Friday, October 15, 2010

Yeshivat Maharat

I’m not sure what the Rabbinical Council of America is doing with this. But I guess for the time being they are going to ignore it.

The issue is Yeshivat Maharat. This is a seminary designed to train women to be rabbis. Here is how they put it on their website:

“to train women to be fully integrated into the Orthodox community as spiritual leaders and halachic authorities.”

It was founded after the first such woman, Sara Hurwitz, was ordained by Rabbi Avi Weiss. Rabbi Weiss - knowing that ordaining female rabbis was a ground breaking and radical innovation in Orthodox Judaism that would never be tolerated – obfuscated and decided to call her Maharat at first. That is a Hebrew acronym meaning spiritual advisor.

He soon regretted that appellation calling it confusing and decided to call her Rabba explaining that the term was meant to clearly state that she is really a rabbi and the slight change is simply grammatical - the correct female form of the Hebrew word . (I suspect that in reality he wanted to call her rabbi but still fearing the repercussions of calling her that decided to get as close to calling her ‘rabbi’ as possible.)

He did not expect that event to have the repercussions that it did.

The Agudah Moetzes basically threw him out of Orthodoxy – claiming it to be a clear and impermissible break from tradition (albeit not actually calling it a violation of Halacha – interestingly enough). Perhaps that was surprising to him, but not being in their camp – it did not have any enough impact on him to retract.

But then came the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). They met with him and told him in clear and unequivocal terms that female rabbis are unacceptable – and they could not accept someone who ordains women within their ranks. If he did not retract the title ‘rabba’ and promise not to ordain any more female rabbis - he would be expelled from their organization. In a rare public comment about the RCA the Agudah publicly applauded them for that.

An article in the Forward makes it is quite clear that Rabbi Weiss is going full steam ahead on a path to train women for positions of spiritual leadership. They may not be using the word ‘ordain’ or call them ‘rabbis’ but they will in effect be training women for the rabbinate. Women will be studying the same material that male candidates for the rabbinate do, be tested on it, and if they pass will be considered on par with male rabbis. The title will really be beside the point.

I do not believe that this was the intent behind the agreement hashed out between the RCA and Rabbi Weiss. Will the RCA continue to allow Rabbi Weiss membership? Or will they expel him? RCA president Rabbi Moshe Kletenik has said that he is not going to comment on ‘hypotheticals’ since no women are scheduled to be ordained from Maharat for a few years. But if their mission statement doesn’t say it all, nothing does.

For his part it appears that Rabbi Weiss sees the agreement as a question of semantics. When Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, the Rosh HaYeshiva of the Maharat was asked what title will be given to those graduating from his seminary he said, “Every title is on the table, including ‘rabba’” .

He later withdrew his statement after discussing it with Rabbi Weiss. What is clear however is that from the perspective of Rabbi Weiss and the rabbinic board at Maharat it’s all about the name and not about the product: As Rabbi Fox noted: “None of us wants to enter into a debate about titles with or without an R and two Bs in them. It’s just a waste of communal energy.” To him the product of Yeshivat Maharat will apparently be a female rabbi but with an alternative title.

I have written about this issue the past and will not go into detail. But I will briefly restate the reasons for my opposition. It is not because they are intellectually incapable of it. They are. I would even say that there are some women who may be better suited to it intellectually than some men who already are rabbis. I am opposed because it is a radical departure from both tradition and the norm. A departure that in my view is at its core fueled by egalitarian motives.

Furthermore I am opposed because the traditional and primary function of a rabbi is in the Shul. A female Shul rabbi is at best something very awkward. She could not participate in the Minyan, and may not even be in the sanctuary during the prayer service – requiring her separation from the men by partition. Her presence among the men would invalidate the Minyan and perhaps even their prayer. It just doesn’t make any sense no matter how possible it is to technically accommodate her Halachicly.

On the other hand I strongly believe that women have a right to learn Torah at whatever level they choose. And that they deserve recognition for their accomplishments.

I also recognize that many women - even Charedi women - are already involved in some way in various leadership positions, whether as teachers, principals, or seminary heads. And in the case of Modern Orthodoxy they are even in positions as Halachic advisers for women in matters of Taharas HaMishpacha (Yoatzot) having had full training in these matters – something which I support.

I have no real problem with any of that. The problem is breaking tradition for what I strongly believe are the wrong reasons. Ordaining (or graduating – call it what you will) women as rabbis for egalitarian purposes is not sufficient reason for it - whether that title is used or not.

Nonetheless that is what Rabbi Weiss and his rabbinic board at Yeshivat Maharat intends to do. That much is clear.

The RCA must be consistent here. While acknowledging the rights of women to learn, achieve, and participate in Jewish religious life as leaders, they should not allow a member rabbi to break the barriers of tradition for purposes of egalitarianism by running a rabbinical Seminary for women. Was that not the intent of the condition allowing Rabbi Weiss continued membership in their fraternity?

It should be noted that some members of the RCA are very sympathetic to Rabbi Weiss and are upset at the RCA leadership for prohibiting a member from following his conscience. But they are in the minority and their position is not the one adopted by the majority membership.

Yeshivat Maharat deserves a response from the RCA. They need to make their position clear and repudiate a rabbinical seminary for women no matter what they call their graduates.