Maharats March Into Jewish World

First-ever ordination at Orthodox women’s seminary seen as ‘sea change,’ but steep hurdles persist.

06/19/13
Special To The Jewish Week
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It was a rite of spring, as graduations are.

But this one, like Stravinsky’s 100-year-old musical score, was a controversial and bold break with tradition and all that came before.

On Sunday morning, the Ramaz School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side was the location for the inaugural graduation ceremony of Yeshivat Maharat, a landmark event in Jewish history. (Ramaz leased the space, with authorization from Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, its principal, and a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi who has neither publicly endorsed nor criticized Yeshivat Maharat.)

For the first time, members of the Orthodox community ordained three women as halachic and spiritual leaders of the community.

Please see related story: History Yes. Respect, well ...

More than 500 people poured in from all over the United States and Canada, while countless others watched online as the graduates were granted semicha, or ordination, with the bestowal of a parchment and the recitation of a specially chosen biblical phrase: “Our sister, may you become a multitude.” (Genesis 24:60)

Their title, however, is not “rabbi” (or “rabba,” the feminine form). Rather, in a concession to the opponents of female ordination, the three graduates and the other 11 candidates in upcoming classes, are to be known as maharat, a Hebrew acronym that stands for “manhiga hilchatit ruchanit toranit,” or female legal, spiritual and Torah leader.

The matter of a newly minted title did little to dampen spirits as a diverse group including men in dark suits and prominent Orthodox and Reform rabbis, embraced in the crowded lobby and turbaned women in summer dresses bubbled with joy. One woman in the crowd called this “a completely surreal milestone.” Rabbi Daniel Smokler, an event organizer, said, “This changes the face of Orthodox Judaism, quite literally. There’s never been anything like it, and there’s more in the pipeline.” 

 

 

On stage, the three graduates, Rachel Kohl Finegold, Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Abby Brown Scheier and their mentors looked out on a crowd of cheering supporters from across Jewish denominations. There were shout-outs to Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, and to the Reform Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first American woman (and the second woman ever) to be ordained a rabbi.

Opening the ceremony, the seminary’s rosh yeshiva (yeshiva head) Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, began with a reference to the centennial of Igor Stravinsky’s “Les Sacre du Printemps” (“The Rite of Spring”), a now-accepted ballet score once considered so radical that “it brought people to blows.” A short video emphasized that the maharat stands on the shoulders of the great Chofetz Chaim and Orthodoxy’s once controversial Beis Ya’akov schools for girls. Speakers harkened back to groundbreaking “study groups in Drisha Founder Rabbi David Silber’s living room” and the early dreams of Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance Founder Blu Greenberg for a more egalitarian Orthodox leadership.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, Yeshivat Maharat’s champion and founder, made the point that “there is no halachic prohibition,” against ordaining women, exulting in the “dream fulfilled in our lifetime.” He repeated a phrase from the Song of Songs like a mantra: “Hashme’enee et kolech,” or let me hear your voice. He added, “Your voice as poseket is sweet,” a not-so-subtle response to critics on the right who would be appalled by female legal arbiters and who often invoke the prohibition of  “kol isha” to silence women entirely.

 

In her closing remarks, Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the school’s dean  (and the only woman to receive the title rabba before its revocation) said, “This is the beginning of a new reality. This is what the Orthodox community looks like with men and women standing side by side. This room is made up of visionaries and risk-takers.”

The room rose as one to sing the Shehecheyanu blessing. A group of women paused in the lobby to join in a circle dance before the celebration continued with a buffet on the spacious outdoor terrace.

While all would agree that the women are closing a gap and meeting a real communal need, some in the audience spoke frankly of the hard-wired systemic obstacles still facing the maharats, who will be accepted only among the most liberal of Orthodox. Underlining that fact, the centrist Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America released a statement last month saying, “we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the rabbinate, regardless of title.”

A prominent Orthodox educator with more progressive sensibilities, who asked not to be identified, told The Jewish Week, “This is like graduating medical school, but not being allowed to call yourself a doctor.”

Aaron Friedman, a yeshiva-educated real estate lawyer from Teaneck, N.J., whose eyes brimmed with tears throughout the ceremony, championed the women’s high degree of learning as a bulwark against feared backlash. “If the haredim [ultra-Orthodox] could aim attacks on that level, they would. But no one is saying they aren’t learned enough.”

Beyond the beit midrash, economics weigh in. While the demand for employment is so far keeping up with the supply — all three graduates and at least one member of the next class are employed — these positions are largely being underwritten by wealthy women supporters. The maharats are assuming subordinate educational and pastoral responsibilities (as do most young grads). It remains to be seen if any will be granted institutionally budgeted, senior positions within the Orthodox world in the near future.

