Newly-minted Female Orthodox Rabbis to Be Called ‘Rabba’

Two women ordained this week will be joining the only woman who had the title until now.

Emil Salman

Two women ordained as Orthodox rabbis this week will be entitled “rabba,” the female form of “rabbi.” They will be joining the only woman who had the title until now, Sara Hurwitz of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale’s synagogue in the Bronx.

Rahel Berkovits barely managed to say a couple of sentences from the short sermon she had prepared for her ordination ceremony at the Jerusalem Orthodox center Har’el before choking with tears.

“Hey, real rabbis cry,” she said after taking a breath, and congregation laughed. “I didn’t think it would happen, didn’t dream it would happen. It snuck up on me so quick,” she said.

Berkovits said that in her private and religious life she carries out her egalitarian principles, but smicha (rabbinical ordination)? That involves students who are part of the masculine rabbinical establishment, she says.

Berkovits is one of four fledgling Orthodox rabbis, two of them women, who were ordained this week by Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber and Rabbi Herzl Hefter, founding head of the Har’el center. The four were the first to graduate as rabbis from the center’s co-ed smicha program.

Berkovits and Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy, the other rabba, will be joined by six more women to be ordained as rabbis in New York’s Yeshivat Maharat on Sunday.

The eight women obtained their Orthodox ordination in a private co-ed smicha program. The title is not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate or the traditional rabbis’ organizations in the United States, but is receiving growing recognition in liberal religious communities.

Ordaining women to positions similar to that of rabbi began a few years ago among various religious communities in Israel and in one American yeshiva. They were all careful not to use the title “rabba,” which sounds Reform or Conservative (the first Conservative woman rabbi was ordained 30 years ago), or “rabbanit,” which refers to a rabbi’s wife. Instead, they were called “halakha adviser,” “halakha teacher” or “spiritual leader.”

Hurwitz, a member of the rabbinical faculty of the Riverdale synagogue and the only Orthodox rabba until this week, was ordained in 2009 by her mentor, Rabbi Avi Weiss, one of the leaders of the “open Orthodoxy” movement in the United States.

Weiss was slammed for ordaining her by rabbis’ organizations and the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, which threatened to stop recognizing his conversions to Judaism. He continued to ordain women, but in the last four years has given the title of “maharat” – Halakhic spiritual Torah leader, in Hebrew – rather than rabba.

Weiss founded the women’s Yeshivat Maharat in Manhattan, where Hurwitz serves as dean beside yeshiva head Rabbi Jeffrey Fox. Every year the yeshiva ordains its graduates as maharats, but this year’s six graduates have opted for the title rabba. Three of the six are Israelis – Dr. Anat Sharbat, Avital Engelberg and Yaffa Epstein.

“We had a long discussion about it,” says Engelberg. “After Rabbi Weiss ordained Rabba Sara Hurwitz, maharat was a compromise proposal. But the graduates felt it was no longer so frightening to come nearer to the real name, ‘that which isn’t uttered.’ Step by step our confidence is growing, due to the fact that more women are dealing with halakha and more Orthodox synagogues in the United States want women as part of their rabbinical staff.

“Maharat was suitable for a certain period, but we acquired our title with much labor,” she says.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to call myself a ‘rabba’ in Israel as well,” says Engelberg, who plans on continuing as a teacher in the Midrashiya Girls High School in Jerusalem and in the Ein Prat Midrasha.

The men and women heading the liberal Orthodox stream insist on waging the battle inside their camp, seeing it as an evolutionary process. Sperber, a key figure in liberal Orthodoxy, examined each of the graduates in Jerusalem and New York.

He knows the women will be called “rabba,” but does not hide his reservations. “I don’t like the title rabba, because it’s a Conservative and Reform title and it’s simply confusing,” he says. “It’s hard to find the right word. Maharat is a little strange and we’re dealing with the issue, but we don’t call them rabba.”

Hefter says the main significance in ordaining the two graduates at the Har’el center is the recognition of what they acquired before entering his midrasha. “They have both been teaching Torah for many years and I’ve been teaching them and know them since 1992. Their ordination will not change their careers, but it’s a semi-institutional recognition of the numerous years of investment and devotion,” he says.

“We must not be afraid of the title ‘rabbi.’ I’m impatient. I’m too old. If the Torah doesn’t move forward with the people, it will remain in the desert, and that will be a disaster,” he says.