Sara Hurwitz’s ‘Rabba’ Title Sparks Orthodox Jewish Condemnation

In early March, just six weeks after Sara Hurwitz was granted the title of “rabba” (a feminized version of “rabbi”), that title is in jeopardy. Hurwitz, an Orthodox Jew and one of three leaders of an Orthodox congregation in Riverdale, was ordained last year by Rabbi Avi Weiss. At the time the Jewish world took note, though it wasn’t until she was given the titular equivalent of rabbi that the controversy really began. 

At her ordination last year, Hurwitz was given a newly-created title, the acronym Mahara”t, which stands for Manhigah Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit, “Leader in Halakha [Law], Spirituality and Torah,” but it never caught on in the wider Jewish world. It was a term no one had ever heard before, and it was difficult to remember. In addition, many women (and some men) argued that there’s something offensive about giving a woman a different title than accrues to the men who complete the same course of study. As Hurwitz recounted, “When I walked into a funeral home, it was easier to say ‘rabbi’ than explain what a maharat is and go through the whole discussion.” So her mentor, Rabbi Avi Weiss, announced early this year that henceforth Hurwitz would be known as Rabba (it’s actually the term most Israeli women rabbis use for themselves, though it’s largely unknown outside of Israel.).

In addition to heading up the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Weiss is the director of the liberal Orthodox rabbinic school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. The students at Chovevei are strictly halakhic in the Orthodox manner, but tend to be politically progressive. (The first Chovevei guy I ever met had just returned from doing tsunami recovery work, which shattered my stereotype of Orthodoxy’s insularity.) It’s this atmosphere of political progressivism which allowed Weiss to take the leap of ordaining Hurwitz in the first place.

But the head of Agudath Israel, the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) denominational body in the United States, put Weiss in cherem—a kind of communal excommunication—for giving Hurwitz the rabbi-equivalent title this winter. “These developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition,” the organization said in a prepared statement, “and must be condemned in the strongest terms.” Any congregation served by a woman in a rabbinic position, they said, cannot be considered Orthodox. Rabbi Weiss has struck a deal with the Rabbinical Council of America and agreed to stop conferring the title “rabba,” though Agudath remains unsatisfied. Whether or not Hurwitz will keep her title remains to be seen.

Ordaining Women

In 1935, Regina Jonas of East Berlin was ordained a rabbi to serve the German Jewish community. But after the Shoah decimated the German Jewish population, no more women were ordained until the Reform movement began ordaining women in 1972. The Reconstructionists followed suit two years later. The second Jewish Renewal rabbi ordained by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was a woman (Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, in 1981). And the Conservative movement ordained its first woman in 1985. As of 2008, according to the Boston-based Jewish Advocate, women outnumber men in liberal rabbinic schools.

But in the Orthodox world, ordaining women remains a radical move; perhaps because Orthodoxy is a culture in which men and women assume divergent gender roles in largely separate social spheres. The mainstream Orthodox viewpoint holds that God created men and women to be different according to divine purpose. (For an insider’s perspective on this, try the anthology Bread and Fire [Urim, 2008], edited by Rivkah Slonim.) Within that paradigm, for a woman to choose a position of communal leadership serving people of both genders is seen as immodest at best, and at worst an inversion of the divine order.

Of course Orthodoxy isn’t monolithic on this or any other issue. There have long been voices within Orthodoxy arguing for the ordination of women, among them Orthodox rebbetzin Blu Greenberg, who’s been outspoken on the need for Orthodox women’s ordination since the 1980s. Though Orthodox gender rules preclude women leading mixed-gender worship, the role of rabbi includes many other functions which women can perform even within an Orthodox framework—and there’s nothing in halakha (Jewish law) which explicitly prohibits women’s ordination.

A small handful of women have been ordained within the Orthodox world, though they’ve responded to their groundbreaking role in a variety of ways. Mimi Feigelson was ordained in 1994, but doesn’t use the title “rabbi” out of respect for the social structure of Orthodoxy. (She currently teaches at the American Jewish University in California.) In 2006, Rabbi Haviva Ner-David was ordained by Ari Strikovsky in Tel Aviv. (For more on her journey, I recommend Life on the Fringes [JFL Books], her memoir published in 2000.) And now there’s Rabba Sara Hurwitz, or Mahara”t Hurwitz, as the case may be.

Last summer I participated in a retreat for emerging Jewish and Muslim religious leaders. The ten rabbinic students who attended came from across the Jewish spectrum—including one woman who is studying in the new Yeshivat Maharat, the school founded by Avi Weiss to ordain more Orthodox women as “full members of the rabbinic clergy.” The Mahara”t student I met was smart, committed, and passionate. She’ll receive the same education as her colleagues over at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and I have no doubt that she, and her classmates, will do brilliant things. But they may have to do those things with the contrived title of Mahara”t—at least for now.

Most of the Jews I know assume that women’s ordination will become an accepted part of Orthodox practice someday. (Granted, most of the Jews I know are outside of the Orthodox world looking in.) The rest of the Jewish world has only been ordaining women for forty years, barely an eyeblink in the grand scheme of rabbinic history. Surely this is just another glass ceiling which, once broken, will seem ridiculous in retrospect.

But the brouhaha over Sara Hurwitz’s brief stint with the title Rabba shows that the use of any variation on the title “Rabbi” to describe a woman is still largely unthinkable within a mainstream Orthodox framework. Maybe by the time my infant son grows up, my female Orthodox rabbinic colleagues will be called rabbi just like those of us in the other denominations… but I’m not holding my breath. 

*This article was unintentionally published before it was fully edited. Parts of the text have been changed. RD regrets the error.