Maharats, Misogyny and Marching On
It was a late spring-time graduation unlike any other, a landmark event in Jewish history. On June 16th, at the Ramaz School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, for the first time ever, with the bestowal of a parchment and the recitation of a specially chosen biblical phrase, three women became spiritual leaders and legal authorities within Orthodox Jewry: Our sister, may you become a multitude. (Genesis 24:60).
On stage, Rachel Kohl Finegold, Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Abby Brown Scheier, and their mentors looked out on a crowd of cheering supporters from across Jewish denominations. One woman in the crowd called this “a completely surreal milestone.” Daniel Smokler, an event organizer, commented, “this changes the face of orthodox Judaism, quite literally. There’s never been anything like it.” The founder of Orthodox Feminism, Blu Greenberg exulted in "the sea change" while Rabba Sara Hurwitz, Yeshivat Maharat’s Dean, said, “this is the beginning of a new reality. This room is made up of visionaries and risk-takers.”
Intoning a phrase from the Song of Songs, Rabbi Avi Weiss, Yeshivat Maharat’s champion and founder was both empowering the women and responding to his critics: “Hashme’enee et kolech,” or let me hear your voice, he chanted as in deep meditation, strategically adding, “your voice as poseket (legal arbiter) is sweet.” His self-styled mantra was also a position statement. It let his right wing detractors know that these maharats would be setting a few legal precedents of their own and what’s more, there was no use invoking the prohibition of “kol isha” often used in the past to silence women’s voices entirely.
When Rabbi Weiss bestowed the title rabba on Sara Hurwitz in 2010, it evoked such a furor that he backed down. Better to call these learned women “Maharat” (an acronym for Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit, a teacher of Jewish law and spirituality) and move forward than risk censure and the likely shunning of his rabbinical school’s male candidates, along with the women, within the Orthodox mainstream.
For all these reasons, the ordination was underpinned with a tacit agreement to emphasize the remarkable achievement of the day rather than its political concessions. While I cheered and clapped and swayed along with the others, I was constrained by something I can best describe as low-grade heartache.
A pioneering educator of Orthodox girls, who prefers to remain anonymous, lent his words to my distress. “This is certainly a step in the right direction. Still it’s like graduating medical school and not being allowed to call yourself a doctor.” And although this educator is an undisputed innovator, his openness to equalitarian prayer has apparently estranged him from Weiss’ coterie who, while ordaining women to great fanfare, are ever so careful not to step outside of certain clearly drawn party lines.
The maharat must publicly agree to more than dropping the campaign for a rescinded title. She is also clear about her adherence to the halakha even–or especially–when it denies women full-fledged human rights. Yes, the maharat is ordained, she is even in demand for paid pastoral positions (the bill for which so far, is largely being footed by wealthy women supporters not the synagogues, but that too could change.) However– and this is the part that is surreal to me - in accordance with halakha, these ordained women are not to be called to the Torah, nor can they effectively say kaddish or serve as witnesses. They cannot even be counted as a full-fledged adult in making up a minyan. Sara Hurwitz’s well-known quip, “we don’t have to make up the minyan, but only to be sure that there is one” reminds me of Billy Holiday entertaining a well-heeled crowd at the Waldorf Astoria, but coming in through the service entrance in compliance with racist rules.
My own spiritual guide, Rabbi Jan Uhrbach a woman ordained by the JTS more than a decde ago, helps me to understand why this is, nonetheless, a time for celebration. “Its not that I don’t have sadness,” she tells me. “But it’s not helpful to provoke an intense backlash. It is important for the women to get out there. For change to come about it has to happen on multiple levels. One on one relationships are hugely important.” She reminds me that women rabbis were not so easily accepted at first, even in more liberal communities. “Even if halakha weighed less heavily, it was a difficult cultural shift.” What’s more, “people’s experience and the laws are related because halakha does not evolve in a cultural vacuum. The more voices heard, the more people are expanded and empowered, the less monolithc and the more hope for healing.”
I understand. It’s a step-by-step, steady, if slow, forward march that tiptoes its way around ingrained misogyny. But I have no doubt about the positive effects of these women going out in the world: The maharats are personable, warm, funny, they look you in the eye. They are erudite and informative without a touch of condescension. (They have their own understanding about life, different from a man’s. Two out of three of them were breastfeeding minutes before the ceremony began.) They will bring who they are into the domain of halakha.
These women have daunting issues of work-life balance to work out and they are already adept at another kind of balancing act—they are authoritative, yet in touch with the flesh, caring, forthright and I assure you, fully human. It is for all these reasons, and a few others, that I get a little teary-eyed about their still being banished to balconies.