A few months ago, Rabbi Avi Weiss was in a moral, political and ideological bind.A champion of women’s religious rights within Orthodoxy, he had overseen the rabbinic training of Sara Hurwitz, a six-year staff member of his congregation, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and taken pride in her completing the same course of Talmudic study as the male students of his Manhattan rabbinical school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He felt she was deserving of the title “rabbi” and would have been honored to ordain her as such.
But he also knew that taking such a step would marginalize him, and Hurwitz, in much of the Orthodox community, and on a more practical level, could make it more difficult for the young men graduating from Chovevei Torah
to find jobs in mainstream Orthodox pulpits around the country. What to do?
“I know he lost a lot of sleep over this,” said Hurwitz. “He took this decision” about what title to give her “very seriously.”
In January, two months before Hurwitz was scheduled to be conferred in a public ceremony, Rabbi Weiss suggested that about 30 leaders and activists in the Modern Orthodox community be invited to two focus groups to discuss the title she would be given.
About a dozen people attended one or the other of the two sessions (Rabbi Weiss did not), and most preferred “rabbi.” But in the end, Rabbi Weiss chose the creative (and confusing for many) title of “Maharat,” an acronym from four Hebrew words that describe a halachic, spiritual and Torah leader.
He and Maharat Hurwitz hope it will catch on over time. Both insist that the actual title is far less important than the fact that she is, in Rabbi Weiss’ words, “a full communal, congregational, religious leader, a full member of the clergy, leading with the unique voice of a woman.”
Still, there was a good deal of disappointment among those who felt this was a missed opportunity.
Speaking at the March 22 conferral ceremony, Blu Greenberg, a founder of JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance), praised Rabbi Weiss as a pioneer on behalf of Jewish feminism. But when she said she would be “less than candid” if she did not note that “many of us are disappointed” that Maharat Hurwitz “was not called ‘rabbi,’” the crowd broke into applause.
Maharat Hurwitz herself acknowledges some frustration, though she takes the high road. “I enjoy the struggle,” she noted with a smile in an interview. And Rabbi Weiss told me: “I know some women are disappointed in me.”
A good deal has been written, here and elsewhere, about the significance of this step, or misstep, at the cutting edge of a Modern Orthodox community torn between the power of halachic tradition and the impulses of 21st century American commitment to equality. In a sense, Rabbi Weiss personifies that struggle, strongly committed to both values.
But he is long used to living with difficult, even seemingly contradictory inner tensions. And this column is more an attempt to explore those tensions than focus on the “woman rabbi” issue, per se.
Soft-spoken pastoral rabbi or firebrand activist — which is the real Avi Weiss? The truth is, both. Most of his professional career has included a deep commitment to his rabbinic duties at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR), where he is much admired for his leadership in creating a community out of a congregation of some 800 families, known for welcoming the poor, the elderly and the mentally challenged in the neighborhood.
But he has been equally devoted to a fervent, anti-establishment activism for causes including Soviet Jewry and Israel, organizing solidarity rallies, traveling the world to protest terror attacks in South America, anti-Semitism in Europe, or a convent at Auschwitz, sometimes getting arrested.
Rabbi Weiss, who turned 65 this week, has mellowed to some degree. While he still speaks and acts with passionate energy, and recently returned from another round of meetings with embattled Jewish leaders in Argentina, he is more reflective these days.
He talks of regret for some positions he took years ago, like his support for those Jewish settlers, including personal friends, who committed acts of violence against Arabs in the early 1980s. And he acknowledges that his approach toward effecting communal change has evolved.
“I have gone through a transformation,” he said in an interview. “I’ve learned that there are two ways to bring change. One is from within,” like working with the establishment, “which I used to think was wrong.” For most of his career, he said, “I tried from the outside.”
Some praised him for his audacity in taking to the barricades; others said he was grandstanding and hurting the cause through negative attention.
But in the last decade, primarily in founding Chovevei Torah, he has been working more within the community, raising millions of dollars for the school and establishing a living branch of what he calls Open Orthodoxy, with its emphasis on halacha as well as a broad concern for all Jews, intellectual openness, a spiritual dimension and a more expansive role for women.
The ordination of Sara Hurwitz and scheduled opening in September of Yeshivat Maharat, a seminary for women who seek to emulate her path, are part of the natural outgrowth of this brand of Orthodoxy, according to Rabbi Weiss. Some see it as left wing; he describes it as filling a vacuum, grounded in halacha “but not frozen.”
‘Point Of Departure’
He insists that his decision to find an alternative to the title “rabbi” for Sara Hurwitz was not driven by concern that his Chovevei graduates would be further marginalized within the Orthodox mainstream. (At present, the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest group of Orthodox rabbis, does not accept Chovevei graduates as members.)
The rabbi says he does not dwell on the “negative energy” of a political dispute. He belongs to the RCA but last year co-founded the Rabbinic Fellowship, designed as a safe space for rabbis to deal with issues without pressure from the religious right, and viewed as a group his Chovevei graduates could join.
He takes pride that those graduates, now numbering 54 (from six graduating classes since 2004), have posts in well-established Orthodox congregations around the country, and serve as Hillel rabbis on campus, day school teachers and chaplains.
Rabbi Weiss feels Orthodoxy has not sufficiently “inspired our best to feel that the highest meaning is to serve others — not just Orthodox Jews, but all Jews, and beyond the Jewish community.” And regarding women, he says: “With a dearth of leadership, to only tap into 50 percent of our community is tragic.” That’s what he calls his “point of departure.”
Rabbi Weiss says his agenda regarding women’s ordination “was not the title, but changing the facts on the ground,” and he emphasizes that Maharat Hurwitz is a “full member” of his rabbinic staff in stature and salary, limited only by the constraints of halacha. “She can do 95 percent of what other rabbis do,” he said.
“There’s a sadness within me,” he added, because “Sara has achieved so much and I want the focus to be on that, not what she hasn’t achieved.”
He believes that American Jews are hungering for “spiritual leadership” and to help meet that need, he advocates a “spiritual activism,” which he defines, in his book on the subject last year, as “an act performed on behalf of the ‘other.’ Spiritual activism characterizes all action that emerges from the spiritual, divine base.”
So Rabbi Weiss hopes to keep expanding on that notion, and his women’s yeshiva will open in September. But the fact remains that the controversy over women’s ordination continues, even very close to home. The new yeshiva will be part of HIR, separate and independent from Chovevei.
In response to reports that there has been opposition among Chovevei faculty and students to her rabbinic status, Maharat Hurwitz said only, “there have been some disheartening aspects and some painful days.” And ironically, to date she is not a member of the Rabbinic Fellowship that Rabbi Weiss co-founded in 2008.
“I’d like her to be,” he said. But it’s clear there are members who are opposed. A vote is due when the group meets next.
Rabbi Weiss prefers to focus on the positive, the incremental steps that have been taken. Maharat Hurwitz will serve on the faculty of the new yeshiva; it will be a three- to four-year program focusing on “practical halacha and pastoral training” as well as rigorous Talmud study. A handful of women are expected to enroll initially, and the goal is ordination.
Perhaps by the time they graduate they will have a title other than Maharat. Maybe even “rabbi.”