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She’s no laity: Orthodox women clergy and the problem of titles

Titles Orthodox women clergy CAN use (well, maybe), since the one concocted to avoid 'rabbi' is out

Over half a century ago, the great Rodgers and Hammerstein eloquently captured one of Modern Orthodoxy’s greatest challenges in their frank yet catchy ditty: “How do you solve a problem like maharats? How do you catch a woman and pin her down? How do you find the word that means ‘maharat’? A flibbertijibbet! A will-o’-the wisp! A clown!”*

And yet, in 2017, we find ourselves still scratching our heads and wondering: How do you solve a problem like maharats?

Let’s take a step back. Back in 2009, the word “maharat” — an acronym of “Manhigah Hilkhatit Ruchanit,” Hebrew for “leader of Jewish law, spirituality and Torah” — was developed as a title for Orthodox women who were entering the field of community leadership. The innovative terminology was intended to make it abundantly clear that these women clergy would not be called “rabbis,” God forbid. That designation would be reserved for the men.

But, apparently, the title “maharat” was still too close for the Orthodox Union’s rabbinic comfort, even among those who officially claim to support the work these women do.

A May 19th Washington Post article, which describes the clash between the OU and Ohev Shalom Synagogue’s Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman, explains that “the OU officials’ main objection […] was not to any of the roles that Friedman performs at Ohev Sholom but to her use of the title ‘maharat.’ They did not propose an alternate title.”

To address this need for an alternative, we at Chochmat Nashim turned to our ever-creative virtual community to crowdsource a new title for the erstwhile maharats and all other women serving in leadership roles in the Orthodox Jewish community.

We know they can’t be called “rabbi,” as above. But with “maharat” out of the running too, what’s left? Could we come up with a title — any title! — that the rabbinic establishment would accept?

You rose to the challenge and did not disappoint. After all, feminists are well-known for their exceptional sense of humor. Here are your top 20 responses:

20. Chachamah

19. Wensch (as opposed to mensch)

18. Rabbx (analogous to Latinx)

17. Chromosomally-challenged religious leaders

16. Rabbinical Authority Battling Big Injustices (R.A.B.B.I.)

15. Ofrabbi, as in The Handmaid’s Tale

14. “Ceci ne pas une rabbi”

13. Rabbi without portfolio

12. Rabb*tches

11. Faux-sek, instead of Posek

10. Feminist Upstart (F.U. for short)

9. Nonorific

8. Rabbanit

7. RabbiNOT

6. Rabbit

5. R*bbi

4. Schrödinger’s Maharat, simultaneously holding rabbinic roles without rabbinic titles

3. Morah-Torium

2. Euphemism

1. She Who Shall Not Be Named

Will any of these alternative titles be deemed meaningful enough to reflect the scholarship, credentials and value of the women who hold them, while remaining meaningless enough to satisfy the OU’s need to preserve the status quo?

Will anything other than the title of “Mrs.,” which the OU seems to prefer, and which recognizes the achievement of marriage rather than the achievement of merit, be considered an acceptable honor for a woman in frum society?

Will it prove to be a good use of our time and resources to stand on the platform of progress, shaking our fists and yelling out names at a train that has long ago left the station?

Will we ever know the meaning of a flibbertijibbet?

Only time will tell.

*Some creative ad-libbing may have occurred with the lyrics. With sincerest apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein.

About the Author
Rachel Stomel is a literary translator, graphic designer and slam poet. She is passionate about social justice in the Jewish community, with a special focus on women’s rights and issues of religion and state.
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