A New Orthodox Dilemma: What to Call a Female ‘rabbi’

Rabbanit. Morateinu. Poseket. Congregational intern. Torahnot.

There’s a whole new vocabulary evolving in the Orthodox world.

It’s springing up around the increasing number of Orthodox women who are serving in positions — as teachers of men and women and as interpreters of Jewish law — that even a few years ago would have seemed unlikely, if not totally impossible.

And all of these experimental terms share one thing: They are not the word "rabbi."

Women, according to most Orthodox Jews’ understanding of Jewish law, may not be rabbis.

At a conference this week on Orthodoxy and feminism, however, some prominent Orthodox rabbis, including Shlomo Riskin and Daniel Sperber, both of whom are based in Israel, articulated the theoretical possibility of women working as rabbis.

The reality is that women today are taking on some of the traditional roles of rabbis — and there isn’t a widely accepted term to describe what they are doing.

Some of the terms are new — such as "poseket," which is the feminized version of "posek," the Hebrew word for an interpreter of Jewish law, and "morateinu," which is Hebrew in the feminine form for "our teacher."

Rabbi Avi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, N.Y., and a long-time advocate of expanding Orthodox women’s roles as spiritual leaders within the parameters of Jewish law, uses the term morateinu and wants to see it in wider use.

"It is an honorific teacher’s title," he said in an interview this week at the Second International Conference on Feminism & Orthodoxy in New York.

"It’s unhelpful to use the term `rabbi’ because it implies the wrong things. We’re spending too much time worrying about that. Let’s spend it on carving out halachically permissible roles for these women," he said.

A part-time program run by Weiss, called Torat Miriam, began last September and is training 10 women to be Jewish communal leaders.

The term "Torahnot" was coined at the conference by Zev Brenner, who offered it during a discussion about the ordination of women.

Brenner, who produces and hosts Jewish radio and cable television shows, and is the husband of one of the conference presenters, Adena Berkowitz, shouted it out spontaneously.

Other terms are not so new.

Rabbanit, Hebrew for the Yiddish term rebbetzin, which has traditionally meant "rabbi’s wife," is now being applied to women who are taking on these exapnded roles, almost as a diminutive form of the word "rabbi."

Rabbanit Chana Henkin founded Nishmat, a center in Jerusalem where women engage in the advanced study of Jewish texts, in 1990.

She has long been known as rabbanit, since she is married to a well-known rabbi and has lived in Israel for many years. More recently, she has heard people address some of her very learned students that way.

"We’re moving toward a point where we’re recognizing learning and the religious persona of women. It’s appropriate to express this recognition if the person warrants it," said Henkin.

"But I’m more concerned with what the women are doing than what they’re called," she said.

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