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Orthodox Women Rabbis
by Any Other Name

The title “maharat” is Rabbi Weiss’s compromise with the powerful mainstream Orthodox organization the Rabbinical Council of America. Things turned nasty three years ago when Weiss gave Sara Hurwitz the title “rabba”— the Hebrew feminine form of “rabbi.” The shalom bayit agreement: He wouldn’t do it again and Rabba Hurwitz could keep her title. “Maharat” is the Weiss-created Hebrew acronym he had originally conferred on Hurwitz, manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit toranit, female leader of Jewish law, spirituality and Torah.

What matters is that the two maharats seeking pastoral positions with pulpit responsibilities have already been hired by Orthodox synagogues: Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman at the National Synagogue in Washington, Ohev Shalom, and Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold at Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal, Canada’s second largest synaogue She was hired by Rabbi Adam Scheier, the husband of the third graduate, Maharat Abby Brown Scheier, who will continue teaching there

Rabba Hurwitz is now dean of Yeshivat Maharat, founded by Weiss in 2009, the same year Hurwitz was ordained and the year before the RCA exploded when Weiss gave her the title of rabba. How strategic of Weiss—the longtime spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale whose Jewish activism goes back to the 1960s Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry–to establish an entire institution dedicated to ordaining Orthodox women.

Certainly Sunday’s ordination had plenty of trappings of legitimacy. It took place not at Yeshivat Maharat in Riverdale in the Bronx but at the Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein Upper School of Ramaz, the highly respected Modern Orthodox, coeducational yeshiva day school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The smicha or ordination exam was administered not by Rabbi Weiss but the biblically bearded Rabbi Daniel Sperber, professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Sperber joined Weiss on stage to award the certificates, looking as if he’d just stepped out of Mea Shearim (one of Jerusalem’s oldest and most ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods).

The graduation closed with the unabashed sounds of women’s voices lifted in song before women and men. The two beautiful women jubilantly singing could well have been harking back to the biblical prophetess Miriam leading the Israelite women in song celebrating their safe passage through the Red Sea.

Those of us who weren’t present June 16 as history was being made were able to watch it live on Ustream, with the ironic intrusion of commercials. Canines leaped and cavorted to the Purina message “Awaken greatness in your dog.” Will this crazy juxtaposition be seized on by those disgusted with the new reality of ordained Orthodox women?

Those are the risks of using digital media to bring a major event to the world. But Orthodox men in rabbinical positions have already stepped forward to hire the first maharats. And of course the next step will be congregational acceptance.

A whoop of joy went up from the crowd on June 16 when it was announced that Sally Preisand, the first woman to be ordained by Reform Judaism in 1972, was in the audience. It hasn’t been 40 years in the desert since then, though over the decades, Reform and Conservative women rabbis have discovered that pulpits remain more accessible to the men. But right now let us rejoice. The road to maharat with institutional ordination has been much shorter than most of us would ever have guessed.


Ustream live stream footage of the event (following commercial) www.ustream.tv/channel/yeshivat-maharat-graduation