With that in mind, the three maharats are careful to minimize, rather than challenge, the still extant limitations. They will not be counted in a minyan, called to the Torah or serve as witnesses. Rabba Hurwitz nonetheless insists that their clerical duties have “a 100 percent overlap” with male rabbis, adding that it is not their task “to make up the minyan, but only to be sure that there is one.”

It remains an open question as to how the ordination of Orthodox women will influence the evolution of the clergy’s role and the community it serves. Ruth Balinsky Friedman predicts that work-life balance will have to adapt. She said, “I was the only maharat who didn’t have to breastfeed two minutes before the ceremony.”

Meanwhile, all the assembled marveled at Kohl Finegold arriving from Montreal with her third daughter, who is less than two weeks old. (Brown Scheier, infant in tow, shares a “fun fact”: Seven babies have been born to 14 maharat students and all of them are girls. “We like our trend,” she smiles meaningfully.)

Maharats’ roles as mothers may influence systemic change as they increasingly arbitrate Jewish law. Elana Maryles Sztokman, JOFA’s executive director, explained, “Women are expected to be community-minded caregivers and nurturers. That experience is often absent from halachic thinking, but women will bring that with them.”

Orthodox feminist pioneer, Greenberg, who hailed the graduation as “a sea change,” sees possible ramifications for the persistent issue of the aguna  (a woman whose husband refuses her a divorce.) “We need to move away from gender typology,” she said. “But women do look at some issues differently. It is interesting that most of the aguna activists have been women, and all of the poskim [halachic decisors] are men. Perhaps if women poskot see the urgency, they will find solutions.”

Activist women outside of the Orthodox community are vocal in their enthusiastic support.

Interviewed before the ordination, Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, founder of NAHAR, an egalitarian minyan on the Upper West Side, hailed it as a vital step in healing rifts. “Halacha does not evolve in a vacuum — it happens on multiple levels,” she said. “One-on-one relationships are hugely important.”

Gail Reimer, executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive, told The Jewish Week, “Change happens slowly, over time, first steps are so important. They bring a paradigm shift.”

Rhonda Spinack, director of the Jewish Women’s Theatre, added, “For progressives, they are already rabbis.”

And Shifra Bronznick, founder of Advancing Women Professionals, said, as she was leaving the ordination, “Finally women will be co-authoring the Jewish narrative. I literally felt the world shift to make room.”

It seems inevitable that this ordination will widen an already apparent split between Modern Orthodoxy and the haredi community. Aaron Friedman ventures that the maharats may inadvertently “influence the ultra-Orthodox to upgrade the caliber of their pulpit rabbis, just to keep up with the standard set by these young women.”

One thing is certain, say observers: there is no going backwards. As Rabba Hurwitz said in her charge to the graduates: “It took many years for the Orthodox community to mature to this point. Go forward. As you march, the entire community walks with you.”

Susan Reimer-Torn blogs at susanrtorn.wordpress.com and is the author of the upcoming memoir, “Maybe Not Such a Good Girl.

Last Update:

07/02/2013 - 03:57

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Why drag the Chofetz Chaim into this?
He wrote MANY MANY books and nothing about that.
You know they use his name?
Because he is not around today.
He would tell them great- now you are a REBITZIN.

It is unfortunate that this institution neglected to mention Rosh Kehilah Dina Najman who has been leading an Orthodox shul for a number of years. She is the martra dAtra of Kehilat Orach Eliezer She also was given orthodox ordination - but, she doesnt seem to look for publicity and just does the job. Where is there support for communities like hers who trail blazed through, creating opportunities for leadership not dependent on gender but by skill. Why was she written out of this narrative?
The Jewish week as well as the New York Times did apiece on KOE, celebrating this major accomplishment and movement within Orthodoxy. Just do the job. As chazal teach: say little and do a lot.

"It seems inevitable that this ordination will widen an already apparent split between Modern Orthodoxy and the haredi community"

This article itself relates that the major modern orthodox body, the RCA, rejects female ordination. This phenomenon is fringe and not accepted by the establishment even within modern orthodoxy. The line above should more accurately read: "It seems inevitable that this ordination will widen an already apparent split between the Open Orthodoxy movement and the rest of Orthodoxy"

The reason we must shun them and that is a HUGE mitzvah to shun them is that whatever they learned or teach is suspect and not to be listened to or repeated.All they say is invalid from the beginning- not Jewish at all. The people they learned from have no authority in Torah- they were taught anti-Torah ideas.

