New Orthodox program aims to give women rabbinic training
NEW YORK — Two months ago Sara Hurwitz — then the “spiritual mentor” at Rabbi Avi Weiss’ Orthodox synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale — was given a new title: Maharat, a Hebrew acronym that stands for spiritual, halachic and Torah leader.
Now Weiss is trying to export that somewhat cumbersome title to the rest of the Jewish world with the launch of a yeshiva to train new maharats.
Yeshivat Maharat, as the school will be known, is expected to be up and running in September and will offer women part-time instruction in all areas of Jewish law, pastoral training and even a synagogue internship.
The full course of study to become a certified maharat will take four years.
“We’re training women to be rabbis,” Hurwitz told the Forward. “What they will be called is something we’re working out.”
Orthodox feminist leaders, several of whom were pulling hard for Weiss to go all out and call Hurwitz by the R word, nevertheless were pleased by the new developments.
The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance in a statement called Hurwitz’s new title a “historic moment” and, in the only hint of disappointment, noted that another milestone would be reached with the ordination of Orthodox female rabbis.
Some, however, saw the clever new title as a cop-out.
“I respect anyone who believes there is a serious reason for allowing women to be rabbis and I respect anyone who has serious reasons not to,” Jonathan Mark wrote in The Jewish Week. “This isn’t my fight.
“On the other hand, I’m having a hard time rooting for anyone who believes women should be rabbis but who won’t say it out loud, who wants to backdoor it, to fake it, by calling the woman not rabbi but Manhigah Hilkhatit Ruhanit Toranit, as if that will fool the traditionalists, as if that will fool the [Orthodox Union] shuls where [Yeshivat Chovevei Torah] graduates can’t get hired, like changing the name of a sickly child to Alta to fool the Angel of Death.”
Like the graduates of Weiss’ male rabbinical school, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Hurwitz acknowledges that graduates of the new program may have trouble finding jobs — though not necessarily for ideological reasons.
At present, only a handful of Orthodox synagogues employ women in positions where they function more or less as the equal of male rabbis, with the exception of performing public ritual roles during worship services.
“You have to start somewhere,” Hurwitz told JTA. “We have to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward, and I think that the community will follow.”