Pioneer Rabba Sara Hurwitz: Orthodox Women Rabbis Are Here to Stay

The story of Orthodox women in our clergy today has already been written. Trying to write us out of the narrative is no longer an option.

Rabba Sara Hurwitz speaking in front of Orthodox Jews and black Christians at The Bayit.
Natan Dvir

When the RCA released its resolution this past Friday condemning the Orthodox ordination of woman as violating its view of Jewish tradition, I was immediately transported back to 2010, when the RCA presented its first such statement.  It was less than a year since I had been ordained. At that time, I recall feeling isolated and unsure of the future of Orthodox women in my position, of which there were very few.

Today, just five years later, so much has changed.  I no longer feel isolated, and I am 100 percent certain of the future of Orthodox women serving as clergy in halakhically committed communities across the Unites States.

The RCA’s 2010 statement propelled me into a world of uncertainty. There were many days when I wanted to crawl under my covers and stay there.  I did not want to be the focus of any public controversy. I just wanted to teach Torah and help people at their most vulnerable and joyous moments. 

When the controversy broke, I had already been working in spiritual leadership at the Bayit -The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale - for eight years. Listening to and seeing women teach and lead was already part of the fabric of my shul.  And so I was surprised by the threatening phone calls and emails I received. To be sure, I did feel a tremendous amount of support from my beloved community, from those who understood first hand what Orthodox women could add to the national and communal religious conversation. I was also emboldened by the many letters of support I received from young women across the U.S. and beyond who felt that they now had a role model, and could one day aspire to a place of participation or even leadership in their communities. But it was, by and large, a lonely time.

Today, the outpouring of support from communities all over the world is heartening.  A petition, We Support Women in Orthodox Leadership Roles, was swiftly launched asking people to sign their names in support of female Orthodox leaders, and garnered 2,000 supporters in less than 48 hours.  Letters from young women have circulated with words of encouragement.  And perhaps most gratifying, the many women currently serving in positions of spiritual and educational leadership have united in their support for teaching Torah. A worldwide project, #Womenleadersfortorah, to learn the Talmud was launched, and a siyum has been planned where women can come together, united by the common cause of learning Torah.

In 2010 I found myself teaching communities about the halakhic permissibility of women serving as members of the clergy. My role models were Deborah the Prophetess, Beruriah, and Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, the Maiden of Ludmir. I taught about Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, who ruled unequivocally in 1993 that “Women can be of the Gedolim (great leaders) of the generation and serve as halakhic decisors.” (Responsa Binyan Av, 65:5.)

Today, I talk about the future. Because now we can also look to modern female scholars and leaders as role models, such as Rosh Kehilla Dina Najman, who leads her own shul in Riverdale, or Reb Mimi Feigelson who has her own following in LA.  Not to mention the eleven Yeshivat Maharat graduates who are leading communities, such as Rabba Yaffa Epstein, Director of Education at Pardes in the U.S., or Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman who is making an impact on her community in Ohev Sholom, The National Synagogue, in DC.

In 2010, Yeshivat Maharat was the only institution training women for ordination. We opened our doors with just three courageous women, unsure if they would find jobs working for the Jewish community. Our program was small, but we were doing important work.

Today, Yeshivat Maharat is entering its seventh year and along with the 11 who have already graduated, another 22 are studying for ordination. Seventeen Orthodox synagogues across North America have hired our graduates and students as interns. Our graduates and students work at schools, international educational institutions and community organizations.  And today, there are at least two other institutions that train and ordain Orthodox women.

The conversation is no longer about whether women can be members of clergy. That was in 2010. Today, women actually are members of the clergy. Our graduates have jobs and they are having an enormous and positive impact on their communities. As one male congregant of Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal wrote: “Speaking from personal experience, how did the rabbinate ever work without these gifted and dedicated women?”

The story of Orthodox women in clergy today has already been written. Trying to write us out of the narrative is no longer an option.

In last week’s Torah portion, God blesses Abraham with something special: “And the Lord blessed Abraham bakol.” (Bereishit 24:1.)

The Talmud in Bava Batra (16b) raises the question: what exactly was Abraham blessed with? What does the word “bakol” - which is translated as “everything” - mean? Rabbi Meir suggests that Abraham was blessed because he had no daughter.  Rabbi Yehudah, in contrast, taught that Abraham was blessed precisely because he had a daughter.  And, finally, the Talmud concludes with opinion of the “others,” who state that Abraham was actually blessed with a daughter whose name was “Bakol.”

This three-way argument, in some ways, represents our Orthodox community today. Some see little room for women in Jewish public life. Others are ready to acknowledge the potential value and talents of women. And yet “others,” the amcha, see the blessings of women actually serving in leadership positions - the blessings of a Jewish daughter with a voice, bakol.

Today, the Orthodox community is similarly blessed with daughters of Abraham - women who are already leaders with a voice.  True, there are those who would like to write us out of our communal narrative. But it’s too late.  2015 is not like 2010.

Rabba Sara Hurwitz is Dean and co-founder of Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox yeshiva to ordain women as clergy, and is on the Rabbinic staff at The Bayit - The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.