Do 1 Rabba, 2 Rabbis and 1 Yeshiva = a New Denomination?

March, 08 2013

As mainstream Orthodoxy moves to the Right,
a liberal faction gains momentum

The audience watches with rapt attention as Sara Hurwitz, a slim woman in a demure gray and black suit with matching hat, approaches the lectern. Two months earlier, Hurwitz became the first woman ever to be appointed as a full member of the clergy in a mainstream Orthodox synagogue. The rabba, as she is called, has come to the March 2010 conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) in New York, to publicly address the controversy swirling around her.

“I stand here, filled with emotion,” the 33-year-old mild-mannered mother of three begins as she looks out at the sea of knitted yarmulkes, snoods and other head coverings matched with long skirts, pantsuits and designer jeans. The audience of Orthodox women and men, including pioneers of the Orthodox feminist movement such as JOFA founder Blu Greenberg, can empathize. “The support I feel in this room is palpable,” Hurwitz says warmly. She’s right; the room is pulsating with joy that another gap between men and women in Orthodoxy has been bridged.

But outside this room, the reaction to Hurwitz’s January 2010 appointment by Avi Weiss, the senior rabbi of a Riverdale, New York Orthodox synagogue, was anything but supportive. “Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox,” proclaimed the 10-member Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Israel of America—deemed American ultra-Orthodoxy’s most authoritative rabbinic body—in a February public statement. Its director of public policy, Avi Shafran, was outraged: “Tznius [modesty] isn’t a mode of dress,” he said. “It includes the idea that women are demeaned and not honored when they’re put in the public eye and put on a pedestal. The position he [Weiss] has created violated the concept.” Whether or not the ordination violates a specific halacha [Jewish religious law] is unimportant, Shafran explained. “There is nothing in the Shulhan Aruch about keeping a cat in the aron kodesh [the holy ark in the synagogue]. It’s technically permitted, but it’s wrong to do.”

While a condemnation from Agudath Israel was not unexpected, more centrist Orthodox voices were equally unforgiving. “The ordination of women as rabbis represents a serious and inappropriate breach with our sacred tradition and is beyond the pale of Orthodox Judaism,” said Steven Pruzansky, vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), a 1,000-member group that claims to be “the largest Orthodox rabbinic organization in the world,” and rabbi of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey. He went even further on his blog, writing that the role of female clergy “not only mimics Reform, but in fact is a throwback to pagan ideologies.”

The quick and furious backlash surrounding the elevation of Hurwitz to the level of rabbi is just one flare-up of many in the Orthodox community in recent years, one that has as much to do with definitions of leadership and authority as it has to do with gender. But the subject of women clergy is particularly charged—and represents deepening rifts within modern Orthodoxy. “Women are the group that help us figure out where we stand,” says Jonathan Sarna, professor of Jewish American history at Brandeis University. “They are a kind of synecdoche for modernity.”

As Orthodoxy has defied predictions that it would vanish into the American melting pot, many of its more liberal adherents have perceived their leaders as shifting to the right in their religious views. In response, they have formed their own groups, yeshivas and most recently a rabbinical council under the banner “Open Orthodoxy.” Their insistence on placing women in leadership positions, making conversion less onerous and being more inclusive in general, leads to the question: Will the strands of Orthodoxy dedicated to these causes remain part of the Orthodox community or become a separate movement, joining the panoply of denominations making up American Jewry.

While Sara Hurwitz does her best to navigate the waves caused by her new title by keeping a low profile, her mentor, Avi Weiss has no such compunction. At 66, the craggy-faced, soft-spoken rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) is no stranger to controversy. An activist who has protested the Soviet Union’s treatment of Jews, Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he has been arrested at least 11 times. But he is best known in the Jewish world for his go-it-alone attitude.

A standard-bearer of liberal Orthodox Judaism, Weiss coined the phrase “Open Orthodoxy” in 1997, and 13 years later his vision is unchanged. “People everywhere are searching for a Judaism that is grounded, that is rooted, that is steeped in tradition and history—as long as it’s not frozen,” he says in his study in Riverdale, a lovely and very Jewish section of the Bronx. “And in the same breath, people are looking for fluidity, they’re looking for openness, but an openness that has very clear parameters. And that’s the tension, that’s the balance between being open and Orthodox.”

Open Orthodoxy “does not mean Orthodox-lite,” he says. “It is following the law but seeing the importance of the outside world: To paraphrase [the early 20th century] Rabbi Kook, there is no such thing as the ‘unholy’, there is only the holy and the not yet holy. The study of English, the study of chemistry, the study of art, all have the potential to be consistent with kedusha, to be holy.”

