Women's rabbinical rights

The male rabbinic establishment should start acting like, well, men – and allow women to prove themselves on an even playing field.

‘Assertive” Orthodox women are making some men very nervous. The haredi Agudath Israel of America’s Council of Rabbinic Sages (Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah) has excommunicated the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox congregation in the Bronx, for recognizing Sara Hurwitz, a 33-year-old mother of three, as a rabbi.
“These developments,” wrote 10 of America’s leading Orthodox rabbis, “represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition... and must be condemned in the strongest terms. Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.”
Even the more moderate Rabbinical Council of America is considering taking the drastic step of expelling from its ranks Rabbi Avi Weiss, the senior rabbi at Riverdale, who ordained Hurwitz and made her a full member of his rabbinic staff, according to the New York Jewish Week.
The Agudah, and apparently the RCA, are up in arms over Weiss’s unequivocal recent statement that Hurwitz, who last March was bestowed the title of “Maharat,” an acronym for halachic, spiritual and Torah leader (manhiga hilchatit ruhanit toranit), would now be called “rabbah.”
We would recommend that both the Agudah and the RCA calm down and stop using bullying tactics to intimidate rabbis and congregations into submission. A centralized rabbinic body dictating practice to the faithful is an anachronism. Today, individuals choose to belong or not to belong to Orthodox strictures of their own free will.
The proper course of action for both the Agudah and the RCA is to use reason and the power of persuasion to argue, in the free market of ideas, in favor of maintaining traditional gender roles.
AT FIRST glance, Orthodoxy’s extreme reaction to Rabbah Hurwitz is difficult to understand, considering the fact that technically, there is no clear halachic prohibition against the ordination of female rabbis.
For instance, at Nishmat, a Jerusalem institute of higher Torah education for women, which is fully accepted in mainstream Orthodox circles, women already serve a quasi-rabbinic position. To avoid arousing the rancor of the men, these women are careful to call themselves halachic advisers (yo’atzot halacha).
But in practice these scholars of Halacha function as rabbis, fielding questions from fellow women involving intimate matters of menstruation, sexual relations and reproduction. In recent decades, numerous educational frameworks for women have produce exceedingly erudite female scholars who are on par with most males.
What really seems to bother Orthodox men is the challenge that women represent to their hegemony. Appointing women as rabbis undermines traditional gender roles that relegate women to cooking, cleaning and rearing children, while freeing men to do ostensibly more interesting things such as excelling at Torah scholarship or learning a profession.
The male-dominated rabbinic establishment seems to have a visceral (Freudian?) fear that female clergy will outperform them on the pulpit. Hurwitz, a graduate of Columbia who studied in several of the leading Torah institutes for women in America and in Israel, certainly appears to have the intellectual and interpersonal abilities to challenge many male rabbis.
Throughout her life Hurwitz, who has been under Weiss’s tutelage for the past seven years, has been involved with teaching, organizational leadership and outreach in various Orthodox frameworks. If viewed as an adversary, she is definitely a formidable one.
Admittedly, recent social research has shown that in liberal streams of Judaism, where women are allowed to take on leadership roles, men are increasingly being pushed out.
In a study published in 2008, Sylvia Barack Fishman and Daniel Parmer of Brandeis University argued that as women dominate rabbinic, cantorial and communal roles and feminize them, men lose interest. Orthodox opponents of gender egalitarianism have marshalled the findings as proof that liberal streams of Judaism erred when they opened leadership roles to women.
A closer look at this argument, however, reveals a galling premise:Orthodox leaders would have us forfeit the potential contribution ofhalf of a shrinking world Jewish population in order to prevent theother half from being intimidated by females’ sometimes superiorabilities.
The male rabbinic establishment should start acting like, well, men –and allow women to prove themselves on an even playing field.