The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

June 21, 2013 by

Orthodox Women Rabbis
by Any Other Name

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From left to right, at the June 16 Yeshivat Maharat ordination ceremony in New York: Rabba Sara Hurwitz (dean of Yeshivat Maharat), Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Maharat Abby Brown Scheier. Photo by Joan Roth with permission of Yeshivat Maharat.

It happened! On June 16 three Orthodox women were ordained as clergy by an Orthodox religious institution.

I am not a superstitious person but I mentally spat three times to ward off the evil eye and forestall enraged Orthodox males – and females – from attacking the three women ordained with the title of “maharat” in Manhattan on the gloriously sunny June 16 Sunday afternoon. Of course such misogynist religious violence – think the physical attacks on Women of the Wall in Jerusalem –could never happen here. Really? It could but hopefully won’t.

For sure these three women will be Orthodox role models. And for sure they’ve picked up inspiration along the road to maharat from Blu Greenberg, woman of grace and wise determination. Founder of JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) in 1997, for years she’s been predicting we would see Orthodox women rabbis in our lifetime. Activist Rabbi Avi Weiss turned Greenberg’s words “Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way” into a new kosher reality.

They certainly have pastoral powers but defining maharat remains a work in progress. They cannot count in a minyan or act as witnesses in a Jewish court or in signing Jewish documents. According to the head of Yehisvat Maharat, Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, “They are only permitted to lead services or read Torah within the framework of Halakha.” Will a rabbinic court (men only) determine the framework? 

The title “maharat” is Rabbi Weiss’s compromise with the powerful mainstream Orthodox organization the Rabbinical Council of America. Things turned nasty three years ago when Weiss gave Sara Hurwitz the title “rabba”— the Hebrew feminine form of “rabbi.” The shalom bayit agreement: He wouldn’t do it again and Rabba Hurwitz could keep her title. “Maharat” is the Weiss-created Hebrew acronym he had originally conferred on Hurwitz, manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit toranit, female leader of Jewish law, spirituality and Torah.

What matters is that the two maharats seeking pastoral positions with pulpit responsibilities have already been hired by Orthodox synagogues: Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman at the National Synagogue in Washington, Ohev Shalom, and Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold at Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal, Canada’s second largest synaogue She was hired by Rabbi Adam Scheier, the husband of the third graduate, Maharat Abby Brown Scheier, who will continue teaching there

Rabba Hurwitz is now dean of Yeshivat Maharat, founded by Weiss in 2009, the same year Hurwitz was ordained and the year before the RCA exploded when Weiss gave her the title of rabba. How strategic of Weiss—the longtime spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale whose Jewish activism goes back to the 1960s Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry–to establish an entire institution dedicated to ordaining Orthodox women.

Certainly Sunday’s ordination had plenty of trappings of legitimacy. It took place not at Yeshivat Maharat in Riverdale in the Bronx but at the Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein Upper School of Ramaz, the highly respected Modern Orthodox, coeducational yeshiva day school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The smicha or ordination exam was administered not by Rabbi Weiss but the biblically bearded Rabbi Daniel Sperber, professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Sperber joined Weiss on stage to award the certificates, looking as if he’d just stepped out of Mea Shearim (one of Jerusalem’s oldest and most ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods).

The graduation closed with the unabashed sounds of women’s voices lifted in song before women and men. The two beautiful women jubilantly singing could well have been harking back to the biblical prophetess Miriam leading the Israelite women in song celebrating their safe passage through the Red Sea.

Those of us who weren’t present June 16 as history was being made were able to watch it live on Ustream, with the ironic intrusion of commercials. Canines leaped and cavorted to the Purina message “Awaken greatness in your dog.” Will this crazy juxtaposition be seized on by those disgusted with the new reality of ordained Orthodox women?

Those are the risks of using digital media to bring a major event to the world. But Orthodox men in rabbinical positions have already stepped forward to hire the first maharats. And of course the next step will be congregational acceptance.

A whoop of joy went up from the crowd on June 16 when it was announced that Sally Preisand, the first woman to be ordained by Reform Judaism in 1972, was in the audience. It hasn’t been 40 years in the desert since then, though over the decades, Reform and Conservative women rabbis have discovered that pulpits remain more accessible to the men. But right now let us rejoice. The road to maharat with institutional ordination has been much shorter than most of us would ever have guessed.

Ustream live stream footage of the event (following commercial)