Why We Need Rabba, Not Maharat, Sara Hurwitz

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April 7, 2010

As one of the first women to receive private Orthodox rabbinic ordination, I was disheartened to hear Maharat Sara Hurwitz give up her title of “Rabba” (the female version of “Rabbi” chosen by the Academy of the Hebrew Language). In a speech she gave recently at the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance conference, she said that if the title would cause a rift in the Orthodox community and maybe even lead her own community to be called “Conservative” rather than Orthodox, she would be willing to forego the title.

For Hurwitz, what matters most is that women are acting as clergy and will be “confirmed” as “Maharat” in the Orthodox world. And perhaps that will have to be enough for now.

Hurwitz did present the other hand. She admitted that as a “Rabba” she would be able to do her job better, that people tend to have a better understanding of what her role is when she uses that title. What she did not mention was that using Maharat instead of Rabba perpetuates sexual discrimination.

Some argue that halakhah prevents women’s ordination. That’s just not true. There is no reason why a woman who studies the material required for rabbinic ordination and passes the exams should not be ordained. Hurwitz stated this clearly as well in her speech. The issues are sociological, which is why we have yet to hear those against women being called rabbis claiming that this is against Jewish Law.

Instead, they say that naming women “rabbi” is against tradition and that it is not Orthodox. And that may be true, depending on who is defining Orthodox. If the ultra-Orthodox are defining the term, then yes, it is not Orthodox for women to be rabbis, since in that community gender roles are distinct and hierarchical. This is not the case in the modern world. Or at least it is not the ideal we say we are striving for. In my opinion, it would be for the best if the liberal Orthodox community stood up against the right wing, insisted women be called rabbis, and let the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union disown them from the Orthodox world. Let the Orthodox world split on this issue, and liberal Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy can then become two separate movements—which, in fact, they already are. This should lead to a generally more bold and progressive approach on the part of liberal Orthodoxy, so that, in the end, it will join the other liberal movements in granting women full equality.

This is what I personally am hoping for. And it seems this is what Hurwitz fears. Perhaps that is the big difference between us.

I also received Orthodox smicha, and I have had to overcome stage fright and low self esteem to gather up the courage to call myself “Rabbi”–a title I worked many years to earn. Living in Israel, where the idea of women rabbis is much less accepted than in the U.S., it would be much easier for me not to call myself “Rabbi.” I face this issue constantly when I have to fill out the “profession” box on school questionnaires, hospital forms, government applications, etc. And I will admit that sometimes I do not write “rabbi,” instead listing all of the many things I do as a rabbi: “teacher, counselor, spiritual guide, mikveh director, ritual consultant, organizational director, writer, etc.” I, too, do not always want to make waves. But we must, if we want to change the world.

For a number of years now, I have found my spiritual home in the world of full egalitarianism. Before that, I was ensconced in the Orthodox feminist movement. For instance, I was one of the founders of Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem, the first “Partnership” synagogue, which is now hugely popular. At these partnership synagogues, which self-define as Orthodox, women participate in ritual life. They lead some (but not all) of the prayer service, as do men; and while women are not counted there in a traditional minyan (quorum of ten), those prayers recited only in the presence of a minyan are not recited until both ten men and ten women are present.

Where I pray now, in the only synagogue on Kibbutz Hannaton (a historically Masorti-movement-affiliated-kibbutz where I moved with my husband and six children this past summer), we do not have the “luxury” of “partnership” instead of full egalitarianism, even if we preferred that approach. We are a small community, and on some days we don’t even have ten adults present, let alone ten men and ten women. The community, although constantly growing, is currently made up of only around 15-20 families, after all. If some families are away or do not come to synagogue that week, we could not say kaddish if the women and men were “partners” rather than “equals” in our community.

Living in a small egalitarian community has helped me experience the absurdity of non-egalitarianism. When a community does not have the luxury to discriminate, people are forced (out of communal need) to reach their potential and push themselves in directions they may not have chosen given the option. But our community is really a microcosm of the Jewish world. Does the Jewish world truly have the luxury to discriminate? Are we in such great shape that we can afford to cut out potential contributors in the name of tradition? And why would we even want to? Are people actually ideologically attached to gender distinction, or is that simply what is most familiar and therefore most comfortable?

