In the book of Genesis, God allows Adam to create names for all the beasts and birds in existence. With that powerful act, the first man establishes the identity of every earthly creature. From then on the image and function of a whale or a dove would always be tied to its name.
This biblical happening came to mind recently while I followed the struggle in the Orthodox world about whether women should be named rabbis. Much of the disagreement began last year when Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) gave the title “maharat” to Sara Hurwitz, a member of the institute’s rabbinic staff who had completed all course requirements for ordination. The contrived title, an acronym, left people confused. Some months later, Rabbi Weiss changed Hurwitz’s title to “rabba,” stirring up a storm of controversy among the Orthodox because of the word’s closeness to “rabbi.” The haredi Agudath Israel threatened to write HIR out of Orthodoxy, and the mainstream Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) huddled to discuss women’s leadership roles within the movement.
At its convention a few weeks ago, the RCA arrived at a consensus resolution that praised Orthodox women’s progress in Torah study and spoke vaguely of encouraging their professional opportunities. But its main ruling was that women may not be ordained as rabbis or serve as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, “regardless of the title.” In other words, the name “rabba” when applied to a woman can mean anything you want it to mean, except the one thing that matters — rabbi.
I attended the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) conference in March, about a month before the RCA statement. At the time, there was still hope that Rabba Hurwitz might be recognized eventually as a rabbi by centrist Orthodox authorities. Neither she nor Rabbi Weiss had anticipated the commotion the title “rabba” would arouse, she told the audience at the opening plenary. She had been performing rabbinic functions at HIR, and the title “allows me to do my job better,” she said. Because of the controversy, however, she was now in discussion with her congregation about whether to change her title to a more benign one.
Listening to her I had a powerful feeling of “déjà vu all over again.” I had been deeply involved in the struggle to have women ordained as rabbis in the Conservative movement. For years, learned, devoted women, who, like Hurwitz, considered their work “a calling,” were told to hold back, not make waves, carry out rabbinic duties without official titles until the right time arrived. Like her, also, those women knew that the halacha (Jewish law) has no barriers to ordaining women. I served on a commission to study the question of admitting women to the Conservative rabbinate, and exhaustive textual research and expert testimony found no impediments to women rabbis. “Everything I do and stand for is within the bounds of halacha,” Rabba Hurwitz said at the JOFA conference. Although the law prohibits women from some activities, such as serving as witnesses, those restrictions barely impact on the main responsibilities of a rabbi. “The bounds are social, not halachic,” she added.
Indeed they are, and, ironically, the very fact of female rabbis in the Conservative movement reinforces those social bounds. People warned Rabba Hurwitz that if she didn’t change her title, she and her congregation would be on a “slippery slope to becoming a Conservative shul,” she said.
At the RCA deliberations, some rabbis opposed women’s ordination precisely because egalitarianism is central to the Conservative movement. In some part, then, the ruling against Orthodox women as rabbis is really a defensive ruling to prevent the Orthodox from being identified in any way with the more liberal branches of Judaism. How sad.
The RCA resolution cited “commitment to sacred continuity” as its rationale for outlawing female rabbis, an indication in itself that the ruling did not stem from halachic restrictions. It left decisions about the leadership roles of women up to individual rabbis, and maybe in the future some like Rabbi Weiss and a few others will again have the courage to name women to their rabbinic staffs.
The Orthodox community honors its rabbis by standing when they are publicly introduced. At the JOFA conference, the audience rose to its feet when Rabba Sara walked to the podium. The title had given her the prestige of the rabbinate. Will she maintain that prestige now that the RCA has ruled against women rabbis? Will her title be changed? Will women ever be recognized as rabbis in the Orthodox community? It’s hard to know. But I hope Orthodox women, like their Conservative counterparts, continue to lobby not just for spiritual leadership but also for the title of rabbi that deservedly goes with it.
What’s in a name? Adam had it right. Plenty.
Francine Klagbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.”
Signup for our weekly email newsletter here.