For graduates of Avi Weiss’ academy, ordination comes with controversy

Yeshivat Maharat graduates in New York

Yeshivat Maharat graduates at their ordination ceremony at Ramaz High School in New York City, June 16, 2013 (Joe Winkler)

NEW YORK (JTA) — More than three years ago, following a broad Orthodox backlash to his decision to ordain a woman with the title “rabba,” Rabbi Avi Weiss made a promise: He wouldn’t do it again.

So when Yeshivat Maharat, the school founded in 2009 by the New York activist rabbi to “ordain Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halachic authorities,” held its first graduation ceremony on Sunday in Manhattan, the three women who received ordination did not receive any formal title.

If Weiss thought that would mollify his Orthodox critics, he was wrong.

Weeks before the ceremony, the ordination was condemned by the Rabbinical Council of America, the main Modern Orthodox rabbinic association, of which Weiss himself is a member.

“We cannot accept the ordination of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of their title,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the RCA’s president.

For the RCA, the problem hinges on one word: ordination.

The RCA says it supports advanced Torah study for women and their assumption of appropriate leadership roles in the Orthodox community, goals to which Weiss also subscribes. The RCA has never objected to female graduates of an advanced Talmud program at Yeshiva University, several of whom have served in quasi-rabbinic roles at Orthodox synagogues similar to those that Yeshivat Maharat graduates will fill.

But while Weiss sees ordination as a vital and historic step, to the RCA and its 1,000 members the move represents a dramatic and potentially dangerous break from tradition, if not a violation of Jewish law.

“In many ways, I believe it sets back the slow progress that we have made in giving women positions of leadership,” Goldin told JTA. “When something is done sort of arbitrarily, that there is no consensus for, that creates a counter-reaction on the other side. I believe that’s what’s happening.”

For years, Weiss has been agitating for women to assume leadership roles in Orthodoxy that are more or less comparable to men. In 2009, Weiss gave his protege Sara Hurwitz the title maharat, a Hebrew acronym of his invention that translates as female leader in Torah, spirituality and religious law.

Several months later, Weiss decided that maharat had not caught on and that Hurwitz instead would be called rabba, a feminized version of rabbi.

Reaction was swift. The haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America dismissed it as beyond the pale of Orthodoxy. Rumors swirled that the RCA was considering expelling Weiss, which the organization denied.

But even after Weiss conceded in early 2010 that he wouldn’t ordain any more rabbas, he continued to use language reflecting his belief that these women performed functions comparable to male rabbis. The website of Yeshivat Maharat describes its graduates as “rabbinic leaders” and legal decisors.

The document awarded to graduates on Sunday refers to their ordination — in Hebrew, smicha — the same terminology used for male rabbis. But Weiss said he wasn’t conferring a title, insisting that smicha refers only to the women’s function as authorities on Jewish law and their pastoral training, not their honorific.

The decision of what to call his graduates would be left up to the women themselves and the communities they serve, he said.

“We desperately need spiritual leaders,” Weiss said. “And to me it doesn’t make sense to tap into only 50 percent of the Jewish community.”

Hurwitz, who now serves as the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, said that offering the school’s graduates ordination was a reflection of their having satisfied a course of study equal to what male rabbinical students complete.

“When I received ordination, I was able to be present for people in a different way,” Hurwitz said. “People sought out my advice and my help and my halachic expertise because they understood what I had studied and what I can do for them.”

According to Weiss, there is no legal barrier to women functioning as rabbis, only sociological ones.

In a 1,500-word defense of the religious basis for female clergy provided to JTA and later published by the Times of Israel, Weiss cited various sources to show that female spiritual leaders are well within the bounds of tradition.

Goldin acknowledged that it was difficult to point to any particular religious law that Weiss has transgressed in ordaining women, but he insisted that his quibble with Weiss is about much more than semantics.

He cited the example of Conservative Judaism’s decision to permit driving to synagogue on the Sabbath — a move initially made for understandable sociological reasons, but which wound up having a dramatic impact on the quality of religious life.

Goldin conceded that Weiss is not entirely without religious justification for his actions and said if it were solely up to him, he would be content to agree to disagree with Weiss.

“What the [RCA] will do in the future,” Goldin said, “I cannot predict.”

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