Avi Weiss’ main point for having a woman on his rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale is that “90 percent” of what a rabba (woman rabbi) does is the same as what a rabbi does. In Avi’s shul, a rabba gives sermons from the pulpit, teaches classes, visits the sick, provides spiritual and halachic guidance, and works with bat mitzvah girls, and Sara Hurwitz does that all quite nicely. So why not give her honor equal to her colleagues who are men? Why, he asks, should we care what Agudah and right wingers say, when we are so egalitarian, progressive and clever?
OK, fair enough. A lot can be said for women doing what Sara Hurwitz does, but Avi Weiss really doesn’t think so (even if he can be quoted saying so).
What? But I thought….
That’s what most people thought because the media has been concentrating on Avi as a feminist Dennis the Menace, not Avi as the non-feminist conformist. If, as Avi says, a woman can do everything of rabbinic substance that a man can do, and can study for the rabbinate like a man can do, why then won’t Avi Weiss allow a woman to enroll in his rabbinical school, Yeshivat Chovivei Torah? Forget Agudah and the RCA for a minute, by Avi’s logic alone, by his own halachic logic, why are women allowed to act as rabbis in his shul but women are not allowed to enroll in his school? He won’t let a woman even take a YCT class in the same room as a man, but she can nevertheless give sermons and lectures and rabbinic guidance to those same men in synagogue? How does that make any sense?
And if he Avi excludes women because he’s trying to keep YCT within reach of every other all-male Orthodox rabbinical school, because his yeshiva has to care about what the rest of Orthodoxy says, how does he then turn around and tell his congregation that we don’t have to care what the rest of Orthodoxy says, we only have to care what Avi says? Why does his rabbinical school have to live up to communal Orthodox standards but his congregants don’t? Are his congregants not supposed to care about the Orthodox consensus but his school must? Does he think the congregants are there for Avi alone, or that his Orthodox congregants are actually Orthodox and might give a damn about the Orthodox halachic and communal process which requires even the illusion of community consensus, and not just Avi’s solo minority? In what legal system is a minority opinion considered law?
Does a shul belong to the rabbi or to the congregation? Do a rabbi’s super powers include the right to change anything at all about a synagogue’s religious practice without a congregational vote? If a rabbi can unilaterally undo this Orthodox tradition, what else is within the powers of Avi’s imperial rabbinate? Orthodox Jews, even Modern Orthodox Jews, want a spiritual leader, not a Cat in the Hat to take over the whole house and rearrange the furniture, balancing fishbowls on umbrellas, until the RCA and Agudah — Thing One and Thing Two – have to clean up the mess he made of everything.
Some rabbis think their congregations are bored, waiting to be entertained, that we’re just waiting for someone — the rabbi — to excite us. Except most congregants are not bored. We take God and prayer and tradition seriously. That is what excites us. Orthodox Jews — even Modern Orthodox Jews — are traditionalists and serious by nature, at least when it comes to religion. We’re not looking for and we don’t need a Cat in the Hat rabbinate.
Why, if it’s so important to Avi that Jewish women have the same advanced Jewish education as men, why doesn’t he allow his Yeshivat Maharat (a school with no building of its own and scant resources) to share the building and faculty and resources of his Yeshiva Chovivei Torah, which not only has a sweet budget but also occupies a new building built for it by Avi’s shul? (It officially was built and paid for by the synagogue for the synagogue but, wink, wink, some of the building fund money ended up in the yeshiva’s pocket. One major giver, not a YCT major giver, gave a honorable sum to his synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, for its building fund but got a thank you letter from YCT, such as YCT sent to its patrons. Golly, how could that have happened? The donor didn’t like it. He wasn’t alone. It was an honest mistake, say the people at YCT. Well, maybe it was just a mistake.)
If Avi cares about equality for women scholars, why does Avi’s YCT use veto power — thumbs down to women — over whether Yeshivat Maharat can even rent a room in the same shul building where YCT rents — and why is that YCT’s decision to make if the building is supposely the synagogue’s? And if the building and the yeshiva and the synagogue are all under Avi’s direction, E Pluribus Avi, then all the more curious.
There are women who have told me they prefer that Yeshiva Maharat remain, for now, in Manhattan, because the women have jobs and responsibilities that make a shlep to the new Riverdale building difficult, much as they would like to be in that new building. So then the question that Avi should ask Avi, why are male rabbinical students at YCT subsidized for full tuition and living expenses for the duration of their years of study at YCT, making it possible for the Boy Maharats to live in Riverdale but not the Girl Maharats? When does that policy change?
Does Avi really think that the Orthodox community won’t notice that Avi Weiss, leader and founder of YCT, is the same Avi Weiss who supports and ordains women rabbis? Does he think he can protect his YCT graduates from now being seen – because of Avi – as something less than Orthodox? While some YCT students, such as Davidi Jonas (now spirtual leader at the Kingsbridge Center of Israel) have indeed emerged as serious and inspiring Orthodox leaders by any standard, other YCT products, such as Darren Kleinberg, have indeed gone rogue, participating in a non-halachic conversion, having learned from Avi that Orthodoxy is whatever one man says it is, even if Avi ended up distancing himself from Kleinberg when the heat got too hot.
Someone asked me, “You’re Avi’s friend, are you on Avi’s side?” I answered, sure, if you’ll tell me what Avi’s side is? (Avi won’t return e-mails, phone calls or requests for clarification.) Is Avi’s side that women rabbis have a place in his shul and we don’t care what Orthodoxy says, or is Avi’s side that women don’t have a place in his rabbinical school because we do care what Orthodoxy says?