Abigail Pogrebin’s story, “The Rabbi and the Rabba,” in this week’s New York magazine, takes an insightful look at the man behind the making of the first woman in America to be ordained as Orthodox clergy, Rabbi Avi Weiss.
Pogrebin does a good job of capturing many aspects of Weiss’ complicated personality; his ardent political activism, which he can pursue single-mindedly, his political savvy and also his kindness toward people in need of ordinary kinds of support, through illness and grief. She certainly captures the impetuousness with which he plunged forth when it came to changing Sara Hurwitz’s title from “maharat” to “rabba,” a shift which precipitated enormous outcry from the Orthodox establishment.
Weiss, who until the past few years was best known for his advocacy on behalf of Soviet Jewry and imprisoned spy Jonathan Pollard, and his activism protesting the presence of a Carmelite convent at the Auschwitz death camp, has of late been more involved in the creation of a place for the most modern of Orthodox Jews, through his Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and, last year, a place to train women Yeshivat Maharat. for positions as Orthodox religious leaders.
The article is ever so slightly snarky, describing Hurwitz as dressing “a little haphazardly” in an “ill-fitting suit,” and Weiss as someone who is “not a careful dresser” and “can’t cook a simple meal,” (it is New York magazine, after all, the glossiest tabloid in town), but also captures essential truths and contradictions about Weiss.
Lots can be said about the activist rabbi, much of it positive and some of it, depending on where you sit on the issues to which he’s devoted, critical, but one thing is incontrovertible: he’s a man of conviction who acts on his beliefs.
And, at a time when the far-right wing of the Orthodox Jewish community seems to move expectations of behavior for the religious ever-rightward, Weiss has definitely created space for those who think that women can have a voice outside of their homes – and perhaps even in the synagogue.