Founded by Rabba Sara Hurwitz and Rabbi Avi Weiss in New York City in 2009, Yeshivat Maharat is the first Orthodox yeshiva to ordain women as clergy. While women had been serving in clergy-like roles in Orthodox settings for a number of years by the time Maharat was founded, the institution changed the facts on the ground by creating a credentialed pathway for women to serve as Orthodox clergy. Maharat has graduated dozens of women who are serving in synagogues, schools, hospitals, Hillels, universities, and Jewish communal organizations. Dozens more are enrolled in the yeshiva, working toward ordination. Maharat has changed the face of Judaism, enabling Orthodox women clergy to positively impact the Jewish world.
The Roots of Orthodox Women Clergy
Women rabbis of any denomination were still a relatively new phenomenon in 2009 when Yeshivat Maharat was founded in New York City in 2009 by Rabba Sara Hurwitz and Rabbi Avi Weiss. A handful of individual women throughout early modern and modern Jewish history, such as Hannah Rochel Werbermacher and Regina Jonas, had served as rabbis in Europe and even, in the case of Regina Jonas, received private ordination. However, the first woman to be ordained by a mainstream rabbinical school, Sally Priesand, was ordained by Hebrew Union College, the Reform Movement’s rabbinical school, only in 1972. The Reconstructionist and Conservative Movements followed, ordaining women as rabbis beginning in 1983 and 1985 respectively. But until Yeshivat Maharat, no Orthodox institution offered rabbinic ordination to women.
While the idea of women obtaining Orthodox semikha (rabbinic ordination) was certainly influenced by the liberal movements’ decisions to begin ordaining women, it also arose out of various developments in the Orthodox world in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Even well into the twentieth century, most Orthodox Jewish women were unable to obtain a Jewish education on par with that which their male counterparts received. Many Orthodox day schools did not teach Jewish girls Lit. "teaching," "study," or "learning." A compilation of the commentary and discussions of the amora'im on the Mishnah. When not specified, "Talmud" refers to the Babylonian Talmud.Talmud, and Jewish studies classes were frequently segregated by gender, resulting in girls receiving a less textually rigorous education.
The situation began to change in 1937, when Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, known as “the Rav,” founded the Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts. Soloveitchik was committed to coeducation, even in Judaics classes, a radical concept at the time. Due in no small part to the stature of the Rav, once Maimonides taught girls Talmud, other institutions began to follow suit, including Ramaz, an Orthodox day school in New York City, and Stern College, the women’s college of Yeshiva University, where Rabbi Soloveitchik himself taught the first Talmud class in 1977. Other institutions in America and in Israel, such as Drisha and Michlelet Bruria (now Midreshet Lindenbaum), were founded in the 1970s and 1980s, giving post-high school women the opportunity to study Torah at higher levels than ever before. Drisha, a women’s yeshiva in New York founded by Rabbi David Silber in 1979, began the Scholars Circle program in 1994, giving women the opportunity to study Jewish texts full-time while receiving a stipend and to graduate with a Drisha Scholars Circle Certificate after three years. Notably, Rabba Hurwitz herself was a 2003 graduate of the Drisha Scholars Circle.
Unsurprisingly, once women began learning the same material as men, the idea that Orthodoxy would someday have women rabbis was not far behind. Blu Greenberg famously penned an article in Judaism magazine in 1984 entitled “Will There Be Orthodox Women Rabbis?” Her answer was a prescient yes. At the time, Greenberg’s words seemed far-fetched at best, but before long, incremental changes began to pave a path to the founding of Maharat.
First, as a small but dedicated group of women attained a significant level of Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah education, they began to seek two things: titles that reflected their advanced learning and rabbinic-style positions in the Jewish community. In 1997, Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) in Bronx, New York, appointed Sharon Margolin Halickman and Rabbi Adam Mintz of Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue appointed Julie Stern Joseph to serve in the newly created role of “congregational intern” in their respective synagogues. A congregational intern was a position meant to mirror the internships male rabbinical students had. Halickman and Joseph would teach, assist at lifecycle events, and help staff the women’s section during prayer services. While many hailed the advent of congregational interns, others wondered what exactly the interns were interning for.
Another significant development for Orthodox women was the founding of Nishmat’s Yoetzet Halacha program. Nishmat, a high-level women's yeshiva in Jerusalem founded by Rabbanit Chana Henkin, began a program in 1997 to train women to answer questions with respect to the Jewish laws of family purity. (Rabbanit is a title of honor given to women who are married to rabbis, and also in certain cases to women who are very learned in Jewish texts. In the case of Rabbanit Henkin, both are true.) While Nishmat was careful to emphasize that these women, called yoatzot (advisors), were not poskot (those with the authority to answer original halakhic questions), the underlying message of the program was clear: women could study and become credentialed in the Orthodox community. In the United States, Stern College founded a new program in 1999 called GPATS - Graduate Program in Advanced Talmud Studies. The architects of the program envisioned GPATS graduates serving as Jewish educational and communal leaders, but without any sort of rabbinic title or explicit rabbinic role.