I only hope that the liberal Orthodox world is truly headed in the direction of full egalitarianism and does not plan to perpetuate the “partnership” model of distinct but equal roles. Granting women partial participation is a step in the right direction, but it should not be the goal. Moreover, cutting men out of certain roles (and thus discriminating now against men as well as women) in the name of “fairness” is not the answer to sexual discrimination—it only serves to perpetuate the problem. That model continues to prevent some women and men from doing certain things that may have been their calling. And it prevents role sharing and being able to step into the other’s shoes—both tools for creating a better world. One can argue that gender roles are divinely ordained and that it can never be the calling of a woman to be a rabbi, doctor, or political leader, or for a man to be a nurturing homemaker, but does anyone in the modern world really believe that? Does anyone really believe that a man should not spend more time with his children or scrubbing his own toilet? And does anyone really believe that a woman should not work to discover the cure for cancer or bring peace to the Middle East? If no one believes this, why would it make sense to perpetuate the model of separate roles in the synagogue if not in the rest of our lives?

This is why it upsets me to hear Maharat Sara Hurwitz give in on this issue. It was my hope that women like her would not make it their agenda to prove they can be just as Orthodox as the men rabbis whose ranks they are joining. That would be missing the point of the feminist enterprise—which is to make the world a better place. And the only way this can happen is if people are allowed to express their true selves and ideologies rather than being bullied into being good girls and boys and playing by the rules. The biggest fear of those male rabbis who refuse to share their authority and power with women is that this step will cause the breakdown of the status quo. And the truth is, I hope they are correct in their prediction. What is the point of including women’s voices if women are going to simply toe the traditional line? No tradition is worth preserving simply for the sake of “Tradition.” I too can be a nostalgic, as my high-tech children will attest. But I also know that there is no point in preserving the old if it has no inherent value. And I have yet to hear anyone articulate a convincing argument for keeping half of the world’s population down. Change is difficult and scary, but it is also inevitable and is actually our only hope for survival. If ordaining women does not change the status quo, we are in big trouble. If the goal of equality for women is for women to gain the power to perpetuate the status quo, what have we accomplished?

We feminists—men and women alike–need to redefine the rules of the game, not show that we can play by the old rules of the patriarchy. I think those brave Orthodox rabbis who did grant smicha to women (Rabbi Arie Strikovsky who granted me smicha, Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman who granted smicha to Evelyn Thau, Rabbi David Hartman who says he will grant smicha to women in his institution, and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who granted smicha to Mimi Feigelson), understood this, and that is why they were so bold as to “break the rules,” knowing that they would be called “outside of the camp” as a result. Because who wants to be a member of an obsolete system that is in the business of preserving for preservation’s sake? It is too bad, though, that Rabbi Avi Weiss, who granted smicha to Sara Hurwitz, gave in under pressure from the Orthodox rabbinic establishment (and perhaps even from his own community) and changed her title back from “Rabbah” to “Maharat.” And it is too bad that she agreed to go along with this.

Of course, I can’t say that I blame them if they are intent on being accepted in the Orthodox world. I gave up on that goal when I decided I needed to be true to my egalitarian neshama (soul), even if it meant forgoing acceptance in the Orthodox world. I was tired of the political maneuvering and power wielding—all in the name of this idol called Orthodoxy. I decided it was time to simply live by my ideals, save my soul, and let women like Maharat Hurwitz who are deeply committed to Orthodoxy for Orthodoxy’s sake continue the battle I and other women before me began.

My vision is for men to be changed by women and women to be changed by men and for all roles (those categorized by society to be “male” and those categorized by society to be “female”) to be equally valued. For the world to become a better place and reach “shleimut” (a Hebrew word I translate as “peace achieved through wholeness”), we need the input of every human being. We need all of the pieces of the puzzle. Therefore, we must let go of gender roles, not be afraid to act according to our egalitarian principles even if it means being considered outsiders by the Orthodox establishment, and focus on how we can encourage each human being to reach his or her potential to help save our troubled planet.

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