The Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism have ordained women rabbis for more than 20 years — Reform since 1972, Conservative since 1985. But the rabbinate remains strictly off-limits for women in Orthodox Judaism.
Last year, a politically progressive Orthodox rabbi in Riverdale (the Bronx) ordained a woman named Sara Hurwitz. Rather than call her a rabbi, he gave her the newly-invented title of Mahara’t, or Manhigah Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit, “Leader in Halakha [Law], Spirituality and Torah.”
But most people had no idea what a Mahara’t was. So early this year, Hurwitz’s mentor rabbi said she could start calling herself “rabba,” the feminine word for rabbi.
And the Orthodox establishment clamped down.
You can read the whole story in an excellent article by Rachel Barenblat in an online magazine called Religion Dispatches : Sara Hurwitz’s ‘Rabba’ Title Sparks Orthodox Jewish Condemnation | Sexuality & Gender | ReligionDispatches.
Barenblat is a poet and rabbinical student in the Jewish Renewal movement who writes a great blog called The Velveteen Rabbi. About the rabba controversy, she writes:
“…in the Orthodox world, ordaining women remains a radical move—perhaps because Orthodoxy is a culture in which men and women assume divergent gender roles in largely separate social spheres. The mainstream Orthodox viewpoint holds that God created men and women to be different according to divine purpose…. Within that paradigm, for a woman to choose a position of communal leadership serving people of both genders is seen as immodest at best, and at worst an inversion of the divine order.
“Of course Orthodoxy isn’t monolithic on this or any other issue. There have long been voices within Orthodoxy arguing for the ordination of women, among them Orthodox rebbetzin Blu Greenberg, who’s been outspoken on the need for Orthodox women’s ordination since the 1980s. Though Orthodox gender rules preclude women leading mixed-gender worship, the role of rabbi includes many other functions which women can perform even within an Orthodox framework—and there’s nothing in halakha (Jewish law) which explicitly prohibits women’s ordination.
“A small handful of women have been ordained within the Orthodox world, though they’ve responded to their groundbreaking role in a variety of ways. Mimi Feigelson was ordained in 1994, but doesn’t use the title “rabbi” out of respect for the social structure of Orthodoxy. (She currently teaches at the American Jewish University in California.) In 2006, Rabbi Haviva Ner-David was ordained by Ari Strikovsky in Tel Aviv. (For more on her journey, I recommend Life on the Fringes (JFL Books), her memoir published in 2000.) And now there’s Rabba Sara Hurwitz, or Mahara”t Hurwitz, as the case may be.
“Most of the Jews I know assume that women’s ordination will become an accepted part of Orthodox practice someday…. Surely this is just another glass ceiling which, once broken, will seem ridiculous in retrospect.
“But the brouhaha over Sara Hurwitz’s brief stint with the title Rabba shows that the use of any variation on the title “Rabbi” to describe a woman is still largely unthinkable within a mainstream Orthodox framework. Maybe by the time my infant son grows up, my female Orthodox rabbinic colleagues will be called rabbi just like those of us in the other denominations… but I’m not holding my breath.”