Two questions as we are about to enter the Three Weeks, a period when we mourn the destruction of both Temples, with Chazal attributing the destruction of the Second Temple to sinat hinam. Who are you to decide who should be placed in cherem? And, can you name one, just one, anti-Torah idea that these women were taught. I am looking forward to reading your reply.

"...a not-so-subtle response to critics on the right who would be appalled by female legal arbiters and who often invoke the prohibition of “kol isha” to silence women entirely." (!!!!)

Is that a joke? Name a single "critic on the right" who has invoked kol isha to "silence women entirely"! Kol isha is universally interpreted, even by all contemporary "critics on the right", as prohibiting women singing specifically. Such shameless editorializing. How did The Jewish Week even let a line like that in? In any event, it is hilariously ironic that the verse Rabbi Weiss quotes "let me hear your voice" is precisely the verse understood by the Talmud to prohibit kol isha!

Calling themselves orthodox does not make them orthodox. There are 3 new clergypersons in the Neo-Con movement. http://rabbipruzansky.com/2013/06/14/the-rise-of-the-neo-cons/

Is the comparison between this situation and the establishment of the Beis Yaakov system appropriate? Sure, there was grumbling when Sarah Schenirer started the Beis Yaakov system, but it came from lay people: she had the blessing of the leading "ultra orthodox" religious authorities at the time. Did all the people involved in the situation described by this article also receive the blessing of the leading "ultra orthodox" religious authorities of our era?

The celebrated history of Bais Yaakov and Sarah Scheiner only represents the second chapter in Bais Yaakov history. The first chapter is a little darker. A group of women in the Bronx decided that the only way to make certain that Yiddishkite survives in America is to educate women as well as men. Their efforts were (for the most part) fought by the rabbinic establishment. The bully tactics used to oppose the establishment the first school to educate Jewish women do not represent a model of Jewish community behavior.

It is not necessary for them to receive the blessings of the leading "ultra orthodos" rabbis. They have received the blessing of their great Rav, Rabbi Avi Weiss. I'm sure they have no illusions of acceptance from all spectrums of frumkeit, & the beauty of yiddishkeit is that they don't need it. If their rav has sanctioned it ok, this is a right & just path for them to follow.

A violation of Tzinua. There are so many ways that women can contribute to their community that allows them to use the intellect why then do they want to take on men's roles? They are allowing themselves to be defined by secular society which has always valued the male role more than the female role. Judaism however, equally values both and recognizes the uniqueness of the feminine role in the continuation of our very existence. This move will only lead to much infighting and serve to further fracture the frum community and weaken rather then strengthen us.

One look at the picture of these women should put your concern about tzniut to rest. As for taking over men's roles, could you a bit more specific. Do you mean the men role of the Chief Rabbi of Israel who is currently under hourse arrest for money laundering? Do you mean the men's roles of the rabbis being led away in handcuffs here in the States for money laundering and tax evasion? Do you mean men's roles in child molestation? Do you mean men's roles in looking the other way, physically attacking and intimidating those who dare to complain about child molesters? Do you mean men's roles in refusing to give battered women a get or extorting huge payments to issue a get? Do you mean the men's point o view of spitting on a modestly dressed eight year old girl and calling her names... as she walks to Hebrew school?

Kindly be more specific in your accusations of lack of tzinut of these women. As for fracturing the frum community, you are introducing what is known as a "heckler's veto". In other words, a point of view should not be expressed because someone else may disagree with it.

As for your point about following secular society roles, I must confess that I do not understand it at all. What does seculr society have to do with a religious choice that these women and their teachers made?

Look, Debbie -- no one is forcing any woman to become a maharat any more than any man is forced to become a rabbi. Likewise, no one is obligated to follow these women or to hire them. Why begrudge them their notable, hard earned accomplishments and simply wish them hatzlacha. After all, all they want to do is to help Am Israel and to teach Torah. What is so awful about this?

There were sheva nevios, & even shoftos-were they too in violation of isha tzenua babayis? Who defined "rabbi" as a man's role? Giving halachic guidance, a listening ear & heart, tending to the communities needs all sound pretty gender neutral to me. As teachers, mothers, & women who practice halacha we are already giving halachic guidance daily just on a smaller scale.

Shame on anyone who fights over differing halachic opinions. We can differ, have true machlokes, say that we don't agree, & even think it's completely wrong, but remember it has been sacntioned by G-D fearing halachic individuals. It's about respect. It's about women knowing halacha, being empowered by & with halacha.

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