In 1999, Weiss put his beliefs into action, establishing Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), “Lovers of Torah,” a rabbinical school to serve the Modern Orthodox population and the first—and only—major alternative to Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) in New York. Weiss was ordained at Yeshiva University, the pre-eminent bastion of an Orthodoxy that, unlike more fundamentalist Orthodox sects, does not strive to be hermetically sealed from the outside world. The school opened in 1928 based on the principle of Torah U’Madda—literally, Torah and Science—the belief that one can be both engaged with the world and with the study of Torah. But because Yeshiva University and the Orthodox movement as a whole have moved towards the right, says Samuel Heilman, author of Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy, a space for Weiss’s Open Orthodoxy rabbinical school emerged.

Yeshiva University (YU) and other Orthodox institutions have not been welcoming: At first they accused YCT of not being sufficiently rigorous in scholarship and of caring more about counseling than mastery of texts. Rumors circulated that YU leaders were coercing synagogues not to hire YCT graduates and blackballing those that did. But during the following decade, tensions between the two seminaries eased, and most of the 63 graduates of YCT found jobs as Jewish high school teachers or Hillel educators, if not pulpit rabbis. During this period, Weiss believes that YCT has become more than a response to Yeshiva University’s growing conservatism. “Anything that remains a reaction will not endure,” he says. “Chovevei Torah has now carved out its own very proactive agenda.” But as soon as the fuss over YCT quieted down, Weiss took a new step, actively bringing women into the spiritual leadership of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

Sara Hurwitz was a congregational intern at HIR who grew up in an Orthodox home in South Africa, then moved with her family to Boca Raton, Florida, at the age of 13. She likes to tell a story about taking a career orientation test when she was in high school that told her she was destined for the clergy. She could only laugh because, as an Orthodox Jewish woman, that calling was not an option.

After graduating from Barnard College and completing the intensive three-year Drisha Scholars Circle program, the closest thing to a womans’ yeshiva, she threw herself into her role as a congregational intern at HIR. When she decided she wanted to enhance her role at the synagogue, she began studying the material covered in Orthodox rabbinical exams with Weiss. Once she finished the course of study in 2009, Weiss ordained her as the first maharat, a Hebrew acronym he devised himself to stand for “halachic, spiritual, and Torah leader.”

In the summer of 2009, Weiss and Hurwitz founded Yeshivat Maharat to train women to become “spiritual leaders and halachic authorities” in their Orthodox communities. Four women entered the inaugural class. A few months later, Weiss changed Hurwitz’s title to rabba, a term used in Israel among Reform and Conservative rabbis as a feminine form of the Hebrew word rav or rabbi, but which had never been used before in America. “Rabba” had been chosen by participants at the Kolech Religious Women’s Forum 2009 conference in Jerusalem as the best title for Orthodox female clergy.

The debate over whether women should be rabbis is not new to American Jews. The Reform movement ordained its first female rabbi in 1972. This sparked discussion in the Conservative movement, leading to the contentious decision nine years later to ordain women at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Nor is the subject new to the Orthodox community. Hurwitz is but one of many Orthodox women who have reached a high level of Jewish learning and taken on rabbi-like roles. In Israel, women have functioned as rabbinical advocates, or to’anot rabaniyot, since the early 1990s. Later in that decade, the Israeli women’s organization Nishmat began to train female halachic advisors, or yo’atzot halachah, qualified to answer questions regarding the laws of Jewish ritual purity.

These developments have not been restricted to Israel. In the past 15 years, women have taken on greater congregational roles in a handful of Modern Orthodox synagogues in the United States. While each synagogue has chosen a different title—community scholar, assistant congregational leader, education fellow, spiritual mentor—all of these positions include elements of what pulpit rabbis do, including teaching and pastoral care.

The debate boils down to traditional Jewish law that asserts that a woman cannot serve as a witness, be a judge or be part of a minyan, the 10 men required for communal prayer. Those opposing female clergy use this as a basis for prohibiting women from being rabbis. Orthodox supporters of female clergy, like Hurwitz and members of JOFA, argue that a rabbi is not required to fulfill every duty but rather to serve as the spiritual head of the community. “I don’t think there’s a 90 percent overlap [between a rabbi’s role and what women can do],” says Hurwitz. “There is a 100 percent overlap. The rabbi’s job isn’t to make the minyan. It’s to make sure there is a minyan.” She adds that women can also serve in roles not open to men, such as accompanying a woman to the mikveh.

