What’s in a name? When it comes to the title of a scholar who is helping redefine the role of women in Modern Orthodoxy, the answer is “plenty.”
Were Sara Hurwitz not Orthodox, she might simply be called “rabbi.” Hurwitz is part of the rabbinic staff at the Orthodox Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and received smiha, or ordination, under the supervision of HIR’s Rabbi Avi Weiss. She serves as dean of Yeshivat Maharat — a training ground for women like her — and dean of rabbinic studies at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the “open Orthodox” seminary.
Last year, Weiss, the leading male voice among Orthodox feminists, conferred upon her the title of “maharat,” an acronym that refers to her expertise in Jewish law, spiritual leadership, and Torah scholarship. Last month, Weiss announced she would be called “rabbah,” a feminized version of “rabbi” that comes even closer to setting a precedent — some would say breaking a taboo — within contemporary Orthodoxy, where the title and functions of a rabbi are reserved for men.
Hurwitz said the new title reflects her philosophy and provides recognizable authority. She advocated for “rabbah” even after receiving the title “maharat” at her ordination under Weiss in 2009. It confused people, she said.
“I had to go into a whole description of my job.” Unlike her Reform and Conservative counterparts, however, she never wanted to be called rabbi. “Rabbah reflects that we have something unique to offer.”
Hurwitz will undoubtedly reflect on her own path-breaking career when she appears at Mount Freedom Jewish Center on Sunday, Feb. 21. Her stated topic is one of her favorite talmudic figures, Yalta, who is mentioned several times in the Babylonian Talmud as the wife of Rabbi Nachman, a sage from the third century.
“Yalta is described as brilliant, learned, a leader, or she is described as destructive and pushing the envelope too much,” Hurwitz told NJJN. “She’s a role model for me. I felt when I found her like I had discovered a long-lost friend.”
Hurwitz offers an understanding nod to those not ready to accept her status but is quick to articulate the importance of women rabbis.
“In general, women have a more collaborative way, a less authoritarian way, and they bring certain sensitivities to the role that men don’t have,” she said. She pointed to the difference that she sees her presence makes in the synagogue’s women’s section.
“It helps women feel comfortable and engaged in services,” she said. “If a woman’s son is celebrating becoming a bar mitzva, I’ll stand with her and dance and celebrate. It’s also powerful to have a woman walk onto the bima, and we pass the Torah around on the women’s side. Knowing they can each be selected to take the Torah around helps women feel engaged in the service and that they are not just observers.”
She suggested that when it comes to certain issues — like the plight of women whose recalcitrant husbands refuse to grant them a divorce — women rabbinic scholars just might make the difference.
“I think as a woman I bring special sensitivity to this issue and can move it forward,” she said.
Finally, she said that women approach Torah differently. “It’s a patriarchal text. Sometimes I end up asking what women’s voices would have been in the text, more so than my male counterparts,” she said.
‘People are wary’
Originally from South Africa, Hurwitz moved to the United States in 1989. At 32, in addition to her responsibilities as a Jewish community leader, she is a busy mother of three. “I’m always supposed to be in two different places,” she said. “I just put one foot in front of the other, and I only do one thing at a time. If I thought about the big picture all the time, I would be overwhelmed.”
Hurwitz acknowledged that her reception among Orthodox Jews has varied.
“Within my community, people are very responsive and supportive,” she said. Under Weiss, who also founded Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, HIR has become a flagship for what he calls “open Orthodoxy,” a counterweight to what its proponents see as a reactionary trend within Orthodoxy in general.
“People really look at me as their rabbi, and I function as their rabbi. Outside my community, it’s mixed,” she said. “People to the right are uncomfortable with the concept of having a woman at the forefront of rabbinic leadership. They are not sure. It’s too new and people are wary.”
Wary may be an understatement. Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, called her ordination an “essential break” with Jewish tradition. Commenting at On the Fringe, a Jewish feminist blog, a reader wrote of Hurwitz’ new title: “The shtick isn’t going to fly. All that Avi Weiss has done is further marginalize himself.”
Hurwitz takes such criticism in stride. “Until there are talented female spiritual leaders in the community, it will take time for people to get used to the idea,” she said.
She is also quick to point out that she does not minister only to women.
“I function as a rabbi to men and women who seek me out and ask my advice. I really get a broad range of questions,” she said. “I’m happy to be an expert in the laws of niddah [menstruation and ritual “purity”], but I don’t feel pigeonholed there at all. There are also questions about Shabbat and kashrut, and things that impact people’s daily lives.”
While she has faced plenty of hurdles on her way to the rabbinate, she believes the biggest challenges lie ahead. “This whole movement is not about me. It’s about creating opportunities for women to forge this path.”
To that end, Yeshivat Maharat was launched in September. Four women are enrolled this year, with three more taking prerequisites to become eligible.
Said Hurwitz: “We have a lot of work to still do in terms of helping people understand that this is the wave of the future.”