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A Rabbi Named Sue

A Rabbi Named Sue

Associate Editor

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Let’s begin with an old honky tonk niggun –

Well, it was all that I could do to keep from cryin’

Sometimes it seems so useless to remain

You don’t have to call me darlin’…darlin’

You never even call me by my name…”

…And I’ll hang around as long as you will let me

And I never minded standin’ in the rain

And you don’t have to call me darlin’… darlin’

You never even call me by my name

– Steve Goodman

Some people asked me why I didn’t cover the recent “conferral” ceremony for Sara Hurwitz, the ceremony that pretended she was a rabbi, but she wasn’t.

I didn’t cover it because it wasn’t news. Not only wasn’t it news, it has become increasingly boring to watch Modern Orthodox rabbis confer upon a woman scholar some Hebrew title that most people don’t understand and never will use.

We live in a time when, even at Orthodox weddings, families hand out booklets that explain and translate each and every step of the wedding in plain English.

We live in a time when even Orthodox rabbis translate the most commonplace Hebrew phrases in their sermons.

Then these rabbis start inventing vague and obscure Hebrew titles for women —Madricha Ruchanit, Mahrarat—names that the average congregant doesn’t understand, never before encountered, and never will use in conversation.

The newest title, the most clunky yet, the doozy of ‘em all that Rabbi Avi Weiss has invented for Sara Hurwitz in honor of her completing the full rabbinic trainining, is Manhigah Hilkhatit Ruhanit Toranit.

That’s not a title, it’s a term paper.

Apparently, the more impressive the woman’s training, the more odd her title.

Shlomo Carlebach said, “In order to keep Yiddishkeit alive, we desperately need synagogues that do not give aliyot to women and we also desperately need synagogues that do give aliyot to women.”

In that spirit, I respect anyone who believes there is a serious reason for allowing women to be rabbis and I respect anyone who has serious reasons not to. This isn’t my fight.

On the other hand, I’m having a hard time rooting for anyone who believes women should be rabbis but who won’t say it out loud, who wants to backdoor it, to fake it, by calling the woman not rabbi but Manhigah Hilkhatit Ruhanit Toranit, as if that will fool the traditionalists, as if that will fool the OU shuls where YCT graduates can’t get hired, like changing the name of sickly child to Alta to fool the Angel of Death.

This was the most curious name conferral since Jane Morgan and Johnny Cash performed a medley of “A Boy Named Sue,” and “A Girl Named Johnny Cash.”

Adding insult to injury, at Rabbi Weiss’ Hebrew Institue of Riverdale, Associate Rabbi Steven Exler—who’ll be a wonderful rabbi someday but who is not a rabbi, who is still in school—is called “rabbi,” or “Rav Steven.” Sara Hurwitz, who is several years his senior, both in age and in service to the congregation, and who has completed her rabbinic training, is called Manhigah Hilhatit Ruhanit Toranit.

I can imagine her singing: “And I’ll hang around as long as you will let me. And I never minded standin’ in the rain. And you don’t have to call me….”

I hear that the loudest lobbyists against calling her “rabbi” came from Agudath Israel of America Yeshivat Chovivei Torah, the rabbinical school founded by Rabbi Weiss. Oh, they’ll tell you privately, as will Rabbi Weiss, she’s a rabbi, and we treat her like one, except she’s not, or maybe she is, now you see it, now you don’t.

The irony is that YCT was founded to be the avante-garde of “Open Orthodoxy.” (”Open Orthodox” is their idea of a clever Maharat-type name for Very Modern Orthodox.) But after the YCT Guy Maharats graduate, several of them say they want jobs not in the avante-garde but in mainstream OU-YU congregations, the kind that give out lifetime contracts and a house.

Trouble is, mainstream OU-YU shuls want mainstream rabbis with mainstream training. YCT students get excellent, even brilliant pastoral training. Rabbi Dov Linzer, YCT’s dean, has a profound appreciation of Jewish education, and not just for the elite. Some at YCT can teach Torah beautifully, particularly Davidi Jonas, whom I’ve heard the most and whose shiurs I try not to miss. Nevertheless, not all but too many YCT Maharats lack gravitas; not all but too many are concerned with leftist politics rather than Jewish education and Jewish concerns; not all but too many offer sermons that are anecdotally and intellectually shallow; not all but too many are self-indulgent when leading services. (Self-indulgent? One YCT Maharat, when leading a Kol Nidre davening, decided on his own to chage the time-honored melody of Kol Nidre to a tune that only he knew, leading to an almost tangible disappointment among many congregants. Imagine going to shul on Kol Nidre night and hearing, instead of the inspirational classic, a YCT whim, as if Kol Nidre night was a summer camp where a YCT counselor might decide to lead Shabbos davening to “Puff the Magic Dragon.”)

