Dina Najman, rosh kehila (head of the congregation) at Kehilat Orach Eliezer on the Upper West Side, spends a majority of her day answering halachic questions, teaching classes expounding upon Jewish texts and counseling couples and individuals who are having personal difficulties. Her male rabbinic colleagues often consult with her on questions of bioethics, her area of expertise.
The bulk of the work that she does, she says, is not gender specific — and shouldn’t be viewed that way.
“The Orthodox community needs men and women who are skilled and can help guide their communities though education, leadership and pastoral counseling,” she told The Jewish Week.
The recent controversy surrounding Riverdale Rabbi Avi Weiss’ decision to change Sara Hurwitz’s title from maharat to rabba “has been more about the title than really about what we’re doing,” Najman says. And in debating titles, the issue of Orthodox spiritual leadership “gets gender-fied,” she says.
“The bigger picture here is that we really just want to do the work” of building and shaping Orthodox communities, she says. “It needs to be understood that [Orthodox women] are doing this in the spirit of learning, for the sake of heaven. These women, regardless of title have remained true to their mesorah [tradition], the process of halacha and halachic observances.”
Originally called “maharat,” an acronym for halachic, spiritual and Torah leader, Hurwitz has been, “a full member of the rabbinic staff” at Rabbi Weiss’ Hebrew Institute of Riverdale since last spring and had attracted surprisingly little controversy until January, when her title switched to “rabba.”
That change invoked the wrath of the haredi Agudath Israel, whose spokesman last week made clear that if Hurwitz maintains her rabbinic role the group will no longer consider the Hebrew Institute to be Orthodox. Of greater concern to Modern Orthodox congregations that, like the Hebrew Institute, are bringing women into the clergy, is the opinion of the centrist Rabbinical Council of America, of which Rabbi Weiss is a member. At its convention next month, the RCA will be discussing the broader issue of appropriate leadership roles for women.
For the half-dozen Orthodox women in spiritual leadership roles in New York and beyond, lost amid the squabble over titles has been a true understanding of the day-to-day work they have been doing and continue to undertake on behalf of the communities they serve.
Whether referred to as rabba, assistant congregational leader or rosh kehilah, these Orthodox women say that they are acting in accordance with halacha and that their public involvement “won’t destroy the rabbinate; it will enhance the rabbinate,” Najman says.
In an indication of how sensitive this issue is, several of the women The Jewish Week reached out to declined to be interviewed for this story, as they worried that the increased attention would kindle the ire of the RCA and lead to the possible dissolution of the significant inroads they have made as spiritual leaders and yoatzot halacha, halachic counselors.
“We just want to continue doing the work we’re doing,” one woman said, on the condition of anonymity.
Among those who agreed to be interviewed, many felt that focusing on the “5 to 10 percent” of rabbinic duties that they, as Orthodox women, cannot perform is shrouding the real issue, namely the fact that a growing number of Modern Orthodox women feel disenfranchised by religious life.
“Many Orthodox women do not feel that they are essential members of the community,” says Malka Adatto, a Washington Heights resident who is currently the Zusman Visiting Scholar at Ohev Sholom - The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. Adatto spends one weekend a month at the Orthodox synagogue, where she organizes ymei iyun (days of learning), delivers a series of shiurim (lectures) and gives 15-minute drashot (textual analyses) from the bima in the “drasha slot” — the time during the service when a male Orthodox rabbi would typically deliver his sermon.
When she previously served as a Sanford Lurie Fellow at The Jewish Center on the Upper West Side, she and other women spoke at the end of the service, once the men had already removed their prayer shawls.
Adatto credits the shul’s rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, for “going above and beyond to make me feel welcome and make women feel that they are full members of the community,” while acting in accordance with halacha. In addition to offering a women’s prayer group, the synagogue allows the Torah to be passed to both the men’s and the women’s sides during the main service.
“I feel like we are at a critical juncture within the Orthodox world,” says Adatto, a 26-year-old graduate of Stern College and a fifth-year student at the Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmudic Studies at Yeshiva University (GPATS). Debates revolving around women’s role within the broader Orthodox community have been going on for decades, she says, “but now we’re at the climax of this discussion.”
“Title or not, rabbi or not — that’s not the real issue,” Adatto says. “The real issue is that Orthodox women are searching [for a place within the Jewish community] and we need to address that.”
Orthodox women like herself who are taking on spiritual leadership roles serve as role models for the communities in which they live. “Even if individual women don’t feel the need or desire to be in spiritual leadership positions, they see that there are options for the broader community.”
At a symposium on the topic hosted by the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York last week, Rabba Sara Hurwitz said that the change in title — intended to provide more respect and “not require an entire paragraph to explain” — created “a firestorm that we did not expect.”
While difficult to bear, a firestorm is a “necessary step in making the change I’m very optimistic is going to happen,” commented fellow panelist, Shifra Bronznick, a noted Jewish feminist who runs a change-management consulting firm and is the founder of Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community. “Those who support the opportunity that has been created by Rabba Sara and Rabbi Avi Weiss should step in with volumes of support — both moral and financial,” she said.
The brouhaha takes the conversation focused on Orthodox women leadership out of the private sphere. “Suddenly, people are asking, ‘Where do you stand?’ ‘What do you think?’” Bronznick said. “Everyone becomes part of that conversation as we wrestle with the deep challenges that these issues pose to our tradition, to our narrative.”
Many in the Orthodox community suffer from a “level of amnesia” when it comes to recalling the historic precedent of women’s ability to answer halachic questions, Najman says. “There were many well-known women who were learned, who taught Torah, and [ruled on halachic questions] ... and this was not something that was challenged in terms of their abilities,” she says. “And I’m not talking just about Bruriah or Deborah.”
She cites the examples of Asnat Barzani, the 17th-century widow of Rav Yaakov Mizrahi who wrote a commentary on Rashi and headed her husband’s yeshiva after his death; the Dulcie of Worms, who gave public discourses on Shabbat in the 13th century, and Pearl, the wife of the 16th-century Maharal of Prague, among others. “Communities saw the need for women to function in this capacity,” she says.
It pains Najman when people say that she is not Orthodox because she is leading a congregation.
“They’re wrong. I’m a Michlalah, Drisha, Nishmat, YU person,” she says, referring to the Orthodox institutions where she has studied. She was given the ability to answer halachic questions by three Orthodox rabbis, she says, and would not have taken the rosh kehilah position in 2006 had she not had their support.
“We will make progress only if we will be honest about what [within halacha] is possible, she says. “If we hide behind what we think is pas nisht [not appropriate], as they say, and not recognize kavod habriut [human dignity] — and that involves respect for people who are committed to halacha, this will do a disservice to klal yisrael.”
For Adatto, despite the swirl of negativity surrounding the rabba controversy, she is hopeful that “while the women of my generation are fighting the battles, it will be a bit easier for my children’s generation.”
And at Yeshivat Maharat, the institution for training Orthodox women clergy, which Rabbi Weiss founded last year and where Hurwitz serves as dean, Hurwitz says that her students are not retreating or waning in their commitment to taking on women’s spiritual leadership roles within the Orthodox community.
“They are hitting the books harder,” she says. “It’s made them more committed and more directed in terms of what’s important — the learning.”
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