“This is the beginning of a new reality,” said Rabba Sara Hurwitz as she concluded the inaugural graduation ceremony of Yeshivat Maharat, a Bronx-based Modern Orthodox seminary. “From today this is what the Orthodox community now looks like, with men and women standing side by side, leading and shaping the Jewish community.”
The seminary is the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as clergy and Jewish legal authorities, and in mid-June of this year Yeshivat Maharat ordained its first three graduates: Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Abby Brown Scheier. Liberal Jewish movements to the left of Orthodoxy have been ordaining women for decades; a major factor distinguishing Orthodoxy from non-Orthodox movements has been its opposition to the ordination of women. Over 500 people, including prominent leaders from across Jewish denominations attended the ceremony, which Rabba Hurwitz called “a wonderful milestone in the growth and evolution of our community.”
While the ordination was a watershed moment for many, detractors feared it could undermine traditional Judaism or lead to irreparable rifts within the already polarized Orthodox community. Though the curriculum of Yeshivat Maharat’s four-year program is comparable to that of a standard Orthodox rabbinical school for men, to avoid a backlash from the Orthodox establishment its graduates were not called “rabbi.” Instead, they received the title “maharat,” a Hebrew neologism for leader in Jewish law, spiritual matters, and Torah.
Despite the diplomatic gesture, a month prior to the ordination the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest and increasingly right-wing U.S. Orthodox rabbinic organization, lambasted the graduation, stating: “The RCA views this event as a violation of our mesorah (tradition) and regrets that the leadership of the school has chosen a path that contradicts the norms of our community.” Yeshiva University, a mainstay of Modern Orthodoxy, also stated that it doesn’t endorse the ordination. Yet all three graduates of Yeshivat Maharat have been placed with jobs in Modern Orthodox synagogues, and 17 students are currently enrolled in the program—and so Yeshivat Maharat is ready for the long haul.
Yeshivat Maharat was founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss, a charismatic activist known for his efforts to foster a pluralistic, egalitarian Orthodox community. His arrest record from his involvement in pro-Israel protests and numerous other causes has been described as “legendary.” He responded to the RCA’s statement in the Times of Israel, arguing that tradition “is not solely rooted in the past. Rather our [tradition] is that, within proper parameters, we ought to innovate to address the issues of our time…This innovation is not straying from [tradition], it is demanded by it.”
Rabbi Weiss holds that there is no legal prohibition of women’s ordination. Indeed, the RCA has taken no stance over the legal permissibility of the ordination, though it opposes it. According to Rabbi Weiss, the debate is sociological rather than legal, a question of whether or not the community is ready. While some commentators suggest that the ordination of women will eventually produce a paradigm shift and become accepted by mainstream Orthodoxy, others worry that it may cause a split, resulting in the formation of a new denomination. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, an RCA vice president, blogged that Rabbi Weiss and his followers have already transgressed Orthodox bounds.
The dispute began in 2009, when Rabbi Weiss ordained his protégé Sara Hurwitz with the title “rabba,” a feminized version of Rabbi. Originally, he had called Hurwitz “maharat,” but said the term never quite caught on. The RCA and Agudath Israel of America, the most authoritative ultra-Orthodox rabbinic organization, called Hurwitz’s ordination a “radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition,” stating that “any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.” Rabbi Pruzansky went so far as to call the idea of female clergy a “throwback to pagan ideologies” on his blog.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public policy for Agudath Israel, took issue with the ordination on the basis that it violated the Jewish principle of modesty, which he said “isn’t a mode of dress. It includes the idea that women are demeaned and not honored when they’re put in the public eye and put on a pedestal.” Rumors circulated that Weiss might be expelled from the RCA, and Agudath Israel excommunicated Weiss. Following deliberations with the RCA, Weiss agreed to no longer ordain women with the title “rabba.” Hurwitz, however, would remain “rabba,” and continue to serve on the rabbinical staff at Weiss’s synagogue, and as the dean of Yeshivat Maharat.
In 1982, prominent Orthodox Israeli intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz argued that “the question of women and Judaism is more crucial than all the political problems of the state. Failure to deal with it seriously threatens the viability of the Judaism of Torah and Mitzvoth in the contemporary world.” Indeed, the recent push to expand women’s religious roles has become one of the most divisive issues in the Orthodox community.
As advanced Jewish educational opportunities for Orthodox women became increasingly available and institutionally validated over the last several decades, women’s ritual participation and public involvement in Orthodox communities expanded, with innovations like women’s prayer groups and the establishment of a training program for female legal consultants at Nishmat in Jerusalem. Despite initial opposition, such developments have become increasingly mainstream and are beginning to reconfigure Jewish legal authority.
Though women have played leadership roles in Modern Orthodox synagogues under various nonclerical titles in recent years, conferring the graduates of Yeshivat Maharat with a title formalizes and legitimizes such roles. In a radio interview on WABC, Rabbi Weiss commented: “We have taken the next step, ordaining women, which means they have the authority to be decisors of Jewish law. It is really a rabbinic position.” While the maharats’ role will remain within a legal framework—for example, they will not count toward a prayer quorum or lead core parts of the liturgy, in accordance with Jewish law—they will perform nearly all the functions of pulpit rabbis.
The controversy surrounding Yeshivat Maharat is not only a struggle over defining gender norms, or the extent to which the Orthodox legal framework may accommodate feminist demands—it raises the question of who retains the authority to determine the contours of Orthodoxy and what remains within its bounds. The seminary’s pioneering institutionalization of women’s spiritual leadership is part of a larger movement spearheaded by Rabbi Weiss to decentralize authority within Orthodoxy, horizontalize the rabbinate, and grant local rabbis more autonomy. The ramifications of these negotiations continue to unfold. For the moment, neither side seems braced for a complete split, or are likely to budge.
Rabbi Weiss emphasizes that the title with which the graduates were conferred was not the significant aspect of the ordination. “I believe that people are seeking meaning, seeking purpose, seeking Torah, they’re seeking God,” he told WABC. “And the thing that we’re missing is spiritual leaders. And for me it doesn’t make sense to tap only 50 percent of our community to be those spiritual leaders. And this really is what this is about. The women serving our people, serving all people in a profound way.”