During a recent visit to New York, Rabbi Daniel Sperber — to date the best-known Orthodox religious authority to back the idea of Orthodox women’s ordination — spoke with The Sisterhood about the evolution of Jewish law.
Sperber — a Talmud professor at Bar-Ilan University and the author of, most recently, “Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives” and “On Changes in Jewish Liturgy: Options and Limitations” — gave his imprimatur to the ordination of Maharat Sara Hurwitz last year. When Hurwitz’s mentor, Rabbi Avi Weiss later changed her title to “rabba,” they faced a wave of opposition from the Rabbinical Council of America. The RCA ultimately negotiated an agreement with Weiss, who backed away from the new title and pledged not to use the term “ordination” at Yeshivat Maharat, which Weiss founded.
Yeshivat Maharat, headed by Hurwitz and Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, opened its doors last year to offer Orthodox women quasi-rabbinical training.
Sperber himself expressed discomfort with the term “rabba” because in Israel it’s associated with female Reform rabbis “which could be a source of confusion, though I understand it’s not the case in the U.S.,” he said. But “these are terminological arguments, partly political and not necessarily substantive,” he told The Sisterhood.
“If these women are really stringently trained, knowledgeable and understand their own limitations on what they can do in a congregational context,” then there’s no reason they ought not work in congregational settings, he said. “There will be gvulot, or limitations. They won’t be able to officiate at weddings or function in all aspects of synagogue activities. If they’re fully aware of that I see no reason why they shouldn’t have enriching and fully participating function in those communities interested in having them.”
“We have to come to terms with the fact that as change has come about in society so we have to take into account those changes,” Sperber said. “They present new challenges and solutions have to be found. The halachic heritage we have received is sufficiently rich to enable us to face many of those challenges.”