Feminism In Faith: Sara Hurwitz’s Road To Becoming The First Publicly Ordained Orthodox Jewish Rabba

How do you follow a historic achievement that was called a “radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition”? By starting a school to help train the first generation of female Orthodox Jewish clergy in the hopes they can do the same.

Photograph by Macey Foronda for BuzzFeed

When Sara Hurwitz says she loves going to synagogue so much that she would “cross rivers” to get there, I assume she means it as a figure of speech. But no: Growing up in Florida, Hurwitz always had a long walk to get to synagogue, so she took any shortcuts she could. Usually, that meant cutting behind houses, walking through fields, and crawling between a riverbank and a barbed wire fence. But one day, she found that the water level had risen too high above the bank.

“The only way, once I got to that barbed wire fence, was either to turn back — which was inconceivable — or to just duck in the water,” says the 36-year-old mother of three. “And so that’s what I did.” Looking a little sheepish, she adds, “It’s actually an embarrassing story. Because I was 15 — old enough to know better — and there was an alligator in that river with me. I feel like it’s a metaphor for me, trying to fight alligators.”

Hurwitz is the first woman in America to be publicly ordained as an Orthodox rabbi. She’s also the dean of Manhattan’s Yeshivat Maharat, the only Jewish seminary dedicated to training Orthodox women as synagogue clergy. Over the past five years, both she and the seminary have met with intense criticism from within the community — by becoming a female rabbi, Hurwitz has broken the mold of Orthodox Judaism. And by establishing a school like Yeshivat Maharat — which just last summer graduated its first cohort of three women — she’s given others an opportunity to earn the credentials for a career that, without her, would have been unthinkable.

Within minutes of meeting Hurwitz at the yeshiva, it’s clear that she is beloved. The student body — which this year includes 17 women, twentysomethings and grandmothers alike, all clad in the modern yet modest skirts and dresses of Orthodoxy — has just been released from class and descends upon Hurwitz in the hall. Even after we sit down — first in the beit midrash, or study hall, a large room whose walls are lined with volumes of the Talmud, and then in the classroom where we are forced to relocate, thanks to the electric thrum of voices debating the meaning of this foundational Jewish text — our conversation is punctuated by her urge to wave at the women who pass us by. Every single woman excitedly waves back.

Hurwitz, dressed in a plain skirt and long-sleeved shirt, her hair covered by a hat, was born in South Africa to traditional but non-Orthodox parents. Drawn to Orthodoxy from a young age, she never dreamed that she might someday be ordained. “I never had that ‘aha!’ moment of saying I wanted to be a rabbi,” Hurwitz tells me. “I never allowed myself to, because I didn’t know that it was going to be an option.” Even after she’d spent three years studying rabbinic texts at the Drisha Institute in New York, ordination didn’t seem attainable.

Then she began serving as a part-time congregational intern at Rabbi Avi Weiss’ Orthodox synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, in the Bronx. And the congregation responded so well to her that she and Weiss both started wondering what it would take to make her a full member of the clergy. They knew she’d need more learning under her belt to be respected as an authority. So, without knowing exactly what the end result would be, she decided to undertake another five years of study. And then she was done. She’d mastered all the texts required of male rabbinical students. She’d passed all the exams. She and Weiss were faced with the question “Now what?”

Rabbi Avi Weiss Mary Altaffer / AP Photo

One option — the reasonable, cautious option — was for Weiss to ordain Hurwitz in private, something that had already been done on a few occasions in the U.S. and Israel. In Orthodox Judaism, any public attempt to deviate from the age-old division of gender roles is bound to raise hackles. It’s a religion that has for centuries encoded women’s status as very different from men’s; the still-recited men’s prayer “Blessed are you, Lord our God, for not making me a woman” is a pretty stark case in point. Rabbis have barred or discouraged women from a myriad of activities: chanting from the Torah, singing in public, reciting the kaddish, or mourner’s prayer, studying Talmud, donning religious garments like tallit and tefillin, acting as witnesses in rabbinical courts, ritually slaughtering animals, circumcising male babies, becoming Torah scribes, sitting with men in synagogue, wearing pants — the list goes on.

