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.
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.
One of Sara Hurwitz’s sons recently said more, related to the recent conferral of her new title of Maharat, than many others publicly have. Four-year-old Zacharya told her “only boys can be rabbis.”
Hurwitz laughed it off — explaining that her kids don’t get to see her working in her position of leadership at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, since they’d have a hard time not interrupting her, and saying “he doesn’t hear women being called ‘rabbi.’”
And he still won’t, since his mother, at her conferral in March, was given the title Madricha Hilchatit, Ruchanit v’Toranit, or Leader in Jewish Law, Spiritual Matters, and Torah.
More recently came the announcement of a new training center being started by her mentor, Rabbi Avi Weiss, who in the fall will begin the Maharat Yeshiva The goal of the four-year program is to prepare other women for rabbinic positions in synagogues, schools and on university campuses.
While controversy about the title Maharat buzzed, briefly, through the blogosphere news about this new yeshiva seems to have prompted little more reaction than discussions over kiddush in some synagogues.
There has been no public reaction from the Orthodox Union (with which the Hebrew Institute is affiliated) or the Rabbinical Council of America the professional group with which Rabbi Weiss is affiliated (though surely there are RCA members who would like to see that change for the politically outspoken rabbi).
The Agudath Israel of America, an organization representing the “black-hat,” right-wing Orthodox community, has no Web site to check, since their rabbis say that frum Jews should not be using the Web. Nonetheless, nothing seems to have been said by their lead spokesman, who is often quick to condemn the liberal denominations and liberalizing movements within Orthodoxy.
Is this silence from the Orthodox establishment illustrative of perhaps the most dangerous reaction of all to this new move toward ordaining Orthodox women as rabbis? Does their apparent indifference indicate just how marginal they consider the step?
Blu Greenberg a long-time leading voice of Orthodox feminism, told The Sisterhood, “I thought the reaction was going to be negative and I told Rabbi Weiss he was opening himself up for criticism with this. … But it has been such a strong and positive reaction,” to the conferral of Maharat Hurwitz and the yeshiva announcement.
Rather than indifference on the part of Orthodox institutions, she said, “there’s a certain amount of caution here. Every time they have come out with strongly negative or harsh statements in the past [as when she founded the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance 12 years ago] it has redounded to the benefit of the organizations they’re criticizing.”
In fact, said Hurwitz, who has twin 4-year-old sons and a 9-month-old son, “There is a lot of excitement. Women are really interested in having an institution where they have an actual potential career path. … It’s exhilarating, quite honestly, to talk to these women and realize that we might be fulfilling a dream they’ve had. The women say ‘I’ve always wanted to be an Orthodox rabbi.’ “
When asked what she thinks of the title Maharat, she hesitates.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” she says after a pause. “I think it’s a nice compromise. It allows women who are involved in the more centrist Orthodox communities to have more acceptance. If they had the title rabbi, they wouldn’t be taken seriously at all.”
The challenge, she said, is whether the title will come to mean rabbi — and “that’s really up to us.“