The Jewish newspaper, The Forward reported that the attempt of Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx, NY, to confer the title “rabba” to staff member Sara Hurwitz in January drew “stern denunciation” from Agudath Israel, which is an authoritative rabbinic body for America’s ultra-Othodox rabbis. The council ruled that “Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.” Weiss ‘move also raised tensions with his own Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), which takes the “Modern Orthodox” or more moderate expression of the religion.
A follow up article in The Forward reports that apparently the tension was enough for Weiss to reverse himself and remove the title of rabba from Hurwitz and potentially other women graduates of a seminary he had founded. After a period of negotiation with the RCA in March, Weiss issued a public statement disavowing his decision. But Weiss has retained the title of “Maharat,” which means “leader” in Jewish law, spirituality and Torah, for women who are in leadership positions. The title itself is new and represents a move to give women a role in synagogues that are close to a rabbi.
But few Orthodox leaders and groups have condemned the use of Maharats or the recent training and recognition of women leaders in Jewish institutions, even though they are a break with tradition. Writer Debra Nussbaum Cohen notes that “It’s all about the title and the term ordination being too close for the RCA’s comfort to the language used for male Orthodox clergy.”
Weiss has long pushed the envelope on innovation in Orthodoxy. When he thought that Orthodoxy was moving too far to the right, in 1999 he established an alternative rabbinical school in New York. He also established a small seminary, Yeshivat Maharat, to prepare women to serve as spiritual leaders.
Nussbaum Cohen concludes that the “question seems to be how long it will take for the few women who are trained like men and doing all the work of male rabbis that a mainstream Orthodox understanding of Jewish law allows, to become a rabbi-or, as it were, rabba.”
Richard Cimino is the founder and editor of Religion Watch, a newsletter monitoring trends in contemporary religion. Since January 2008, Religion Watch is published by Religioscope Institute. Website: www.religionwatch.com