In recent years, Orthodoxy has set itself apart from other denominations by clamping down even harder on women’s ritual rights. While the Conservative and Reform movements were encouraging women to publicly read from the Torah, serve as cantors, and wear tallit and tefillin, Orthodoxy was further excluding them from public space, silencing their singing voices, and discouraging them from adopting rituals — like tefillin — for which there is strong historical precedent of female participation, and zero textual prohibition. Keeping Hurwitz’s ordination private would allow Weiss to avoid tripping the alarms of the Orthodox establishment.

But Weiss isn’t exactly known for being cautious. Over the decades, his political activism has targeted everyone from accused Nazi war criminal Kurt Waldheim to Jimmy Carter to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate; he’s not a man to shy away from confrontation. He and Hurwitz wanted to show other women that they could pursue serious Torah study and have it actually evolve into a synagogue position.

So, in 2009, they decided to hold what they called a “conferral ceremony.” There, Weiss conferred upon his protégée the title of “maharat,” a Hebrew acronym he’d invented to mean “leader in Jewish law, spirituality, and education.” To their surprise, nobody leaped up in horror. The Orthodox establishment didn’t respond with a blast of outrage. Instead, women started coming up to Hurwitz and asking, “How do I sign up?”

That’s when Weiss and Hurwitz decided to try an experiment. They took out an ad in a Jewish newspaper announcing the opening of Yeshivat Maharat. Once again, they held their breath. But rather than the angry condemnations they expected, they received 35 applications. The next thing they knew, they had a school.

Everything might have gone very smoothly after that if Weiss hadn’t decided, in early 2010, to change Hurwitz’s title. She went from maharat, a word that nobody had ever heard of and that was failing to gain traction in the community, to “rabba,” a term instantly recognizable as the feminine form of “rabbi.” This time, all the alarm bells went off.

“These developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition,” said Agudath Israel of America, a major ultra-Orthodox rabbinic body. “Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.”

“We cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title,” declared a unanimously passed resolution of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest Orthodox rabbinic organization.

Weiss tried to explain that nothing about Hurwitz had changed but her title. Though she would be functioning much like a rabbi on a day-to-day basis — teaching classes, counseling couples, answering questions about Jewish law — she had every intention of faithfully obeying all of Orthodoxy’s ritual “red lines.” She wouldn’t count in a minyan, the quorum of 10 men required for certain religious practices. She wouldn’t lead prayer services. She wouldn’t sit on a beit din, a Jewish court, to oversee a marriage or a conversion.

But none of that mattered. Soon rabbis were accusing Weiss of corrupting the Torah, cheapening the word of God, and sabotaging the community. As Abigail Pogrebin later wrote, one respected scholar at the RCA’s annual convention reportedly went so far as to place the ordination of women in the category of yehareg ve’al ya’avor, which refers to religious prohibitions — like those against murder and idolatry — that a Jew should sooner die than transgress. The public mood escalated to such a feverish pitch that Weiss told a colleague, “The way people are reacting, you would think I killed somebody.”

“It was a very trying time,” Hurwitz tells me, laughing. “There were so many days when I wanted to take it all back.”

And she might have too — if not for the fact that it would have come as a huge disappointment to the many Orthodox girls and women now excited about the possibility of becoming a rabba. Because, although some Orthodox women had dismissed Hurwitz as beyond the pale of Jewish law, or become defensive at the idea that women can and should take on “male” roles, others had started sending her fan mail. Hurwitz recalls a letter sent to her by teenager Eden Farber, begging her not to take “rabba” back. She couldn’t bear to let Farber down; she would keep her title.

