Yeshivat Maharat And Orthodoxy


Zelda R. Stern and Elana Maryles Sztokman’s May 31 Opinion piece, “Orthodox Women Reach Another Milestone,” makes three fundamental errors. First, the authors repeatedly assert the Orthodoxy of Yeshivat Maharat and its graduates, without clarifying the word. If Orthodoxy rules out women rabbis, for example, their loud declarations become meaningless. To be convincing, we’d need to know what they mean by Orthodox.

That makes their second error so interesting. They note the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) refers to mesorah (tradition) and communal norms, and assume that means there is no halachic (Jewish legal) basis for opposition to the event. This is, first, not nearly obvious. It might be, for example, that the halachic aspects would take too much space to clarify and the RCA chose to adopt a briefer, more easily digested locution.

But suppose for a moment that this was purely a matter of mesorah and norms; that wouldn’t be enough to say this leaves Orthodoxy? Take a less fraught example: suppose I opened a restaurant, following an unacceptable version of halacha (such as by relying on a rejected or ignored lone opinion of an early scholar). Is that restaurant kosher? Is someone who insists on living by that standard Orthodox? The mesorah of what’s acceptable, and the norms of the community, define Orthodoxy in many ways.

The third problem is their open assertion that “maharats” will be women rabbis.  My understanding is that when Rabbi Avi Weiss ordained a “rabbah,” Sara Hurwitz, he explicitly stated that she was not a rabbi, and that, given the confusing title, he would not be ordaining more rabbahs in the future. Since then, she and others have repeatedly referred to herself and to the women coming through the Maharat program, as women rabbis. The general Orthodox community, and especially its halachic leaders, have made clear that this is a step that cannot be allowed to happen. So how can it be seen as Orthodox?

The sad irony is that much of this is semantics. As the article notes, and has been true for decades if not generations, women have long visited the sick, comforted the bereaved, counseled the troubled and taught classes. The real (and important) challenge was a title, no small matter in a culture that limits its respect to those with titles. Money comes into it, too, since untitled, unofficial functionaries won’t receive the compensation they deserve.

All of that could have been dealt with, but for the insistence on the word “rabbi.” That blurs lines between men and women that the mesorah and the community put in place for reasons far beyond the question of which particular communal tasks women do or don’t perform. Trying to erase those lines just isn’t Orthodox, no matter how often its proponents claim it is.

Riverdale, The Bronx