Three years ago this month, Rabba Sara Hurwitz made history in the Jewish world by becoming the first publicly ordained female rabbi in the Orthodox community. Since then, the 35-year-old mother of three has been working as Dean of Yeshivat Maharat, an institution dedicated to training women Orthodox clergy, as well as working as Rabba at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. The first three women are set to graduate this June with the title of Maharat — an acronym for “Religious, spiritual, Torah leaders” — marking yet another important milestone for women in Orthodoxy. Rabba Hurwitz spoke to The Sisterhood to explain what this all means.
THE SISTERHOOD: What has changed for you over the past three years?
RABBA SARA HURWITZ: The biggest change is the flourishing of Yeshivat Maharat, and the continuation of Orthodox women serving in communities. The graduation of the first three students this coming June fills me a tremendous amount of excitement and gratification. I have students currently working in synagogues, one in a school, one in a JCC and one in a Hillel. That’s real movement.
What kind of feedback have you received from the Orthodox community?
I think there has been noticeable change since I received my title. I’ve been doing a fair amount of traveling around the country and I think Orthodox communities are much more open to seeing women as spiritual leaders. In fact they are beginning to want it, to request it, which I think is a real shift.
Part of the ability of women to lead relies on rabbis who have the courage to hire women as interns and graduates. I’ve been seeing a shift in the number of rabbis who recognize the importance of having women and who are eager to have women. I’m really grateful for these rabbis who are helping women carve out positions as leaders in the community.
In 1997, Blu Greenberg chaired the first International Conference on Feminism & Orthodoxy. About 400 attendees were expected and more than 1,000 showed up, hungry for a community of other women committed to both traditional Jewish life and their own religious potential. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which was born of that first gathering and had Greenberg as its founding president, has run six more conferences and now claims some 5,000 members worldwide.
JOFA is honoring Greenberg, along with past president Carol Kaufman Newman and key funder Zelda Stern, at a dinner in New York City on November 20th. The Sisterhood spoke with Greenberg about what has changed for Orthodox Jewish women since JOFA began — and what hasn’t.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen: Of issues on JOFA’s agenda, where has there been the most change, and the least?
Another “rabba” is slated to be ordained next month by the Academy of Jewish Religion, The Jewish Week reports. (The Sisterhood will have more on this shortly.)
Chabad.org has a story about “The Heart That Sings,” a movie with an all-female cast. The film was screened in 11 cities during the Passover holiday; audiences were all women, and mostly Haredi.
Over at Double X, Amanda Schaffer writes about the potential risks of taking too much folic acid — a vitamin that has been shown to reduce the incident of some birth defects.
On the blog Family Inequality, sociologist Phillip Cohen writes about the new National Center for Health Statistics’ findings showing that the recession has driven birth rates down.
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.
The recent Rabbinical Council of America decision to exclude women from the rabbinate brought to mind the 2004 film “Mekudeshet: Sentenced to Marriage,” a documentary about women stuck in the divorce process in Israel.
There is one particularly heart-wrenching scene that has been playing over in my mind recently. “Rachel,” a 30-something Orthodox mother of four who tried to get a divorce from her philandering husband for more than five years, had enough. “He is living with another woman!” she screamed at the apathetic judges, right before they kicked her out of the courtroom. “He has a new family, he has moved on with his life, and you cannot do anything to help me?” The court staff violently removed her, as she wailed down the hallway. “Stay away from this religion,” she cried. “This religion is terrible.”
Rachel, a radio producer for an ultra-Orthodox radio station, wearing an elegant sheitel and modern but appropriately Orthodox clothes, is smart, savvy and put together, calm under pressure and able to manage a powerful career and busy family as a single mother. In other words, she was perfectly ultra- Orthodox until that point. She, like other smart religious women, was betrayed by the system that she dedicated her life to. The rabbinate caused her to come undone. Rachel hasn’t just come undone, but she is done with Orthodoxy. In fact, all the women who were documented during the making of this film underwent the same transformation: they start out religious, and they end up walking away.
Women cannot be Orthodox rabbis. That much is clear in the resolution passed unanimously at the annual conference of the Rabbinical Council of America, held at the Young Israel of Scarsdale April 25-27. But that is all that’s clear in the resolution, which can be read in its entirety here.
On the one hand, the resolution applauds as a “significant achievement”:
The flowering of Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women in recent decades.
On the other, it says that “due to our commitment to sacred continuity”:
[W]e cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.
The Rabbinical Council of America, the main umbrella group for centrist Orthodox rabbis, just released its position statements, which were adopted this week at its annual conference. Here’s what the RCA had to say about women’s spiritual and executive leadership within Orthodoxy:
The flowering of Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women in recent decades stands as a significant achievement. The Rabbinical Council of America is gratified that our chaverim [members] have played a prominent role in facilitating these accomplishments.
