Rabbi Avi Weiss’s Bridge Too Far On Female Orthodox Rabbis

Rabbi Avi Weiss miscalculated. He thought he could get support on this issue without talking to anyone.

His approach was the opposite of Chana Henkin‘s. She created a limited semicha (rabbinic ordination) for women to rule on Jewish law. She moved slowly. She got support. She went for real power for women rather than for the show of power. The women in her first classes were so carefully picked that they did not try to overturn the system. They made a good impression on the rabbinic establishment in Israel. A woman in the first graduating class because the first woman to work in the administration of Israel’s Batei Dins (religious law courts).

Thirty years ago, if you went into the Chief Rabbi’s office in Israel, there was not a woman there. Now it is filled with them. Ninety percent of the secretaries are women. It wasn’t that they protested, but the women who went to work there did their jobs very well and they were very careful. They created real change.

I don’t think Rabbi Avi Weiss consulted with other rabbis before he conferred the title of “Rabbi” on Sarah Hurwitz. He then backtracked and made a deal with the RCA to not confer such a title on any more women.

Few if any of Rabbi Avi Weiss’s natural rabbis publicly supported him when he gave the title “Rabba” to Sarah Hurwitz.

Rabbis such as Saul Berman and Marc Angel are major players in Modern Orthodoxy. I wonder if they were consulted on “Rabba Sarah Hurwitz”? I suspect they felt blindsided.

If Rabbi Weiss had defined “rabba” as something close to what Nishmat had already done, there would not have been as much outrage. Even in Haredi circles, Nishmat creates little blowback. Many Haredi women call its hotline with questions about the family purity laws and the like. It’s accepted.

With the “rabba” title, Rabbi Avi Weiss failed to say what such women could and could not do. What kind of rabbi are they? Are they a traditional rabbi in the 19th Century model, a rabbi who’s primarily a dayan? That would be a big problem because the women in line to get the “rabba” title are not sufficiently learned. Are they a traditional rabbi in the early 20th Century model where the rabbi is primarily a posek? That’s also a problem because of the lack of learning required to get the “rabba” title. Few if any Yeshivat Chovevei Torah graduates merit such distinction. Few if any YCT grads have the Torah learning of their YU peers.

If you are saying that a “rabba” is a teacher, that is not a problem. If you are saying that a “rabba” is a darshan (preacher), that is not a problem.

I’m really very wise and if the rabbis would simply consult with me privately before they go public with their decisions, I could save them a lot of grief.

Chana Henkin did not give her women a title. She gave them a function.

Do you want power or do you want the aura of power? The title of “Rabba” has the aura of power.

The Queen of England has no power. She has the aura of power. She has nice robes and she wears nice jewels. She looks like she has power.

Chana Henkin went for real power, not the appearance of power.

Rabbi Avi Weiss went for the robe of power with the title of “Rabba” but he didn’t even get that because nobody in Orthodox Judaism is going to recognize “Rabba Sarah Hurwitz”.

If Rabbi Avi Weiss had spoken to his colleagues, I don’t think he would’ve acted as he did.

Now take me by contrast. Before I blog anything significant, I always talk to the rabbis first to get their permission. Thus they all line up behind my blog whenever I become controversial.

I can’t imagine that this controversy has done Rabbi Weiss’s institution Yeshivat Chovevei Torah any good.

Rabbi Avi Weiss has serious financial backing. To get its graduates jobs, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah underwrites their salaries (it is done differently each year but essentially YCT underwrites 75% of the rabbi’s first year salary, 50% of the second year, 25% of the third year). Thus a lot of shuls see it as a good deal to hire a YCT graduate over a YU grad even if the rabbi won’t be accepted as a member of the RCA.

If Yeshivat Chovevei Torah gets looked upon as the whacky yeshiva that ordains women, then those financially shaky shuls in small cities that hire YCT grads may think a second time.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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