A rose by any other name, wrote Shakespeare, would smell as sweet. A rabbi by another name is an infinitely more complicated matter.
Abby Brown Scheier, Ruth Balinsky Friedman and Rachel Kohl Finegold are the three women who graduated Sunday from Yeshivat Maharat, a yeshiva that purports to “confirm Orthodox women as spiritual and halachic leaders.” They will not be called rabbis. They will not even be called rabba — that name belongs exclusively to the school’s dean, Sara Hurwitz, whose title caused such a furor in the Orthodox community that Rabbi Avi Weiss, who taught her, agreed not to bestow it on anyone else.
Please see related story, “Maharats March Into Jewish World.”
These three women, and any who follow them, will be called maharats. The yeshiva coined the word, which is a Hebrew acronym for manhiga hilchatit ruchanit toranit, one who is teacher of Jewish law and spirituality.
Will these women be able to get the same level of respect as male rabbis? In the Orthodox community, reactions have been mixed. Congregation Oseh Shalom in Washington, D.C., and Congregation Sha’ar Hashomayim in Montreal have created maharat positions on their staffs and hired these first graduates from the yeshiva to fill them, but other synagogues have not welcomed the idea of women as clergy.
Many Orthodox leaders argue that the domain of the Jewish woman is in the home, serving as spiritual leader to her family.
“The only public synagogue roles that exist in a shul are rabbi, cantor, Torah-reader and gabbai, all of which, considering halachic requirements, are necessarily the province of menfolk,” Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel, a haredi, or fervently Orthodox, leadership and policy umbrella organization, told The Jewish Week. “It’s like an army, where one has prominent foot soldiers and generals on the front lines but intelligence experts and analysts ‘behind the scenes,’ whom one might never see or even be aware of. One group’s job puts them in the public eye; the other’s does not. But both groups’ roles are equally important.”
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the centrist Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, agreed. “Halacha doesn’t change when two or three or four rabbis wake up and say ‘we want to ordain women,’” he said. “You have to be careful with dramatic change.”
Maharats Brown Scheier, Balinsky Friedman and Kohl Finegold are all realistic about their roles in the Orthodox world. Maharat Brown Scheier, who is married to a congregational rabbi and was raised by a rabbi and a Jewish educator, has seen organized Jewish life from multiple perspectives.
“I don’t know if it’s so much about parity,” she said about being identified as a maharat. “It is about working within the halachic framework, letting women do what they can do while also being aware of where the community is.”
Maharat Brown Scheier is the only one of the three who will not be going to a synagogue. She will continue working as a Jewish educator, but her fellow graduate, Maharat Kohl Finegold, will be joining the staff of Montreal’s Congregation Sha’ar Hashomayim, where Maharat Brown Scheier’s husband is the rabbi.
Maharat Kohl Finegold was already working in an organizational and educational role at a synagogue when she met Rabba Hurwitz and decided to pursue the four-year program at Yeshivat Maharat.
“I’ve felt a clarity around the fact that I am clergy,” she told The Jewish Week. “There’s something about the formality of this moment and of this degree that people recognize.”
What’s more, some congregants feel more comfortable discussing their problems with a woman, Maharat Kohl Finegold noted.
Rabbi Shafran acknowledges that in some cases — such as questions about niddah, the laws concerning menstruation and sexual relations — women prefer to consult with another woman. Rabbi Shafran takes no issue with women being educated and informed on these topics, but he stops short of calling them clergy or thinking that they need a specific title.
Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, the rosh yeshiva, or head, of Yeshivat Maharat, acknowledged that Jewish law is difficult to interpret on questions such as the limits of women’s roles.
“Listen, in America we passed Brown vs. Board of Education,” he said, referring to the Supreme Court case that desegregated American public schools and declared that “separate but equal is inherently unequal.” “But halacha is not fully egalitarian.”
Ultimately, though, Rabbi Fox sees a future where women in leadership roles in Orthodox synagogues will be commonplace and unremarkable. “I often joke that one of my students will put me out of work.”
Maharat Balinsky Friedman did internships at the Manhattan JCC and the Hebrew Institute in Riverdale during her yeshiva studies.
“My professional goal is to help Jews engage with Judaism in a way that’s meaningful to them, so I strongly value teaching because it’s really important to read different texts and ideas and approach them in a way that everyone can engage with,” she said.
Among her tasks at the JCC was to help shape the way it approached holidays, by organizing events that would speak to different groups. Following graduation, she’ll be headed to Congregation Oseh Shalom in Washington, where she’ll be “speaking on Shabbat, teaching, involved in the mikveh and issues related to marriage there. I’ll also be doing some outreach to the community.”
Maharat Balinsky Friedman met and married her husband while a student at Yeshivat Maharat, and she notes that he admired her commitment — not surprising, considering that they met during a co-ed study session. Maharat Balinsky Friedman’s husband will accompany her to her new job in Washington.
As the maharats build their community, careers and families, they’ll be creating a new generation of young Orthodox men and women who envision their synagogue differently. There’s a running joke that all of Yeshivat Maharat’s students have daughters — Brown Scheier has four girls, while Kohl Finegold just gave birth to her third. (The teachers, however, all have sons — Rabbi Fox has four.) For Kohl Finegold, who lacked female Orthodox clergy members as role models, it’s inspiring that her daughters will grow up in a different kind of Orthodox community.
Of course, the yeshiva’s critics and supporters all agree that the success of the school’s mission depends on what happens to its graduates once they complete their education and strike out into the world.
“I think the maharat title reflects the learning that we have done,” Maharat Brown Scheier said, “which is comparable to any Orthodox rabbinical school.”
Lilit Marcus is a freelance writer who founded the website Save The Assistants and wrote a book by the same name about workplace survival and success strategies. She is a freelancer for The Wall Street Journal and other publications.