Sara Hurwitz made Jewish history last month when Rabbi Avi Weiss declared her the first Orthodox “rabba,” or female rabbi. As expected, the Orthodox community promptly freaked out. The Agudath Israel Coucil called it “a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition.” There were even rumors the Rabbinical Council of America was considering expelling Rabbi Weiss for his trespass. (RCA President Rabbi Moseh Kletenik calls these rumors false.) Caving to the pressure, Rabbi Weiss promised not to grant the title to any other women.
Speaking with Heeb, Hurwitz talked about the controversy and her thoughts. Though armed with all sorts of typically outrageous Heeb questions, her soft, thoughtful tone kept me respectful — clear proof of her magic Jewish powers. She might get demoted to “maharat” soon, whatever that means, but she’ll always be “Rabba Hurwitz” to us.
To clarify for our pretty secular readers, you’re the first Orthodox female rabbi, right?
Um, I have trouble with the language of “first,” because there are women who have privately learned with rabbis who are also functioning in a rabbinic position. I think I may be the first one working in a shul, and to have taken all the relevant tests and have a signed certificate indicating that.
First official, then?
Kinda like crashing the ultimate boys club. How long did you study?
I studied for three years at Drisha institute and five years under the auspices of Rabbi Weiss.
So there’s a big thing about what to call you. Some Orthodox aren’t cool with “rabba”?
My title is still “rabba” for now. We’re undergoing much conversation and dialogue within our community to see if that title is the appropriate title for me and my community for now. I think in the future we’re deciding what the right title is for the graduates of the school I opened with Rabbi Weiss, Yeshivat Maharat. So right now, the title is probably going to be “maharat,” which was my old title. It essentially means leader in Torah and Halaka – in Jewish law and spirituality.
Could a female rabbi ever lead an Orthodox congregation? On the pulpit and everything?
Yeah, there are ways for an Orthodox woman to be a religious leader. I would say 90 percent of the job overlaps – that both men and women can do. There’s 10 percent within an Orthodox community that a woman cannot do: She cannot lead certain parts of the service; she cannot sit on a bet din, a religious body of law; she cannot be counted toward a quorum. But there are a lot of things she can do that a man can’t: She could oversee a woman go into the mikvah during the conversion process; she can help women maneuver through more intimate details of their lives having to do with sexuality and their menstrual cycles — things women feel more comfortable going to another woman about . . .
On a separate note, there were a few weird rulings from the ultra-Orthodox this week concerning women. Any feelings about women with braces on their teeth getting outlawed from the mikvah?
I have heard of it. Braces are absolutely fine in the mikvah.
So do you think you’re the first of many? Or is the community too resistant to change?
No, I’m the first of many, absolutely. I think that facts on the ground are what will be important here, and the more women that are serving and impacting the community, the more comfortable the community will be seeing in seeing women in leadership roles.
So more Orthodox Bat Mitzvahs for girls on the way?
There are many ways for a girl to have an Orthodox Bat Mitzvah . . . in a women’s prayer group, or she can give a speech in shul or at a party. You know, right now we’re not looking to change the framework of the Orthodox community. We’re not looking to have women come up to the Torah during services. I think that falls, right now, outside of the pale of the Orthodox community. We’re just looking for, within the framework of Halaka, more women to lead and contribute and impact the community.
Good luck. Sound far more progressive than anything I expected from the Orthodox.
Thank you. I appreciate it.
So can you explain why the semantics of your title seem so important to everybody?
[Laughs] I wish I could. Trying to figure it out now. You know, there’s certain language that people have been using for centuries. Any traditional language being associated with something new is difficult for people. And having women as spiritual leaders is a new phenomenon, and so we’re all trying to figure out what the right language is.