Just a few weeks after declaring Sara Hurwitz a “rabba” in order to “make clear” her status as “a full member of our rabbinic staff,” Rabbi Avi Weiss promised the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) that neither he nor his Yeshivat Maharat will confer that title on any other woman.
Rabbi Weiss – spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, founder of both Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat, and a weekly Jewish Press columnist – ascribed his concession to “the tension caused to our greater community and my commitment to the principle of gadol ha’shalom.”
Rabbi Weiss granted Hurwitz the title of maharat – an acronym of the Hebrew words manhiga hilchatit ruchanit toranit (halachic, spiritual and Torah leader) – last March after she studied and was tested in the same areas of halacha that men traditionally master before receiving semicha.
The new title, however, sounded awkward, and so in late January, Rabbi Weiss dropped maharat and together with Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber of Bar-Ilan University formally ordained Hurwitz as a rabba.
To many in the Orthodox community, Rabbi Weiss had gone too far. The Agudath Israel Council of Torah Sages declared the move “a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah, and must be condemned in the strongest terms. Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.”
Both Rabbi Weiss and the RCA denied a Jewish Week report that the RCA was considering expelling Rabbi Weiss from its ranks. “There is no basis to those rumors,” RCA President Rabbi Moshe Kletenik told The Jewish Press. But Rabbi Weiss backed down on the rabba title nonetheless. In a letter to
Rabbi Kletenik, Rabbi Weiss wrote, “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 a speech to his community this past Shabbos, Rabbi Weiss said he only agreed to drop the title rabba “for the sake of peace,” arguing that qualified women can and should perform many rabbinical duties. He cited Yeshiva University Chancellor Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, who told the Jerusalem Post last year that his opposition to women rabbis was “social, not religious.”
In a recent interview in YU’s student newspaper, The Commentator, Rabbi Lamm referred to this comment, saying, “I was criticized, of course. People asked, ‘You mean that al pi din they’re allowed to become rabbis?’ My response: ‘I don’t know. Are you sure they’re not allowed to?’
Rabbi Lamm went on to say, however, “It is too early to tell where this is all headed and I think they are moving much too quickly. Do I think having women rabbis is a good thing? I do not know. I am, however, concerned that, before long, we will find ourselves overly feminized, and I would not want to see that happen.”
The RCA’s Rabbi Kletenik, however, was unequivocal.
“To ordain a woman as a rabbi,” he told The Jewish Press, “is a breach of our mesorah and not acceptable in an Orthodox synagogue.”
Rabbi Kletenik didn’t endorse or condemn the title maharat, but said semantics are irrelevant. “Regardless of the title, if a woman is acting in the role of a rabbi, that’s something which is not acceptable.”
The importance of higher Jewish education for women is not in dispute, he said. “Certainly we encourage Torah scholarship for women, and there are appropriate roles for women to play in terms of leadership within the Jewish community. But being a rabbi is not one of them.”
The RCA will discuss possible leadership roles for women at its annual convention in April, he said.
Rabbi Weiss’s compromise with the RCA comes 12 years after he and Rabbi Adam Mintz, former rabbi of Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue, hired women interns for their congregations. Both rabbis declared at the time that the hirings should not be interpreted as a stepping-stone toward the appointment of women rabbis.
“The call for women to be rabbis is unhelpful. It has halachic problems,” Rabbi Weiss told The Jerusalem Post at the time.
But a decade later, Rabbi Weiss apparently had a change of heart. When he conferred the title of maharat upon Hurwitz last year, he published the halachic rulings of three contemporary rabbis permitting some form of rabbinic ordination for women.
In a 2009 halachic responsum addressed to Rabbi Weiss, noted religious Zionist leader Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun argued “that an Isha Hakhama can teach and instruct, according to all of the opinions, and a community can accept upon themselves an Isha Hakhama as their teacher (Morah) in Torah, in all of the regular roles of a community and synagogue rabbi, and there is no aspect of suspicion or prohibition, even according to the strict positions in Halakha on this issue.”