By Miriam Shaviv
January 27, 2010
Rabbi Avi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, NY, has announced that the Orthodox clergywoman employed in his shul will from now on be given the title 'Rabbah':
Sara Hurwitz, who has been performing rabbinical duties at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York City, last year had been given the title of Maharat -- a Hebrew acronym that stands for a leader in legal, spiritual and Torah matters.
But in a statement issued Wednesday, Rabbi Avi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute and Hurwitz's mentor, said the acronym had failed to take hold and that Hurwitz would henceforth be called "rabbah", a feminized version of the title.
"This will make it clear to everyone that Sara Hurwitz is a full member of our rabbinic staff, a rabbi with the additional quality of a distinct woman’s voice," said the statement issued by Weiss's office.
Hurwitz, who has served at the Hebrew Institute for nearly seven years, has completed the same course of training and examination as male Orthodox rabbinical students.
The title 'Maharat' was always a mouthful, so I'm glad it's been changed to something clearer and catchier - though I've already said I'm not that keen on 'rabbah'.
But is there more to this change of title? Certainly, my instinct was to think that the 'Maharat' had been accepted so naturally and easily that the shul decided to give her the more rabbinical-sounding title openly. (There were initial fears that it would provoke a backlash from right-wing elements in the Orthodox world.)
Reading Rabbi Weiss's statement carefully, however, I do wonder if the opposite is true.
'The acronym had failed to take hold' - so what were they calling her? Ms Hurwitz? Or, more likely, her first name? Congregants generally call their rabbis by a title.
'This will make it clear to everyone that Sara Hurwitz is a full member of our rabbinic staff' - again, this seems to be implying that some members have not accepted her as such, and that it was deemed necessary to clarify and bolster her position in the shul hierarchy by upgrading her title.
I love the idea of a woman assuming a rabbinical role in an Orthodox shul so I hope I'm wrong (I also remember Sara Hurwitz, who was in my year in Brovender's, very positively). But the statement can certainly be read as indicating that the Maharat/Rabbah experiment has had its problems.