On January 27, 2010, Rabbi Avraham (Avi) Weiss, of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, in the Bronx, New York, announced that, effective immediately, the title held by Sara Hurwitz, a member of the Orthodox synagogue’s clerical staff, was being changed, from “maharat” to “rabba” – the female form of “rabbi.”
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It was Weiss who, in June 2009, had ordained Hurwitz, at the end of a five-year private course of rabbinical study. At the time, he gave her the newly coined title of “maharat,” an acronym for the Hebrew words meaning “educational, religious and spiritual leader.”
Traditional Jewish law, halakha, withholds from women a number of rights and obligations held by men — all men, not only rabbis — including the ability to lead prayers and to serve as witnesses. The ordination of Sara Hurwitz did not challenge this distinction.
But, as Hurwitz herself said at the time, those roles “can be filled by knowledgeable non-clergy, so the ability to perform these functions should never be seen as a prerequisite for being a spiritual leader. Beyond these few halakhic constraints, women, with the appropriate training, can perform the other 95 percent of the tasks performed by Orthodox rabbis.”
A little over half-a-year later, Weiss explained that, even though, as far as he was concerned, “Maharat means rabbi,” he had observed that, in practice, the title itself had not “resonated” with the public, and had even been used “in a disrespectful way.” Hence, he and Rabbi Daniel Sperber, who together with Weiss had ordained Hurwitz, had decided to change her title to “rabba,” the feminine form of “rav,” Hebrew for “rabbi.”
“This will make it clear to everyone,” wrote Weiss, “that Sara Hurwitz is a full member of our rabbinic staff, a rabbi with the additional quality of a distinct woman’s voice."
Semantic sea change
Hurwitz, born in South Africa in 1977, had come with her traditional though not Orthodox family to the United States as a teenager. In high school, she took a test that evaluated her vocational aptitudes and concluded that she was suited for the clergy. “I laughed,” she recalled in 2009, at her conferral ceremony. At the time, “an Orthodox woman working in a shul, as a spiritual leader just didn’t exist!”
Now, she was Rabba Hurwitz, a title that would also be conferred on graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, the women’s yeshiva founded in September 2009 by Rabbi Weiss and led by Rabba Hurwitz.
Whereas Hurwitz’s ordination in 2009 had been largely greeted with approval within the Orthodox community, the announcement of what should have been only a semantic change — the switch from “maharat” to “rabba” — attracted immediate protests, most significantly from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA,) the country’s largest organization of Orthodox rabbis, of which Weiss is a member. It issued a statement declaring that, “We cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.”
Going even further, the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America decreed that “Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.”
Although Avi Weiss, through his long career as rabbi and Jewish activist, had earned a reputation as a fighter, this time, he backed down — sort of. After negotiations with the president of the RCA, he announced, on March 5, 2010, that, “it is not my intention or the intention of Yeshivat Maharat to confer the title of ‘Rabba’ upon its graduates.”
Although Hurwitz would continue to carry that title, he said, future graduates of the program would be called “maharat.”
For his part, the RCA’s president, Rabbi Moshe Keletnik, noted his satisfaction that Weiss had clarified that “neither he nor Yeshivat Maharat would ordain women as rabbis,” and that its graduates would not receive the title of “rabba.”
In the five years since then, Yeshivat Maharat has ordained another five women with the title of “maharat.” According to the school’s website, its purpose is to train women who “could achieve positions of leadership within the Orthodox community that were on par with the rabbi.”