But, because of the pushback they’d received, Hurwitz and Weiss agreed to backtrack on that title where future students of Yeshivat Maharat were concerned. So far, they’ve stuck to their word, calling their graduates maharat.

That makes Hurwitz the only woman out there currently known by the title of rabba — a reality she describes as lonely. “I hope that changes. I hope I’m not always the only one,” she says. But, in a tone remarkably free of anger, she adds, “In the meantime, we have to move with the temperature of the community.”

In June 2013, Yeshivat Maharat graduated its inaugural cohort in a historic ceremony. It was the first time Orthodox women were being ordained publicly and with the backing of an institution. Adding to the festive mood was the fact that all three graduates already had jobs lined up: one at a synagogue in Washington, D.C., and two at a synagogue and school in Montreal. Despite all the invective the Orthodox establishment had hurled at the maharat program, it turned out that community leaders were willing — even thrilled — to hire its graduates.

“I saw it as a great opportunity to service the spiritual needs of the congregation,” says Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who hired Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman to work at Ohev Sholom, his Orthodox synagogue in D.C.

Herzfeld says his congregants were “incredibly supportive” of Friedman’s appointment. He counters the notion that a woman serving as spiritual leader is at all problematic. “This is very natural and in accordance with halacha,” he says, referring to Jewish law. “In our community, it makes perfect sense. Women are leaders in every single aspect of their lives, and then when it comes to spirituality, you’re going to say, ‘You can’t be a leader’?”

Impressed with Friedman’s work, Herzfeld has become an outspoken ally for her colleagues. “The maharat has done such an amazing job that I find myself telling other congregations, ‘I cannot imagine now how a synagogue cannot have a maharat.’”

Echoes of this positive reception have made their way to Yeshivat Maharat, bolstering its dean. “Since the graduation this past June, there’s been a shift,” Hurwitz says. “There’s been a newfound sense of confidence. We’re establishing facts on the ground, and it’s changing the Orthodox community.”

This change isn’t completely without historical precedent: Non-Orthodox Jewish denominations have been ordaining women for decades, starting with the Reform and Reconstructionist branches in the 1970s and continuing with the Conservative movement in the 1980s. Even in Orthodox Judaism, there have been a few women throughout the ages who effectively acted in rabbinic roles, though they were never officially ordained. Take the Maiden of Ludmir, who became a Hasidic rebbe in the 19th century. Or Marat Osnat, who took over from her father as head of the Yeshiva of Kurdistan in the 16th century. These women are the real role models for Yeshivat Maharat’s graduates, all of whom are determined to start serving their communities now, even if those communities aren’t quite ready to recognize them as rabbis. Though they may chafe at Orthodoxy’s careful, plodding, slow-to-evolve system, the graduates also revere and trust it fully; after all, it’s what has preserved Jewish tradition across the centuries. Instead of jettisoning it, they want to push it from within.

How the Orthodox movement will respond to the graduates remains to be seen. “It’s hard to know if they’re perceived as mainstream,” Hurwitz says. “I feel mainstream, and I feel like they should be.” She embraces the word “feminist,” but bristles at words like “reformer” and “trailblazer” — and says the three maharats out there would probably do the same.

But the maharats-in-training, it seems, have a bit more fire. Dasi Fruchter, who at 24 is one of the yeshiva’s youngest students, is easy to spot as she sits poring over a Talmud in the beit midrash: She’s the one wearing bright red lipstick. When I ask her if she considers herself a feminist reformer of Orthodox Judaism, she simply says, “Yes.”

She also tells me that, whereas the inaugural cohort of graduates has to be somewhat careful, because “whatever they do will be much more scrutinized,” the next generation of maharats “will have the luxury to ask harder questions.” It’s like a chess game, where each tiny strategic advance lays the groundwork for the next, more daring move. For Fruchter, the fact that the religion is slow to change isn’t annoying; it’s comforting. “I love the molasses nature of Orthodoxy,” she laughs. “It’s sweet and gooey and slow and rich.”

