Orthodox female rabbi? False alarm

Sara Hurwitz speaks March 1, 2009 at a women's prayer conference in New York City. (Ben Harris)

Sara Hurwitz speaks March 1, 2009 at a women’s prayer conference in New York City. (Ben Harris)

NEW YORK (JTA) — What do you call an Orthodox woman who learns like a rabbi, teaches like a rabbi and has a job description like a rabbi?

Apparently anything but rabbi.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founder of the liberal rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, will host a ceremony later this month for Sara Hurwitz, who currently holds the title “madricha ruchanit,” or spiritual mentor, at Weiss’ synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York City. Invitations for the event, which marks Hurwitz’s completion of the same course of training and examination as male Orthodox rabbinical students, say it is a “conferral ceremony” at which Hurwitz will receive “a new title reflective of her religious and spiritual role.”

Liberal and feminist Orthodox circles have been buzzing that the r-word was being considered, with several sources telling JTA that in recent weeks they had discussed the option with Weiss, as well as several other possibilities, including morateinu (“our teacher”) and two feminized versions of rabbi (rabba and rabbanit).

Weiss, who was traveling this week, could not be reached. But he sent word through an assistant at the synagogue that the title rabbi was no longer on the table.

Whatever she ends up being called, Hurwitz says she hopes her title will come to reflect a role as a spiritual leader indistinguishable from that of men.

“I hope to reclaim and redefine my new title, so that it comes to have the identical connotation that the word rabbi does,” Hurwitz told JTA.

Hurwitz’s conferral comes as women continue to make important inroads in Jewish leadership positions, both in Orthodoxy and the more liberal denominations.

Both the Reform and Conservative rabbinical associations are installing women in top leadership posts. The Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis recently named Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus as its new president; the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly is set to install Julie Schonfeld as its executive vice president. Schonfeld will be the first woman to serve as the chief executive of an American rabbinical group.

“I think women are coming into their own and achieving prominence of various kinds,” said Anne Lapidus Lerner, the founding director of the Jewish women’s studies program at the Conservative movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and the organizer of a well-attended conference Sunday on Jewish women’s prayer.

Still, in the Orthodox world, change has been halting, with more stringent interpretations of Jewish law leading to persistent and substantial barriers to women’s ritual participation and leadership.

To be sure, changes have occurred in recent decades, starting with the spread of women’s prayer groups and the expansion of opportunities for women to pursue advanced religious studies at Orthodox institutions.

In recent years, a handful of prominent mainstream Modern Orthodox synagogues have pushed the envelope even further by hiring women for roles like Hurwitz’s, in which they carry out certain functions that historically were the sole domain of male rabbis, from offering guidance in spiritual or Jewish legal matters to teaching classes and delivering lectures.

All of the institutions, however, have stopped short of using the term rabbi.

The relative slow pace of change helps explain the exuberance with which Orthodox feminist leaders greeted the prospect of Hurwitz being ordained. At the prayer conference, warm applause greeted Hurwitz’s announcement that she might be getting the title rabbi “but with a slightly distinct sound.”

“I think this is a historic moment,” Robin Bodner, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, told JTA. “We are very excited.”

Hurwitz has been at the Hebrew Institute for nearly six years and completed an eight-year course of intensive study — two at the Drisha Institute, a pioneering institution for advanced women’s Torah study in New York, and six under the private guidance of Weiss. Her curriculum was modeled after that of the male rabbinical students at Chovevei Torah, and Hurwitz has taken and passed the same rabbinical ordination exams.

Joshua Maroof, a Maryland rabbi and one of Hurwitz’s teachers, says he is religiously right of center and describes himself as sitting opposite an “ideological gulf” from Weiss, who has staked out liberal positions on a number of hot-button issues. Maroof says, however, that not only would he support Hurwitz’s ordination as a rabbi, but so would many Orthodox rabbis, who he notes privately recognize there is no legal problem with a woman assuming the title.

In contemporary times, rabbi denotes a teacher and legal decisor, Maroof says, not an officiant at religious functions.

“Most Orthodox rabbis are aware that there’s no prohibition on woman rabbis,” Maroof told JTA. “I think there are many Orthodox rabbis who think this would be a great thing, and they’re hoping that somebody else would have the courage to do it, as long as it’s not them.”

Indeed, the issue of female rabbis is a touchy one, even for Orthodox figures who are supportive of efforts to open up greater leadership opportunities for women.

Rabbi Shmuel Hain, who runs an advanced women’s Talmud study program at Yeshiva University’s Stern College, declined to comment. Even Weiss, who has shown little hesitation to challenge the Orthodox establishment in the past, did not return calls seeking comment; he is said to find himself in a delicate situation.

His public pronouncements already have earned him the opprobrium of many Orthodox leaders, with some rejecting his inclusion under the Orthodox umbrella. Meanwhile, graduates of his rabbinical school have not been accepted for membership in the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest association of Orthodox rabbis, and are said to worry that their career prospects may be further harmed if Weiss takes what some view as the radical step of extending the title of rabbi to a woman.

But for Hurwitz, as for other women in similar roles, the issue is less the title than the opportunities that may come with more formal designations.

“I think it’s a natural progression within the Orthodox world,” she said. “I think there are talented women in this position in Orthodox shuls, and not in shuls. And finding more formalized roles for these women is a natural evolution” that began with increasing opportunities for high-level Judaic study.

“The next step," Hurwitz said, "is to flex their leadership skills in Orthodox institutions within the realm of the halachah.”

NEXT STORY