A month after Hurwitz made her debut as rabba at the JOFA conference, the RCA held its annual meeting, closed to the press since the hot-button issue of women and leadership in the Orthodox community was the main topic on its agenda. Speculation was high that a showdown might take place. The New York Jewish Week reported unnamed sources saying that the RCA was considering expelling Weiss. Would he and other rabbis who supported women clergy but were clearly in the minority go along with the majority or leave en masse in defiance?

The question was resolved two weeks before the meeting when, after negotiations, Avi Weiss made a deal with the RCA. He announced that he would no longer use the title rabba for those in Yeshivat Maharat although Hurwitz would retain her title. He and Hurwitz agreed to amend the materials used by Yeshivat Maharat to use the term “confer” rather than “ordain”—although Hurwitz insists that there is no practical difference between them.

At the end of its conference, the RCA passed a resolution that praised the increased Torah education of women and encouraged more “halachically and communally appropriate professional opportunities” for women in the Orthodox world, while stating categorically: “We cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of title.” The RCA did not provide halachic reasoning for the prohibition.

“The RCA statement was a success in that it was a step forward, but we need more steps in that direction,” says JOFA President Judy Heicklen. But will there ever be female Orthodox rabbis? “We do not want to put a timetable on it, but we are now cautiously optimistic that this is a matter of when and not if. At this time we are not going to focus on title, but rather celebrate the leadership roles women are attaining.” Ruth Balinsky, a member of Yeshivat Maharat’s inaugural class agrees: “The title is not important to me at all.” she says. “I am interested in doing the work.”

Marc Angel sits in his office overflowing with books in Congregation Shearith Israel—a Spanish Portuguese synagogue in New York that is the oldest Jewish congregation in North America—where he is emeritus rabbi. A quiet man with salt-and-pepper hair and a small frame, he speaks calmly about his life’s trajectory, the synagogue’s history and his latest book. Yet as the subject turns to conversion his tone shifts, his voice rises and he takes on the appearance of a fiery prophet.

A president of the RCA from 1990 to 1992, Angel now finds himself in the vanguard of the fight against a conversion process he views as increasingly restrictive and punitive. His views haven’t changed, but according to him the RCA has moved to the right, pushing him out of the mainstream.

The issue of Jewish conversion has always been tricky, highlighting differences between rabbis, denominations and most recently between the Israeli rabbinate and rabbis in America. Until 2006, the Israeli rabbinate, which is controlled by Orthodox rabbis, had always accepted Orthodox conversions performed in America. But Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, announced that he would no longer automatically recognize conversion performed by the RCA.

American Modern Orthodox rabbis reacted with shock. Amar was essentially questioning their legitimacy. In response, an RCA committee chaired by Rabbi Barry Freundel of Washington, DC’s Kesher Israel Synagogue, entered into negotiations with the Israeli rabbinate. They came to an agreement: The rabbinate approved a list of rabbinic courts and approximately 40 rabbinic judges whose conversions would be accepted; all conversions performed by rabbis other than those 40 would be subject to reevaluation.

The RCA hailed this as a successful compromise that helps converts and affirms its legitimacy. Angel sees things differently. “I decided that is the end of the RCA,” he says. “They have sold out; there is no Modern Orthodoxy anymore.” Comments like this enrage the RCA stalwarts. “The procedures and standards of the network were composed, finalized and ratified solely by the rabbis of the RCA,” Freundel wrote on the RCA website. “The chief rabbinate had no input into the standards that were adopted. There simply was no capitulation whatsoever.”

But Angel sees the new conversion policy as rabbinic bureaucracy that creates unnecessary stringencies for those who want to convert. He cites numerous examples of people not able to convert for minor or even trivial reasons: a woman whose Jewish boyfriend was not observant enough even though she was, or a woman spotted wearing jeans. He says that it breaks his heart that people who want to be Jewish cannot, for reasons he sees as non-halachic.

“It seems to me the [RCA’s] goal is [to see] how many people they can keep out rather than how many people they can keep in,” says Angel, who has suggested the establishment of local rabbinical courts to decide what the rules should be on a case-by-case basis. “They want everyone who converts to not just be moderately Orthodox but to be strictly Orthodox, and they grant little leeway for converts, whereas the halacha is very generous, very opening and welcoming.”

