They are the new Rabbanut, so to speak.
While Rabba Sara Hurwitz of Riverdale’s Hebrew Institute (HIR) made headlines in 2010 as America’s first Orthodox “Rabba,” the negotiated title for female rabbi, she now has company.
In its newsletter last week, the 600-family Orthodox congregation in the Bronx welcomed the newly appointed Rabba Dr. Anat Sharbat, the second woman to assume the role in the congregation. In her part-time capacity, Rabba Sharbat, who holds a doctorate in Talmud from Bar-Ilan University, will be assuming all pastoral responsibilities, including counseling, lecturing, and presiding at lifecycle events. She could not be reached for comment.
Though the appointment met with a unanimous vote of approval from the synagogue’s board of trustees (with three abstentions), the move seems to renege on a prior agreement made between Rabbi Avi Weiss, rabbi emeritus of HIR, and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest coalition of Orthodox rabbis, that Rabba Hurwitz would be the one and only “rabba.” Subsequently the term “maharat” was used, a Hebrew acronym for “leader of Jewish law, spirituality and Torah.”
In 2010, Rabbi Weiss, then a member of the RCA, backtracked from his near-ordination of female rabbis under extreme pressure from the Orthodox right, agreeing instead to the rabba designation. At the time, the RCA expressed satisfaction at the controversy’s resolution and support for “appropriate” leadership roles for women.
Rabbi Weiss has since resigned from the RCA, citing the council’s refusal to accept graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), a more liberal rabbinical school that he founded, into its ranks. The leadership at HIR stressed that the agreement made between Rabbi Weiss and the RCA “was made under extreme duress” and remains completely independent of the synagogue.
Still, though the current leadership of HIR is under no obligation to honor Rabbi Weiss’ promise, the latest appointment signals an ongoing divide between different flanks of Orthodoxy, specifically with regard to the roles of women.
Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA, said he is “very concerned” about the divide, though he declined to comment directly on Rabba Sharbat’s appointment, citing Rabbi Weiss’ lapsed RCA membership. The synagogue maintains its status as an Orthodox Union-affiliated synagogue, though the OU declined to comment on the appointment.
“The growing tensions and unilateral moves have served to divide us in ways that are not healthy, helpful or good for the Orthodox community,” Rabbi Dratch told The Jewish Week via email. He noted that every “communal decision” must strike a balance among tradition, the needs of individuals, and the “integrity of the larger community as a whole.”
Rabbi Steven Exler, senior rabbi at HIR, expressed delight about Rabba Sharbat’s appointment, and stressed that the move had “overwhelming” support from the synagogue’s executive committee and board of trustees. (Rabbi Exler, a graduate at YCT, is not a member of the RCA.)
“We truly feel that the title Rabba, in our Bayit, represents Rabba Anat’s full rabbinic leadership in a woman’s voice,” he wrote to The Jewish Week in an email. “We would be honored if other synagogues felt similarly and chose to use this title for their female clergy as well.”
While the appointment met with little internal resistance this time around, it is believed that some members left the shul in 2010 when Rabbi Weiss first pushed for Rabba Hurwitz’s spot. A member of HIR, commenting off the record so as to avoid the politics of the situation, said that the congregants who left felt Rabbi Weiss’ decision was “authoritarian” and placed the progressive value of “feminism” over “democracy and transparency.”
“Many left over how Avi handled it, as much as over the halachic issue,” the person said.
Still, in the five years since Rabba Hurwitz’s controversial appointment, Orthodox feminism has made great strides. Yeshivat Maharat, founded in 2009 by Rabbi Weiss as the first Orthodox institution to ordain women as full spiritual leaders, successfully placed all of its 11 graduates at congregations around the United States, Canada and Israel. Though most assume the title Maharat, several others join Rabba Hurwitz in assuming the title Rabba.
“Five years ago, we took a big step in advancing women’s spiritual leadership. Like every big step, it came with risks,” HIR’s president, David Braunstein, told The Jewish Week via email, reflecting on the fierce backlash the shul incurred after Rabba Hurwitz’s 2010 appointment. “Looking back, it was definitely the right step for us. Our shul is healthier than ever.” He noted that membership is up 20 percent since 2010.
Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), described a “cross-pollination” effect between women ordained here and in Israel. Though Yeshivat Maharat remains the only orthodox institution in North America to ordain women, several institutions in Israel are appointing women to positions of religious authority.
“The more that individuals and communities experience what it is like to learn from women, the more they realize what had previously been missing,” said Weiss-Greenberg. “We’ve been missing out on the intelligence, passion and talent of half of our community for too long.”