Sara Hurwitz considers herself a rabbi.
She recently completed the same tests Orthodox men take to be ordained. Last month she underwent a conferral ceremony at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, one of the largest Orthodox synagogues insuburban New York, where she has been acting as Torah scholar, and adjudicating Jewish law, for several years.
But there is one problem: she wasn’t given the title rabbi. Instead, she is known as Maharat — a neologism which stands for Madrichah Hilchatit, Ruchanit v’Toranit, or Leader in Jewish Law, Spiritual Matters, and Torah.
Luckily, she says she is less interested in her title than in her role as a community leader. She will be fulfilling most rabbinic roles, such as ruling on Jewish law, teaching, and officiating at funerals, but not those that violate halachah such as leading certain prayers.
But the bigger question is how her new position will go down with the wider Orthodox community. Will her “ordination” by the popular, mainstream Rabbi Avi Weiss herald a revolution in Orthodox circles — the final acceptance of women rabbis, even if by a different name? Or is Orthodoxy about to break up, dividing those who recognise women “rabbis” and those who don’t?
Forcing the issue, Rabbi Weiss has just announced that he is opening Yeshivat Maharat, a school to “train women to become Orthodox Spiritual Leaders — full members of the Rabbinic Clergy”. An influx of Orthodox women “clergy” in American synagogues, schools and university campuses could follow.
For many Orthodox feminists, all this is not enough. “I was one of those who had hoped he would give her the title of rabbi,” acknowledges Blu Greenberg, the founder of Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. But she accepts that this might be the best option for now.
“It’s seen as a very positive step and has an impact on women,” she said.
Voices on the right-wing of Orthodoxy, meanwhile, have been relatively muted. No one has said that Rabbi Weiss can no longer be considered Orthodox. But there has been softer criticism.
“I don’t see how this promotes women’s learning,” Rabbi Yosef Blau of Yeshiva University told The Forward. “It makes it more controversial for women who are committed to learning.”
Some think right-wing Orthodox leaders are afraid of objecting too loudly, because in the past such criticism has backfired. Others say some of the criticism has been blunted by the decision to call Hurwitz a maharat rather than a rabbi. But no one thinks that this is a move they accept.
“There’s a real danger that one of these days modern Orthodoxy and Charedi Orthodoxy are going to find themselves in different movements,” warns historian Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University. The creation of the role of Maharat, he says, is “one of these steps that might lead us there.”
Rabbi Weiss rejects this notion.
“I don’t think it’s the women’s issues that are going to create a split,” he said. “The reality is that this split is evolving. It’s been happening over years.”
He deliberately avoided the term rabbi in order to make people more comfortable with his new programme. “When you do lead, you want to be ahead of your community, but not find yourself too far ahead.”
UK Orthodox communities are unlikely to hire Maharats any time soon. “If you give women the title of clergy, you give the impression that they can have a role in ritual affairs that they cannot carry out, such as officiating at weddings,” says Dayan Ivan Binstock. “I don’t see it happening here.”
But back in the US, there is a good chance that Rabbi Weiss’s revolution may succeed. According to Steven Bayme, director of Contemporary Jewish Life for the American Jewish Committee, the grassroots Orthodox tend to be much more open to progressive ideas than the leadership. The nature of Orthodoxy, he says, is still “very much up for grabs, and people like Avi Weiss deserve credit in trying to exercise their leadership in creating an Orthodoxy that’s truly modern.”