By Miriam Shaviv
March 9, 2010
On Friday, Rabbi Avi Weiss announced that the graduates of his women's ordination programme in New York will not, after all, be called 'Rabbas'.
For the past few weeks, he seems to have come under some pressure from other Orthodox rabbis following his decision to change the title of the first woman he ordained, Sara Hurwitz, from Maharat (leader in Jewish law, spirituality and Torah) to Rabba. It is still unclear whether Hurwitz will keep her newly acquired title, but either way there will be no more American rabbas - for the foreseeable future, at least.
This is being seen as a major cave-in by Rabbi Weiss. So does this mean that the Orthodox are not ready for female rabbis?
Not at all.
The fact is that Rabba/Maharat Hurwitz received her ordination almost exactly a year ago. For almost an entire year, she fulfilled her rabbinic duties in Rabbi Weiss's congregation with very little comment from most of the American Orthodox establishment. It seems clear that she was not universally accepted on a day-to-day level by some people she encountered, but the silence from the other rabbis and indeed from the majority of the Orthodox commentators etc which greeted her ordination was absolutely remarkable. They seemed prepared to let a de-facto Orthodox woman rabbi pass almost without comment......... until he changed her title.
'Maharat' - yes. 'Rabba' - no. It simply sounded too close to 'rabbi' and made it impossible for the majority of the American Orthodox world to continue pretending Maharat Hurwitz was not, in fact, a full-fledged rabbi.
The fact is, though, that Rabbi Weiss is going to continue ordaining Orthodox women rabbis (called Maharats). Sara Hurwitz is going to continue functioning as a rabbi (even if she is called Maharat). And the Orthodox world is not going to say much about either of these things - because the problem doesn't seem to be with the job description but with the title. The main principle, this row over wording shows only too clearly, has been accepted.
Should Orthodox feminists care what clergywomen are called? I'm tempted to say yes. I personally find it very offensive and alienating that Orthodox rabbis play these silly semantic games, refusing to acknowledge - G-d forbid - that women are, in reality, holding these leadership positions (perhaps this is the place to mention how much I admire Avi Weiss, on the other hand, for taking up this cause?). But ultimately, the reality on the ground is more important.
A decade or two down the line, with Maharats serving congregations, schools and university campuses across the American continent, people will be unable to remember what all the fuss was about. And if one of them then decides to call herself 'Rabba', well, I'd be surprised if anyone even notices.