sara’s conferral was an individual historic event. This is the institutionalization of women’s religious leadership, with far-reaching implications.”

Greenberg argues that no serious analysis of Jewish law prohibits a woman from becoming a rabbi. Read the statements from the Orthodox establishment carefully, and the truth of her assertion is evident. There is no Halacha for these rabbis to quote, so instead their resistance is based on cultural norms and religious tradition: The ordination of women rabbis would be divisive, premature and antithetical to the concept of modesty that, as written by men over the centuries, has restricted a woman’s dress, behavior, aspirations, agency and power.

And so rather than a full-on assault on these legally dubious but deeply ingrained notions, the maharat movement is trying to gradually alter the Orthodox community’s attitudes and expectations. The new graduates — Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rachel Kohl Finegold and Abby Brown Scheier — could have gone to a rabbinical school in any of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, where women have been ordained for decades.

But they insist that they are Orthodox Jews. “I feel Orthodoxy is my community,” Friedman told the Forward’s Devra Ferst. “It would be a dishonest representation of who I am to study in a different yeshiva.”

Such devotion and clarity of purpose sets up an existential challenge for Modern Orthodoxy: Will it continue to resist the swelling numbers of women who wish to study and serve their communities at the highest spiritual level? Will the men in charge continue to insist on maintaining a monopoly on power, ignoring the very real contributions a new generation of women is ready to offer?

There’s a challenge to the maharat movement, as well. The next few years will tell whether the gradualist approach — conceding titles and names, willing to stand just outside the boy’s club without forcing a way in, doing the work without the honorific — will succeed and satisfy. “Very often, to make progress, you make compromises,” Greenberg noted. Compromises have been made. Will progress continue?

It’s hard not to share Hurwitz’s optimism. “When I was in college,” she told the Forward, “there were no models for Orthodox women to serve as spiritual leaders. We had to carve out the roles ourselves, create our own programs, find our own rabbis. This generation now sees us as a viable career option when entering college. There is an inevitable evolution.”

It is an evolution, even a revolution, one that is to be praised and admired. The other denominations of Judaism have largely settled their disputes over gender roles; only in Modern Orthodoxy do we see this sort of thriving debate. The forces of reaction will do their best to shut it down. Their vision of the future is a snapshot of the past. It’s long past time for a new cadre of women and men to illustrate a different view of the Orthodox future.

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