Sisterhood Blog

Rabbi Avi Weiss Backs Down From Ordaining Women

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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It’s seems like an effort to put the rabba back in the hat.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, who is not usually known for backing down from a fight, on Friday announced via a statement from the Rabbinical Council of America that after discussions with officials there, he is rescinding his decision to describe the women who complete his five-year course of study at the new Yeshivat Maharat as ordained rabbas — a feminized form of the title rabbi.

Last spring, he announced that women who completed this course of study, comparable to that which male rabbinical school students receive at his Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, would be called Maharat, for Manhiga Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit, which means leader in Jewish law, spirituality and Torah.

It did not prompt as much of an outcry from the Orthodox world as I had expected it would. But that changed when, in late January, Weiss changed the title of the one woman already bearing this title, Sara Hurwitz, to rabba, saying that the change would “make clear that Sara is a full member of our rabbinic staff” at his Bronx synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

That prompted a huge reaction: denunciation from the Agudath Israel of America and now this from the RCA.

When the Forward went to press this week, a story I wrote described Weiss as being “in negotiations” with the professional organization. Forward Editor Jane Eisner, in her editorial here, welcomed the title “rabba,” saying that, until this point: “Only her gender has disqualified her and threatened her status as a rabbi and the standing of her congregation.”

It looks like that is still true.

The RCA, an organization with about 1,000 centrist Orthodox rabbis as members, published a statement Friday that was followed a letter sent from Rabbi Weiss to RCA President Rabbi Moshe Kletenik. The RCA missive, titled “A Statement on Women’s Leadership Roles and Orthodoxy,” which is not on the RCA’s Web site reads:

Over the course of the last several weeks, at the request and initiative of Rabbi Avi Weiss, the leadership of Rabbinical Council of America and Rabbi Avi Weiss have engaged in discussions concerning the issue of ordaining women as rabbis. We are gratified that during the course of these conversations Rabbi Weiss concluded that neither he nor Yeshivat Maharat would ordain women as rabbis and that Yeshivat Maharat will not confer the title of “Rabba” on graduates of their program.

We are delighted that we have been able to resolve this matter in adherence with Torah principles and in a spirit of cooperation for the sake of peace and unity within our community. We are confident that continued dialogue of this type will enable us to resolve other important issues facing the Jewish community today.

The RCA reaffirms its commitment to women’s Torah education and scholarship at the highest levels, and to the assumption of appropriate leadership roles within the Jewish community. We strongly maintain that any innovations that impact the community as a whole should be done only with the broad support of the Orthodox rabbinate and a firm grounding in the eternal mesorah of the Jewish people.

It was followed by Weiss’ letter:

Letter from Rabbi Avi Weiss to RCA President Rabbi Moshe Kletenik

Dear Rabbi Kletenik,

This has been a most challenging time. The change in title from “Maharat” to “Rabba” has precipitated a level of controversy in the Orthodox community that was neither expected nor intended. In light of the tension caused to our greater community and my commitment to the principle of gadol hashalom, I share the following:

It is not my intention or the intention of Yeshivat Maharat to confer the title of “Rabba” upon its graduates. Yeshivat Maharat prepares women for positions of religious leadership in the Orthodox community. Each student who completes its course of study in Tanakh, Talmud, Halakha and Jewish Thought, and is deemed fit by her faith, knowledge of our Mesoret, ethical integrity and temperament to assume positions of religious leadership in Orthodox institutions will be confirmed as manhigah hilkhatit, ruhanit, toranit (Maharat).

They will have been prepared to provide varied forms of communal and synagogue leadership in accordance with halakha. They will also have been trained in pastoral counseling, as well as having the ability to answer questions of halakha to those who seek them out, as has been recognized and well established in both classical and contemporary halakhic sources.

I hope that good will emerge from all of this, and that some of the meaningful conversation and communication that has taken place these past few weeks between myself and yourself as the President of the Rabbinical Council of America, might continue. I thank you for your candor and your receptiveness.

In the prayer that we all continue to work for the betterment of Am Yisrael–

Biydidut,

Avi

An RCA official told me that Rabbi Weiss initiated the discussions with the organization. A call to the first Maharat/Rabba Sara Hurwitz on Friday afternoon was not returned, nor were messages left for Weiss.

It’s interesting that the reaction happened not because of the training that Sara Hurwitz and now other women are getting, and not when the title “Maharat” was created, but only when the title became too close to the term “rabbi” for their comfort.

No one in the centrist Orthodox world is questioning the advanced, proto-rabbinic training itself, at Weiss’ Yeshivat Maharat, at Drisha and even at the bastion of mainstream Orthodoxy, Yeshiva University, which has a Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies.

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.

So the question again seems to be how long it will take for the few women who are trained like men and doing all of the work of male rabbis that a mainstream Orthodox understanding of Jewish law allows, to become a rabbi — or, as it were, a rabba.


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