OU-YU shuls have a right, and I respect their right, to choose rabbis with whom they are simpatico, rabbis who are traditional about everything from Kol Nidre to women’s ordination. So hey, YCT, I’m going to give you a clue: If some of you aren’t getting hired by OU shuls, or not getting admitted to the RCA, it’s not because of Sara Hurwitz. So you might as well call her rabbi, if that’s what you really believe. You’re already known for being a left-wing yeshiva. Be radical and proud. Some people might admire your guts. Calling her Alta Maharat won’t fool anyone. You’re already in a street fight with OU-YU. Why get cute?

The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale is in the Bronx so here’s some Bronx advice: If you’re going to show a knife in a fight, you better use it. If you pull a knife on Caesar, you better be the last one standing. If this be treason, make the most of it.

To call Sara Hurwitz a Maharat is to pull a knife but not use it, hoping OU-YU doesn’t quite figure out what’s going on. Who’s kidding whom?

Once there was another avante-garde rabbi who led one single shul, out of which came an avante-garde rabbinical school. That rabbi’s name was Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The rabbis he ordained couldn’t get jobs in Hillels. They couldn’t get jobs in OU-YU shuls. Did that rebbe pull punches about who he was and what he felt the Jewish people needed? No. Did his students whine about not getting interviews at mainstream shuls and being blacklisted by the RCA? No. Not hired by Hillels? They opened Chabad Houses off-campus, attracting 500 kids on a Friday night, and instead of Chabad worrying about Hillel, Hillel worried about Chabad. Not hired by OU-YU shuls? They opened their own Chabad shuls all across the country and on every continent, serving more Jews than anyone on the planet. Chabad rabbis didn’t worry about admission to the RCA. The other way around. RCA rabbis did the worrying when Chabad came to town. That’s what tough rabbis – Chabad rabbis – did, and that’s what a real rabbinical school leader, such as the rebbe, demanded of his students: The guts to go it alone, appealing to only the people and God in Heaven.

Rabbi Weiss hints that he considers her a rabbi, anyway, that she’s full clergy at his shul. Meanwhile, the Guy Maharats of YCT won’t admit her with full membership into their rabbinic association that Rabbi Weiss himself founded and controls. So is this conferral really taken seriously even within Avi’s own world or is this just another “Open Orthodox” three-card monte?

As for the title “Maharat,” is there one good reason that we can’t return to the workshop and come up with a better name? And why should it be up to the rabbis to come up with a name? Especially if they come up with names like Maharat – Manhigah Hilkhatit Ruhanit Toranit? Why shouldn’t the name come from real amcha, we the people, including women people?

Jewish writers looking for a nom de guerre were able to come up with terrific names like Sholom Aleichem and Achad Ha’am, names that all Jews immediately comprehended, names that exuded warmth, honesty; names that seemed to emerge from the people themselves, not from an insular huddle at Chovivei.

In the spirit of those Jewish writers, I offer Rabbi Weiss and all Orthodox feminists a catchy title to honor the highest level any woman can attain in Orthodox spiritual leadership. It is a title that will delight the Jewish people who will immediately recognize it, every bit as much as they did Sholom Aleichem or Achad Ha’Am.

The title? Blu.

Unlike Maharat, everyone knows what Blu means and evokes: The mother of Orthodox feminism and its velvet revolution; a woman of spiritual majesty and a holy earthiness; a visionary, a scholar and tender poet; a fount of impeccable character, charm, wisdom and integrity.

At every shul, people will say, “Where can we find someone like Blu?” “When can we hire a Blu for our shul?”

It is a title with greater nobility than “rabbi,” if less time-honored. To call a woman “rabbi” doesn’t tell me anything. Too many rabbis are dullards and pedestrian, obstructionists or authoritarians. The name Blu has clarity. The only Blu I know is an angel flying close to the ground.

I can hear it now, all across America: “Good Shabbos, Blu Sara.” “I have a question, Blu Adena.” “Thanks for being such a fine role model for my daughter, Blu Devorah.” “You’ve been an inspiration, Blu Batsheva.”

I know it’s not for a newspaper guy, just someone in the crowd, a lower case achad ha’am, to tell the captains and viceroys of Very Open Orthodoxy what to do. But the next time you’re at a Shabbos table with “one of the people,” say: “Maharat — Manhigah Hilkhatit Ruhanit Toranit,” or “Blu.” See if one makes faces furrow, and if the other makes ‘em smile.

Here’s what Blu evokes: “I am yours and my dreams are yours…”

And Maharat? “… I have dreamed a dream and I don’t know what it means.”

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