Ordination of Rabba Sara Hurwitz
When Sara Hurwitz decided she wanted to learn for semikha, she was building on all of these precedents. Hurwitz was serving as the congregational intern at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale when she and Rabbi Avi Weiss began to explore the idea of Hurwitz studying the traditional texts that men study for Orthodox semikha. Hurwitz began to study in 2004 and took semikha examinations throughout her years of study, culminating in a final exam in 2008. Prior to Hurwitz’s ordination, she and Rabbi Weiss debated what her title should be. After holding two focus groups in Blu Greenberg’s home, they landed upon the title Maharat, an acronym for madricha hilchatit, ruchanit, toranit, or a guide in Jewish law, spirituality, and Torah. The title was not without controversy. Most members of the community wanted her to have the title “Rabbi,” but Weiss and Hurwitz knew they would face intense opposition from many if she assumed that title. Maharat seemed like a good compromise. Hurwitz was conferred with the title at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in March 2009 with hundreds of people in attendance. Weiss and Hurwitz decided to use the word “conferral” rather than “ordination” in order not to further inflame opposition in the Orthodox community.
Once Hurwitz became Maharat Hurwitz, Hurwitz and Weiss decided to open a yeshiva that would give other Orthodox women clergy credentials and named the school Yeshivat Maharat. In the fall of 2009, the yeshiva opened with four students. Poignantly, it was housed at the Drisha Institute, the institution that only decades earlier had paved a path forward for women to learn on the highest levels.
In January 2010, Hurwitz, in consultation with Rabbi Weiss, began using the title Rabba instead of Maharat. The two felt people did not understand the title Maharat and that Rabba would more fully match the role Hurwitz was playing in her synagogue and as a founder of Yeshivat Maharat. A firestorm of condemnation from other quadrants in the Orthodox world ensued, surprising Hurwitz and Weiss with its ferocity. They had thought that objections would center on Hurwitz’s position itself, not her title. The Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America, the religious governing body of the right-wing Orthodox Agudath Israel of America (the Agudah), called the new title a “radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition” and said that the Agudah would no longer consider the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale an Orthodox congregation by the Agudah. (Harris, “Amid Furor, Weiss Retreats from ‘Rabba’ Title”)
While the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale was not overly concerned about whether the Agudah saw it as Orthodox, synagogue leadership did care about the opinion of the centrist Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), of which Rabbi Weiss was a member. While the RCA did not issue an official statement, some of its members distanced themselves from women participating on synagogue rabbinical staffs. Significantly, RCA President Rabbi Moshe Kletenick was quoted by the Agudah as saying that it was “unacceptable for an Orthodox synagogue to have a woman on its rabbinical staff” (Brown and Rosenblatt). Ironically, Kletenick’s own daughter, Gilah Kletenick, was at the time serving as congregational intern in a Westchester County, NY, Orthodox synagogue. Asked about his statement, Kletenick responded carefully, “While those may not have been my exact words, they certainly accurately reflect the position that, while a woman can play a number of important roles in the synagogue, such as educator or counselor, she cannot function as a rabbi.” He made sure to note that his daughter was not a member of the synagogue rabbinic staff, concluding, “As a father, I am proud of our daughter and her accomplishments, as well as her desire to serve the Jewish people” (Brown and Rosenblatt).
In a far more worrisome development, the RCA threatened to revoke Rabbi Weiss’ membership in the organization due to his giving Hurwitz the title Rabba. This was particularly insulting because Rabbi Weiss had been a member of the RCA for decades and was the founding rabbi of one of the most successful Orthodox synagogues in America. When the firestorm showed no sign of abating, Hurwitz and Weiss briefly considered retracting the use of the new title, but ultimately they decided not to cave to the pressure, retaining Hurwitz’s title as Rabba. Rabbi Weiss sent a letter to the RCA agreeing that he would not give any other woman the title. The RCA issued a statement noting its satisfaction at the resolution of the controversy and at the same time expressed its support for “appropriate” leadership roles for women.
