Rabbi Avi Weiss Rabbi has a reputation for being a somewhat unorthodox Orthodox rabbi.
Last year the religious leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx gave smiha, or ordination, to a woman through his Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school, conferring on her the title of “rabbah.”
The ensuing firestorm of controversy caused Weiss to back down from any such future ordinations, although he remains a strong advocate for women serving as teachers and decisors of Jewish law and undertaking “90 percent of the functions done by a rabbi.”
So when he spoke at the Douglass College student center on Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus on Feb. 17 at the invitation of Rutgers Hillel, his aim was to focus on pluralism and the importance of respecting the plethora of acceptable religious practices within the Jewish community.
In response to a questions from members of the denominationally mixed audience of students and community members, Weiss said that in conferring the title of rabbah on Sara Hurwitz, he was not acting to promote acceptance of feminist principles.
In embracing that particular pluralistic approach, Weiss said, “I was motivated by am Yisrael, the whole of the Jewish people. We need more spiritual leaders; we need to dip into the pool, so why should we use only 50 percent of the pool?”
Weiss founded Yeshivat Maharat in 2009 as the first institution designed to train women to be fully integrated into the Orthodox community as spiritual leaders and halachic authorities.
In March he reached agreement with the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America to discontinue ordaining women and conferring the title of rabbah.
Although strict adherence to Halacha, or Jewish law, within the Orthodox streams forbids allowing women to perform certain religious and life-cycle functions, Weiss said, women can and do perform such functions as leading prayer at a house of shiva, leading women’s prayer groups, delivering sermons and divrei Torah, counseling, teaching Torah, and acting as poskim, or decisors of Jewish law. Moreover, Weiss said, they can also fulfill what he called the most important role of a rabbi: “being there” for congregants.
He said that women at a handful of Modern Orthodox synagogues are, in fact, handling acceptable religious duties and lamented that more weren’t joining them.
While many established Orthodox educational institutions have advanced academic programs for women, there are still few women leaders of yeshivot, an unfortunate situation, Weiss said, given that he believes it should be accepted that “the sky is the limit” for women seeking such leadership positions.
‘A heroic figure’
Weiss called Hurwitz “a heroic figure” and “a wonderful, unusual, caring person”; he declared that he “will never take back her smiha.”
Hurwitz, who studied seven years with Weiss, had originally been given the title “maharat,” shorthand for leader in legal, spiritual, and Torah matters. However, reflecting the disdain that some felt for her religious designation, the last syllable was often deliberately mispronounced to sound like the rodent, said Weiss.
“When you begin a movement that is not in the mainstream you must begin on the edge,” said Weiss.
Referencing other “unpopular” ideas in history, Weiss said that the biblical patriarch Abraham’s belief in monotheism was not readily accepted and activists in the movement to free Soviet Jews in its infancy were “very lonely.” Likewise, he said, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was told by some African-Americans when he began his civil rights movement in the South “to go home; you’re a troublemaker.”
“A lot of people in my life have said, ‘Avi, you’re a big troublemaker,’” said Weiss. “I like that. I want to be a troublemaker. I want to speak out on things that are not always popular but that are right.”
Weiss said that while he himself follows Halacha and cannot accept full egalitarianism and other aspects of the more liberal denominations, they all deserve respect.
“That doesn’t mean I agree with them,” he said. “As an Orthodox rabbi, I disagree with my Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist colleagues. But I’m in good company because they all disagree with me.
“Pluralism is learning to love and respect each other. We all have to appreciate each other.”