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Upper West Side: Meet the Maharats

Susan Reimer-Torn
June 25, 2013

Misogyny and What It Takes to Move On

Upper-West-Side2-300x225It was a late springtime graduation unlike any other, a landmark event in Jewish history. For the first time ever, three women were granted smikha, clerical ordination, by three male Orthodox rabbis who had taken a much-publicized stance in support of this controversial departure from past practice. On June 16th, at the Ramaz School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the three women became spiritual leaders and legal authorities within Orthodox Jewry with the bestowal of a parchment and the recitation of a specially chosen biblical phrase: Our sister, may you become a multitude (Genesis 24:60).

finegoldOn stage, Rachel Kohl Finegold (at right), 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.”

It was not casual when Rabbi Avi Weiss, Yeshivat Maharat’s champion and founder, informed his listeners that “there is no halakhic prohibition” against ordaining women. When he next Intoned a phrase from the Song of Songs, Weiss 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.” Weiss’ mantra was also a position statement that let his right-wing detractors know that these maharats would be setting a few legal precedents of their own — and what’s more, that there would be no use invoking the prohibition of “kol isha” (women’s voices), as often in the past, to silence women’s voices entirely.

The title granted the three graduates, however, is not rabbi (or rabba, the feminine form). Rather, in a concession to the fierce opponents of female ordination, the women are to be known as maharat, an acronym for “Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit,” a teacher of Jewish law and spirituality. 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 and move forward than to risk censure and the likely shunning of his rabbinical school’s male candidates (along with the women) by the Orthodox mainstream.

For all these reasons, the ordination was underpinned with a tacit agreement to downplay 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.” Although this educator is an undisputed innovator, his openness to egalitarian 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 agree to more than 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 Billie 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 Jewish Theological Seminary more than a decade 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 even in more liberal communities just a few decades ago. “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 monolithic 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. While no one is drawing up a fresh bill of rights, Rabbi Jan is right 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 authoritative 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. Why their husbands couldn’t help them out with a bottle on this exceptional occasion is another question.)

Surely, they will bring who they are into the domain of halakha. These women have daunting issues of work-life balance to figure out, and they are already adept at another kind of balancing act -- they are scholarly 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.

Susan Reimer-Torn blogs at and is the author of the upcoming memoir: Maybe Not Such a Good Girl, to be published by Blue Thread, the book imprint of Jewish Currents.

Susan Reimer-Torn is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return.