Orthodox Women Rabbis?
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Orthodox Women Rabbis?

Now that the dust has cleared, for the moment, on the flare-up over a rabbinic title for Orthodox women, one can view this week’s agreement between the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and Rabbi Avi Weiss as a step forward, or backward, for advancing women in leadership roles within the Orthodox movement.

The background: a year ago Rabbi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, conferred the title of "maharat" (an acronym for Hebrew words connoting worthiness to serve as "a halachic, spiritual and Torah leader") on Sara Hurwitz on her completion of the full curriculum for rabbinic ordination.

He indicated at the time that she would serve as "a full member" of the clergy staff of the synagogue, restricted only by halachic boundaries that apply to women’s performance of rituals, such as officiating at a wedding.

Since then, as Rabbi Weiss recently noted, he has "on numerous occasions, in talks and symposia around the country, said as clearly as I could that maharat means rabbi, and that Sara Hurwitz has received semicha [rabbinic ordination]."

In addition to her teaching and pastoral duties within the synagogue, she now heads the fledgling Yeshivat Maharat for women, with a handful of students.

But it was only in recent weeks, after determining the maharat title had not "gained traction" in the wider community, that Rabbi Weiss decided to use the title "rabba" for Hurwitz. As a result, a firestorm of controversy erupted in the Orthodox community.

The Council of Torah Sages of the Agudath Israel of America, a haredi organization, issued a statement condemning the act "in the strongest terms," asserting that "any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox."

(A second statement affirmed the position, whether the woman is called "Maharat" or "Rabba.")

This put pressure on the RCA, the rabbinic arm of the modern/centrist Orthodox Union, to take action as well.

After several weeks of discussion between the RCA and Rabbi Weiss, the rabbinic group (of which he is a member) issued a statement noting that the controversy has been resolved. Rabbi Weiss agreed that "neither he nor Yeshivat Maharat would ordain women as rabbis and that Yeshivat Maharat will not confer the title of ‘Rabba’ on graduates of the program."

In addition, the RCA reaffirmed its "commitment to women’s Torah education and scholarship at the highest levels, and to the assumption of leadership roles within the Jewish community."

The step backward, at least to those seeking to advance the cause of women in the Orthodox rabbinate, is Rabbi Weiss’ pledge not to ordain women as rabbis; the step forward is that Sara Hurwitz retains her title — she may well be the world’s only rabba — and continues to function as she has, namely as a rabbi in all but name.

Rabbi Moshe Kletenick, the president of the RCA, told The Jewish Week on Tuesday that if a woman functions "in the role as a rabbi, depending on what those functions are, that would be a breach of the mesorah [tradition], and unacceptable."

He would not address the specifics of Rabba Hurwitz, though, saying he was not fully familiar with her role. He noted that the RCA will take up in detail "the parameters and guidelines" of women’s leadership roles in the synagogue and in the community at its national convention April 25-27 in Scarsdale. Not a moment too soon, as the situation remains confusing.

In the meantime, Rabbi Weiss, in a talk last Shabbat, apologized to his congregation for the controversy, acknowledging that he acted too hastily and without sufficient consultation in changing Hurwitz’s title to rabba. But he reiterated that she would continue to function as a full member of the rabbinic staff, as she has until now.

So what has changed, and beyond the political and ideological jousting, are there any lessons to be learned from this episode?

We can see that the red-line issue of women rabbis still burns hot in the Orthodox world, though few are advocating for it with the passion and attention they give to resolving the agunot dilemma or allowing women to pray at the Western Wall. For example, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which holds its international conference this weekend here, has been low-key on the topic.

What is clear is that Orthodox women are advancing in areas of Torah scholarship in ways and numbers unheard of in previous times, and becoming increasingly accepted in roles of educational leadership. Perhaps as the Orthodox community is exposed to the level of learning and commitment from this new cadre of serious, thoughtful and committed scholars and educators, the notion of women rabbis, however defined, will become more inviting than frightening.

For the moment, though, let us appreciate the peaceful resolution of the latest debate, and focus on both defining and advancing the roles of leadership for women in the Orthodox synagogue and community.

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