Rabba Sara speaks

On Sunday morning, Rabba Sara Hurwitz had her first chance to address the world at length following the recent controversy over her title. (For a quick primer, see here.)

If I had to come up with a headline, it’s probably Hurwitz’s statement that, if a title is going to get the community all riled up, maybe it’s just not worth it. Women’s spiritual leadership is a fact. It’s growing. Let’s not offer the reactionaries a stick to beat us with by using "provocative" language like "rabbi" and "ordination."

"If a title change causes a dissonance that will prevent me from serving my community then perhaps the title is not appropriate for now," she said. 

As was evident from her lengthy acknowledgments — apologies: I forgot a tripod so the video below doesn’t include these — Hurwitz stands at the leading edge of a long trail blazed by Orthodox feminists of a previous generation. And the older guard was less accommodating of the criticisms leveled at them by the right wing. 

Here’s Carol Kaufman Newman, JOFA’s president:

Is there a halachic problem with women in leadership? Well, says the Agudath Yisroel, the Shulchan Aruch doesn’t say that you can’t put a cat in an aron kodesh, but we know it isn’t right. And if you recall a number of years ago, another rabbi was furious that a woman would read a ketuba at a wedding. Well, he said. It’s not that it’s a halachic prohibition. Even a monkey can read a ketuba. Do these comparisons offend you as much as they offend me?

Hurwitz also makes this point in her speech: the objections to her ordination as rabba are not grounded in Jewish law, or halacha. The Agudath Israel statement, for all its fire and brimstone, could only call it a departure from Jewish tradition and the "mesoras haTorah," literally, the tradition of the Torah. And maybe more to the point, the Agudath Israel rabbis issued no rationale to back up their position. We’re left to speculate on our own.

The only formal legal responsa written on the subject in recent years (so far as I’m aware; if I’m wrong, please let me know) were written by Hurwitz’s supporters, among them Rabbi Daniel Sperber of Bar Ilan University, who spoke at the conference as well. The critics have generally responded with press releases, and vague ones at that. 

The haredi newspaper, Yated Ne’eman, in the second installment of its much ballyhooed investigative report on Rabbi Avi Weiss’ Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, noted the existence of Sperber’s opinion, or teshuva, but declined even to quote from it, lest it grant it some legitimacy. "Suffice it to say," the editorialists assured their readers, "that they are lightweight stuff, and any serious talmid chochom that has spent a few years really learning can easily see through the superficial scholarship and lack of elementary conformance with the rigorous analysis of the full body of halachic sources on the topic."

Someone failed to tell Yated that elementary conformance with journalistic principles requires that you present the facts and let readers decide, not assure them that you’ve considered all the relevant details and, well, just trust us. But actually, It’s a clever move, because it’s hard to refute the view that women’s leadership is a break from "mesoras haTorah" if no sources are cited, no reasoning offered. Instead, we’re reduced to parsing press releases. 

To his credit, Modern Orthodox Rabbi Steven Pruzansky has written at some length and, considering the competition, reasonable specificity on this on his blog. Some other bloggers have taken up the issue as well. The haredi world has issued press releases and told us to take their word for it. 

Here’s Hurwitz:

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