In November 2009, Angel joined forces with Weiss to create a new association of rabbis
, the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF). According to its mission statement, the group provides a “safe space” for rabbis to speak “openly and candidly” about all issues having to do with Jewish life. “Perfectly good Orthodox rabbis feel that they are working day and night for Torah Judaism in an Orthodox fashion, but because they aren’t following haredi views, they are feeling isolated and very alone,” says Angel. “We are saying, you aren’t alone.”

The IRF estimates that it has 150 members throughout the United States, Israel, South America and Hong Kong. It welcomes YCT graduates but is careful to note that RCA members also belong. “This is not a Chovevei Torah alumni association,” says Angel. The group, he says, is not challenging the authority of the RCA; rather, it hopes to counter the RCA’s centralization of the rabbinate. The idea is to give more power to local rabbis so that they can make decisions for their own communities, and to promulgate the view that the rabbinate should be “not vertical but horizontal,” with power shared by many and not restricted to the few.

Still in its nascent stages, the IRF is focusing on a wide variety of issues ranging from Orthodox day school education to ethical kosher laws. Inclusion of women, of course, is also a topic: Many IRF members have let it be known that they would consider allowing women into the organization. In June, following the RCA’s reaffirmation of the prohibition against women clergy, the IRF passed a “Resolution on Women in Communal Leadership Roles,” which states categorically that women could serve in a number of professional leadership roles in the Orthodox communities, including those of “clergy” and “spiritual preachers.” The statement avoided the question of title or ordination but, unlike the RCA’s resolution, it specified what a woman is allowed to do.

“This organization represents a maturation, providing a sense of permanence to Chovevei Torah and Open Orthodoxy,” says Jeffrey Gurock, YU’s professor of American Jewish history and author of Orthodox Jews in America. “Prior to this, those who shared this point of view felt a certain degree of isolation.” Gurock cautions not to overstate the significance of the establishment of the group, which is certainly not the first alternative association for rabbis. “A wing of Orthodoxy is just a wing,” he says. “Members can be loyal members of the RCA and part of their own organization.”

Other observers, such as Jonathan Sarna, see the creation of the IRF as a step towards the establishment of a new movement. “In American religion, when you have a new seminary and a new board of rabbis, including many who are not acceptable to the RCA, one begins to wonder if in fact we are seeing the development of two movements that use the term Orthodox.”

Angel is wary of making such a declaration. “We would shun being called a new denomination,” he says. “But [Sarna] is correct in saying that you cannot effect change in the overall Jewish world unless you have some kind of organizational structure.” But, he adds, echoing Sarna, “We have a base of a whole real movement here. This is not a fly-by-night thing.”

On Friday, July 30, soon after the conflagration over rabbas and maharats had begun to calm down, an email arrived in the mailboxes of HIR congregants.It was a typical pre-Shabbat email with an atypical message, announcing that a female member, Lamelle Ryman, would be leading Kabbalat Shabbat that night. “We recognize that this type of tefillah [prayer] is not practiced in other Orthodox synagogues,” the email said. “We hope other synagogues will make room for this type of inclusive tefillah. Nonetheless, in deference to our own inclusive values beyond women’s involvement, and not wanting to distance ourselves from the Orthodox communal standards, we are not having this tefillah as our only Friday night tefillah, but as an addition to the main sanctuary tefillah.”

This email raised the ante once again. The rationale for allowing women to lead Kabbalat Shabbat is that it is not formally part of the mandatory service. While other independent congregations that define themselves as Orthodox had already broken this barrier, particularly the so-called partnership minyans such as Shira Chadasha in Jerusalem, Darchei Noam in New York and Rosh Pina in Washington, DC, this was considered a first. The New York Jewish Week later reported that Ryman was the first woman to lead this service in an established Orthodox synagogue in front of a mixed congregation.

The RCA called Weiss’s latest innovation “a violation of Jewish tradition” and discussed whether or not he should be censured. In October the RCA’s umbrella organization, the Orthodox Union, issued a statement that a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat “constitutes an unacceptable breach of Jewish tradition.” Yet there was no mention of repercussions: Neither side seems to want a complete break. But as Weiss continues to push and pull back, push and pull back again, gradually moving towards his goal of creating a strong woman- and conversion-friendly pluralistic stream within Modern Orthodoxy, a split remains a serious possibility. Not even his students want that. “If that did happen I would find that upsetting. To be honest I don’t know where I would fall,” says Balinsky, who will have the title maharat conferred on her in 2013. “I don’t know if I am ready to start my own movement.”

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