Fruchter isn’t sure what honorific she’ll get when she graduates in 2016. Whether Weiss will once again be willing to give out the title of rabba by that point, she can’t say. For now, she notes, he’s “definitely picking his battles.” And the term “rabba” is clearly still embattled: Asked whether he would hire a woman who came with that title, Herzfeld declined to answer, saying, “I’ll leave the semantics game to other organizations to work out.”

In the meantime, the contrast between Fruchter’s demeanor and Hurwitz’s is striking. “I don’t feel lonely,” Fruchter says. “Because we’re a community now, challenges from the outside don’t feel so scary or threatening.”

This confidence owes itself, of course, to Hurwitz, who fought the initial battle and created Yeshivat Maharat so that the women who came after her wouldn’t have to go it alone the way she did. Fruchter says that leaves her and her peers with a serious responsibility: “Our job as students is to make sure that what happened to Rabba Sara never happens again.”

If the word “lonely” comes up a lot in conversation with Hurwitz, there is only one word that surfaces more frequently, and that is “necessary.”

“It’s my new buzzword,” Hurwitz laughs. The more time passes, she says, the more she realizes that female leadership is “necessary to the survival of the Orthodox community.”

Hurwitz doesn’t resort to the essentialist argument that women clergy members are necessary because of their uniquely “female” traits, like willingness to collaborate. Instead, she notes that women will often feel more comfortable coming to female clergy members for advice on issues related to the body, fertility, and sexuality — and that these clergy members will have the advantage of being able to draw on their own experience. Besides, “just taking from 100% of the pool is going to be better for the community,” Hurwitz says. She believes the Orthodox establishment will inevitably come around to this pragmatic point of view, with the dawning realization that women’s struggle for ordination — like feminism writ large — isn’t about angry women trying to usurp power from men, but about women’s sincere desire to do what comes most naturally to them.

Is it safe to assume, then, that the Orthodox world will consider ordaining women “kosher” 20 years from now? “I have to assume yes,” she says. “We’re on the right side of history.”

Something about Hurwitz’s smile — wry, but totally empty of resentment, and full of confidence in her co-religionists’ ability and willingness to evolve — disarms me. Suddenly, I find myself leaning toward her, eager to confide.

If Yeshivat Maharat had existed 10 or even five years earlier, I tell her, I could very easily have ended up as one of her students. In my early twenties, I had seriously considered becoming a rabbi. But, growing up in Montreal’s Orthodox community — a community that always struck me as insular and parochial — I couldn’t help viewing a life in the rabbinate as an exercise in masochism. Orthodoxy was evolving, I knew, but at an unbearably slow pace. That was why, when I heard last year that not one but two maharats had taken up roles in a Montreal synagogue, I was shocked.

Hurwitz lets out a deep sigh. “I hear this all the time from people, actually.” Many young women opt out of Orthodox Judaism, she says, because they feel like they don’t have a voice. If they knew that ordination were an option for them, they would remain more committed. “I can only hope that girls from now on will see Orthodox women reaching the highest level of authority within tradition — and stay excited.”

If young women like Fruchter are any indication, Hurwitz’s hope is fast becoming a reality. Still, Fruchter admits that being a maharat-in-training is not without challenges. She’s gotten negative pushback, mostly from Orthodox women who read in her actions an implication that the way they’re living isn’t good enough. She says maharats often have to prove themselves, especially when it comes to their knowledge of Jewish law.

Hurwitz says they all look forward to a time when it will seem completely natural for Orthodox women to pursue this career. “But for now, they have to be really good at what they do. They have to be better, probably, than their male counterparts. In the community they’re in, this is still uncharted territory.”

***

Continue to part II, “Kate Kelly’s Mission To Ordain Mormon Women.”

Return to the Feminism in Faith page.

Photograph by Macey Foronda for BuzzFeed










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