Meanwhile, students continued studying at Yeshivat Maharat. The first class of three women—Ruth Balinksy Friedman, Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Abby Brown Scheier—graduated in 2013, receiving the title Maharat. All three took positions in the Orthodox community: Balinsky Friedman became Maharat at Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue in Washington, DC; Kohl Finegold became the Director of Education and Spiritual Enrichment at Shaar HaShomayim Congregation in Montreal, Quebec; and Brown Scheier became a community educator, directing Hebrew School and adult education programs at Shaar HaShomayim. Once the yeshiva had successfully graduated its first class and showed that graduates would be hired for prestigious and fulfilling positions in the rabbinate, it was a fact on the ground. Despite the moving conferral ceremony and the successful placement of the graduates, however, Yeshivat Maharat still faced enormous opposition from much of the Orthodox world.
Becoming More Established
In the fall of 2015, Maharat moved from its Upper West Side location to the HIR. The move brought Maharat under the same roof as Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), the male rabbinical school founded by Weiss in 1999, allowing for collaboration between the two schools. Most importantly, however, having Maharat housed in the HIR, a unique synagogue affectionately known as the “Bayit,” or Home, allowed Maharat students to immerse themselves in a living laboratory of a community that espoused the school’s ideals. Students were able to intern at the Bayit, teaching classes, running The quorum, traditionally of ten adult males over the age of thirteen, required for public synagogue service and several other religious ceremonies.minyanim, giving sermons and divrei Torah, and assisting the synagogue clergy as they officiated at life cycle events.
As Maharat settled into its new home, it expanded its operations and took on the patina of a more established institution. The Houses of study (of Torah)Bet Midrash began to hum with more and more female voices engaged in the study of Torah. The yeshiva also began new programs, such as the Advanced Kollel: Executive Ordination Track in 2013. This program allowed women with excellent learning skills and who had already been working for many years in rabbinic or academic roles to learn for semikha through a three-year part-time program that involved weekly Talmud study sessions in Yoreh Deah, the traditional category of Jewish law studied for semikha, and onsite programming during winter and summer academic breaks for intensive study of topics in rabbinics. In 2019, in partnership with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Maharat also started a one-year preparatory program called the Beit Midrash program, which allows men and women who do not yet have the learning skills to apply to Maharat or YCT’s semikha programs to increase and improve their skills.
Opposition and Controversy
Even as it became more established, however, Maharat continued to face pushback and opposition from certain sectors in the Orthodox community. In 2017, the OU (Orthodox Union) issued a Statement regarding its position on women clergy, accompanied by responses by a panel of five leading rabbis from Yeshiva University. Notably, the OU Statement took great care to portray Orthodoxy as inclusive of women’s leadership; it even recognized a need to create more opportunities for women’s educational and professional leadership. The impact of American feminism and of Yeshivat Maharat’s groundbreaking work was palpable, albeit lacking formal mention in the OU’s words. Nonetheless, the OU Statement made very clear that women could not hold clergy roles in OU-affiliated synagogues.
Even as opposition continued to appear, in other ways it became abundantly clear that the opposition’s strength was waning. Even as the OU Statement continued to exist on paper, not a single synagogue let its female clergy person go in its wake. And, in tacit acknowledgement that the Modern/Centrist Orthodox community would no longer countenance a complete lack of female leadership roles, shortly after the OU Statement, the OU founded its Women’s Leadership Initiative with the articulated goal of “encouraging and cultivating women to take on significant roles within the community by providing professional development training and facilitating women serving on boards of synagogues and in other leadership positions” (OU Women’s Leadership Initiative).
Not only did the OU Statement fail to stop Orthodox women from obtaining semikha, but other indicators pointed toward a greater acceptance of women clergy in the Orthodox community. Since its inception, Maharat’s policy was that graduates were given the degree of ordination and that the title by which they would be called would be decided by the graduate in collaboration with her hiring institution. In 2016, Maharat graduate Lila Kagedan announced that she was taking the title Rabbi, a title up until that point eschewed by Maharat graduates as too radical and causing too much trouble in the Orthodox world. While the initial reaction from the centrist Orthodox world was predictably harsh, within a year other Maharat graduates followed suit with nary a peep of opposition. In 2017, Nishma Research published a Profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews that showed that 53% of respondents to its survey believed that women in their Orthodox community “should have the opportunity for expanded roles in the clergy.” Of the 53%, 37% agreed fully and 16% agreed somewhat.
Yeshivat Maharat has changed the landscape of the Modern Orthodox community, and indeed the American Jewish community as a whole. Its dozens of graduates ably serve the Jewish community, and the ever-growing number of students in the pipeline prepare to add their mark to American Orthodox Judaism. While opposition to female rabbis persists in many quadrants of the Orthodox community, a new generation of Orthodox young people is growing up in a world in which Orthodox women rabbis are already serving and positively impacting the communities in which they live.
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