Todah ‘Rabba?’
01/28/10
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The Orthodox world is one letter — the letter “i” — away from calling a woman rabbi.
Sara Hurwitz, who has for almost a year filled rabbinic roles at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale alongside the Orthodox shul’s longtime rabbi, Avi Weiss, recently took on the new title “rabba” (pronounced ra-BAH).

The Orthodox world is one letter — the letter “i” — away from calling a woman rabbi.
Sara Hurwitz, who has for almost a year filled rabbinic roles at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale alongside the Orthodox shul’s longtime rabbi, Avi Weiss, recently took on the new title “rabba” (pronounced ra-BAH).

Hurwitz, 32, grabbed headlines last spring when, having successfully completed all the same coursework and exams required of male rabbinic candidates, she was named “maharat,” a new term coined from the acronym for “manhiga,” “hilchatit,” “ruchanit,” “toranit” — leader in Jewish religious law, spiritual matters and Torah.

 

The lengthy, exotic-sounding name initially came under criticism from some Orthodox feminists. They argued that Rabbi Weiss, worried about jeopardizing the job prospects of rabbis ordained at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the “open Orthodox” yeshiva he founded, lacked the political courage to simply call Hurwitz a rabbi. (The idea of ordaining women as rabbis remains highly controversial in Orthodox circles.)

“Rabba” was one of the terms initially bandied about in the name search, and last summer, a few months after Hurwitz became maharat, participants at Kolech Religious Women’s Forum Conference in Jerusalem voted that “rabba” was theoretically the best term to describe Orthodox women clergy like her.
However, Kolech’s vote was not a significant factor in the name change, Hurwitz and Rabbi Weiss told The Jewish Week.

Rather, they decided to switch to “rabba” because outside the Hebrew Institute, “no one knew what maharat meant,” Hurwitz said.
“It became difficult to function as a rabbi and do rabbinic duties,” she added. “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.”

Rabbi Weiss said, “For me ‘maharat’ meant rabbi,” but the term, “while a beautiful description of what spiritual leadership is all about” failed to catch on and was sometimes used disrespectfully.

Switching to rabba “will make it clear to everyone that Sara Hurwitz is a full member of our rabbinic staff, a rabbi with the additional quality of a distinct woman’s voice,” he said.

Asked whether Hurwitz’s new closer-to-rabbi title might have repercussions for Chovevei Torah, he said it “has nothing to do with Yeshiva Chovevei Torah. I wear different hats, and I don’t have that concern.”

In addition to Rabbi Weiss, consultants on the new title included Rabbi Daniel Sperber, a professor at Bar-Ilan University who co-signed Hurwitz’s certificate of ordination.

Hurwitz began using the new title earlier this month at the Limmud NY conference, where she appeared on two panels and taught three sessions, including one on Jewish sexual ethics and another entitled “Can Orthodox Women Be Rabbis?” Last Saturday, Rabbi Weiss formally announced the title change from the bima of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

Why not simply use “rabbi”?
“In the Orthodox world we still want to show that the role is slightly distinct, and there are a few things a female Orthodox rabbi cannot [halachically] do,” Hurwitz said.

While Hurwitz is becoming rabba, a new institution for training other women to serve rabbinic roles, will still be called Yeshivat Maharat.
“The students are still sorting through their own feelings about the title,” said Hurwitz, who is dean of the four-student yeshiva. “I understand this is new and that not everyone feels comfortable with ‘rabba,’ even those in the maharat camp.”

What’s been the reaction so far to Rabba Hurwitz?
“People are excited,” she said. “People have come to me and said it’s well-deserved, this is the right thing, that they had trouble pronouncing maharat. I’m sure there’s been a negative response as well, but I haven’t heard it directly.”

 

Last Update:

01/30/2010 - 21:44

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