Toda, Rabba

The long fight for Orthodox women’s leadership


Judaism can be a hard faith for a woman to follow; separate but equal can be a hard pill to swallow.

Not being able to serve as a witness and having to stand behind a curtain during prayers, even though my male classmates and I received the same education, have always made me wonder if I mattered in Judaism.  After several battles with unsympathetic Jewish studies teachers, I gave up the idea of being Orthodox and feminist.

I was surprised, then, when liberal Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss ordained Sara Hurwitz as a Rabba, or female rabbi, giving her a leadership role unheard of for Orthodox Jewish women since the days of Deborah the Prophetess. And like Deborah, Rabba Hurwitz’s leadership has led to a fight.

The battle lines have been drawn and tensions have run so high that Rabba Hurwitz is considering giving up her title. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) has introduced two amendments at its general conference that would put a kibosh on any future rabbot. The first would expel anyone who “attempts to ordain as a member of the rabbinate, or to denominate as ‘rabbinical’ or as ‘clergy,’ a person not eligible to serve as such…” The second would bar officer positions from rabbis “whose principles or tenets of faith are antithetical or contrary to the policies and positions of the RCA,” implicating Rabbi Weiss.

These proposed amendments provide no avenue to aspiring female religious leaders and they serve to divide the Orthodox community: right-wing synagogues will ignore liberal ones. Instead of threatening to throw people out of organizations and leaving women to choose between Orthodoxy and feminism, we should search for a more productive solution to the conflict between tradition and modernization.

The contingent against female rabbis, however, does not consist only of misogynist geezers from the tenth century who want their women barefoot and pregnant. Orthodox tradition makes several rational arguments against ordaining women.

For one, according to traditional Jewish law, women are not obligated to perform positive time-bound commandments, which would limit their role in the rabbinate: they do not have to attend prayer three times a day or lay tefilin. Women cannot act as spiritual leaders for services that they are not obligated to perform. Volunteering to perform a ritual is not the same as obeying a commandment. I take comfort in my right to choose whether or not to adhere to certain commandments that my father must obey. As Stan Lee said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” In order to act as rabbis, the women’s Orthodox community would need to take on a whole set of new obligations in order to place them on equal footing with the male sector of the community. I for one am not ready to start praying three times a day with tefilin in order to earn the right to a woman rabbi.

Others argue that women don’t need formal titles to lead in the Orthodox community, referencing the example set by Nechama Leibowitz, a famed torah commentator who wrote during the latter half of the 20th century and was not ordained as a rabbi but nevertheless gained preeminence as a Jewish sage. In an interview with the Jewish Week, however, Hurwitz said that “having the title allows me to do my job better,” since it signifies to people unfamiliar with her that she is a spiritual authority figure.

Orthodox women deserve a title that recognizes their education. There must be a place for women to have authority over issues that concern them directly, instead of relying on an all-male religious court for issues such as divorce and family purity.  Several leaders have suggested the less controversial title of yo’etzet halakha, or halakhic advisor, which would recognize educational achievement without necessitating the yoetzet to take on obligations heretofore restricted to men.

New organizations are proliferating that certify women as Jewish legal advisors. One of these is Nishmat in Jerusalem, where a panel of Orthodox rabbis certifies graduates as advisors on issues of sexual purity.  While as of now men have full control of this institution, potential exists for the female graduates to certify others in the future.

A more controversial women’s certification program is Rabbi Weiss’s Yeshivat Maharat, which trains women to be spiritual leaders and halakhic authorities, similar to a rabbi but without the charged title.

The title of maharat, however, is a cop-out. If women had this attitude in the suffragette era, I wouldn’t be able to vote today.  Hopefully women becoming rabbis will become just as accepted as women voting, but I don’t expect to see that in my lifetime.

We need a compromise to respond to the current reality. The halakhic advisor position is one that has potential to give women a voice without forcing them to ignore centuries of tradition, and we should support this effort. Hopefully once that title gains traction, women can begin to enter the rabbinate.


One Older Response to “Toda, Rabba”

  1. Adam
    April 29, 2010 at 2:55 pm #

    Great article. I’m especially glad that you quoted Hurwitz (and featured a picture of her)–so many other articles I’ve read put all the focus on Weiss, leaving Hurwitz looking like a helpless woman who the men fight over.
    For what it’s worth, I think you’re right: even though it didn’t catch on, this move will be a shock to the system that will help it evolve. Next time a woman is ordained, it will be just a little bit less shocking…

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