We members of the Rabbinical Council of America see as our sacred and joyful duty the practice and transmission of Judaism in all of its extraordinary, multifaceted depth and richness — halakhah [Jewish law] hashkafah, tradition and historical memory.
The Sisterhood blog and the “frankly feminist” Jewish magazine, Lilith, are jointly producing a series of podcasts about Jewish women’s issues. In our inaugural discussion, Forward and Lilith editors weigh in on what Sara Hurwitz and other Orthodox women serving in rabbinic roles should be called, revitalizing the word “yenta,” and the growing role food is playing in Jewish love stories.
Listen to the podcast here.
Elana Sztokman is a fabulous writer whose pieces are always an asset to The Sisterhood and the rest of The Forward (and I get a gold star for having made the shidduch). But in her new blog post, Jewish Feminists Launch RCA Protest, Elana gets a few important things wrong.
The first is that she calls the petition launched to convince the Rabbinical Council of America’s leadership that they should endorse women’s religious leadership a Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance campaign when it is not. In fact, the organization decided not to issue the petition itself and instead sent carefully-worded open letters to the RCA, stating:
Rather than engage in semantic discussions about whether or not it’s halakhic for a woman to become a rabbi, or make divisive statements about a woman’s role in Judaism, we urge the RCA to focus instead on finding new ways for this motivated group of learned women to thrive.
Why is it worded this way? Because JOFA’s leaders know that the RCA leadership is not going to endorse women as para-quasi-rabba-maharat-rabbis in any form, so JOFA is not wasting its credibility capital and calling for it. Instead, JOFA is asking for something that it can’t name and I’m sure the RCA can’t either: non-rabbinic ways to make use of the growing cadre of women who are highly educated in Torah, highly skilled as leaders, and highly motivated to use their abilities for the benefit of the Jewish people.
In a bold and passionate move, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) has sent two letters to the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), a leading Orthodox rabbinic organization, in an attempt to advance women’s leadership roles in synagogues and communities.
One of the letters reads:
As the major rabbinic arm in the Orthodox world, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) is in a position to demonstrate its support of these women, thereby strengthening the Jewish community. Please encourage the RCA’s members to create professionally meaningful and halakhically appropriate opportunities for women within our Orthodox institutions.
Rather than engage in semantic discussions about whether or not it’s halakhic for a woman to become a rabbi, or make divisive statements about a woman’s role in Judaism, we urge the RCA to focus instead on finding new ways for this motivated group of learned women to thrive. They are ready to make an impact in the Orthodox world—in our synagogues, at our schools, and within our homes. We ask that you encourage them in their journey and help find places for them, so that they may be able to transmit their knowledge and experience to others in our community, thereby enriching the Jewish community.
Meanwhile, a recent JOFA email also linked to an online petition from an independent group of Orthodox college students. The petition, spearheaded by Jordanna Birnbaum, Michelle Kornblit and Hannah Wenger reads:
As one of the first women to receive private Orthodox rabbinic ordination, I was disheartened to hear Maharat Sara Hurwitz give up her title of “Rabba” (the female version of “Rabbi” chosen by the Academy of the Hebrew Language). In a speech she gave recently at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference, she said that if the title would cause a rift in the Orthodox community and maybe even lead her own community to be called “Conservative” rather than Orthodox, she would be willing to forego the title.
For Hurwitz, what matters most is that women are acting as clergy and will be “confirmed” as “Maharat” in the Orthodox world. And perhaps that will have to be enough for now.
Hurwitz did present the other hand. She admitted that as a “Rabba” she would be able to do her job better, that people tend to have a better understanding of what her role is when she uses that title. What she did not mention was that using Maharat instead of Rabba perpetuates sexual discrimination.
There was an exciting energy at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference. Speakers in both the plenary and individual sessions, such as emerging star Lisa Schlaff, made far-reaching statements and bold suggestions about issues ranging from marriage and sexuality to halachic ingenuity. Participants responded in kind with creativity and courage, revealing what seems to be a powerful consensus that Orthodoxy is in the midst of a major overhaul from the ground up.
The fact that conference participants expressed full and enthusiastic support for Orthodox women rabbis offers some sense of the disconnect between this grassroots community and the formal leadership of Modern Orthodoxy. It suggests, as did many of my encounters at the conference, that Modern Orthodox decision-makers are out of touch with the lived experiences of their constituents. Nowhere was this disconnect more apparent than in Rabba Sara Hurwitz’s plenary lecture. As she was called to the stage as “Rabba,” the entire room stood and cheered. This was clearly a place where the Rabbinical Council of America’s pronouncements were irrelevant at best, where Hurwitz was and is Rabbi.
However, as Hurwitz spoke, she revealed that while the audience was ready to take on the RCA, she is not.
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.