NEW YORK (JTA) — On the eve of a conference marking the expansion of leadership roles for women within Orthodoxy, the trend’s most prominent rabbinic proponent has backtracked from his near-ordination of female rabbis amid intense criticism.
Rabbi Avi Weiss promised he would not ordain any more women with the title "rabba," a feminized version of "rabbi" that had drawn widespread condemnation when it was conferred in January on Sara Hurwitz, a longtime member of the clerical staff at Weiss’ synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York City.
The announcement, made in a letter to the president of the Rabbinical Council of America and distributed by the council March 5, followed weeks of buzz in Orthodox circles as well as rumors that the association of Orthodox rabbis was preparing to rescind Weiss’ membership.
In an accompanying statement, the RCA expressed satisfaction at the controversy’s resolution and support for "appropriate" leadership roles for women.
"We are encouraged by the RCA’s recent statement asserting its ‘commitment to women’s Torah education and scholarship at the highest levels, and to the assumption of appropriate leadership roles within the Jewish community,’ " said the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, whose conference this Sunday in New York will prominently feature Hurwitz in several sessions.
"At the same time, we are saddened that so many leaders remain unsupportive of a title commensurate with the critical roles that women perform in the synagogue and greater Orthodox community."
With the announcement Weiss, an activist rabbi known for not backing down from a confrontation, has privileged intra-communal harmony over his commitment to pushing the envelope on women’s religious leadership. Sources close to Weiss say the rabbi misjudged the extent of opposition to calling Hurwitz rabba; it’s not hard to see why.
For more than a year, Weiss has been calling Hurwitz a rabbi in everything but name. Last March, Weiss ordained her as a "maharat" — an acronym meaning Torah, spiritual and halachic leader — and subsequently established a seminary known as Yeshivat Maharat to train others.
But in January, Weiss announced that the title maharat had failed to catch on and he was replacing it with rabba. As he has before, Weiss stressed that regardless of title, Hurwitz was the functional equivalent of a rabbi and a full member of the synagogue clergy. And yet only when he moved to call Hurwitz by a title that so closely resembled rabbi did the maelstrom ensue.
The governing religious council of the haredi organization Agudath Israel of America, known as the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah of America, said the move "represents a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition" and that Weiss’ congregation could no longer be considered Orthodox.
On his blog, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, a vice president of the RCA, said the notion of female clergy is "a throwback to pagan ideologies and a perennial challenge to religious establishments." The RCA’s president, Rabbi Moshe Kletenik, denied a news report claiming that the council was considering ousting Weiss.
"My humble opinion is the reason there was such a fuss about it is the so-called Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah attack," said Rabbi Marc Angel, one of the few Orthodox rabbis who has publicly supported Weiss. "The RCA got a little nervous. If the Agudah attacks, the RCA gets defensive."
The one thing all parties to the controversy agree on, however, is that Hurwitz’s title, which she will keep, is not the central issue; it’s the role she performs that matters, both to Weiss’ supporters and detractors.
"If she’s functionally a rabbi, regardless of the title, that’s a problem," Kletenik said.
As if to underscore the point, Agudath Israel said Tuesday that the arrangement with the RCA was "superficial" and did not change the group’s belief that "placing women in traditional rabbinic positions departs from the Jewish mesorah."
The only problem is, there’s little clarity on what constitutes a traditional rabbinic position.
Agudah spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran said the problem is one of modesty and Judaism’s view of the proper roles for women. Angel, Weiss and others counter that with the exception of certain ritual functions, nothing prevents women from performing the overwhelming majority of functions traditionally associated with the rabbinate.
Kletenik declined to specify where the boundaries of women’s leadership should be drawn, saying it would be a matter of discussion at the RCA’s conference in April.
Yeshiva University, which has strong ties to the RCA, runs an advanced Talmud program for women and has helped place several graduates in positions at prominent Modern Orthodox synagogues — but without conferring a specific title on them.
The issue will be discussed Sunday when Hurwitz takes part in the JOFA conference’s opening plenary on women’s leadership. That will be followed by several sessions on related topics, including one titled "Why the Rambam was Wrong: Women in Leadership," led by Rabbi Daniel Sperber, whose name appears alongside Weiss’ on Hurwitz’s ordination certificate.
Audrey Trachtman, JOFA’s vice president for advocacy, declined to say whether the organization could declare victory on women’s leadership without securing the rabbi title.
"What we’d be satisfied with is having women in rabbinic responsibility," Trachtman said. "What that means is serving pastorally, answering questions of halachah when asked, teaching and learning Torah and Talmud with their congregants — in other words, performing all the responsibilties that rabbis do."