At an Orthodox synagogue in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, on March 22, Jewish history was made. Sara Hurwitz, a learned and devout Orthodox Jewish woman was conferred the new title of MaHaRa’T, an acronym for Manhigah Hilkhatit, Ruhanit, Toranit (for a halakhic spiritual and Torah leader) by Rabbi Avi Weiss, senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
Some Jewish pundits ridiculed the invention of a new title. Jonathan Marks, for example, wrote: “Not only wasn’t it news, it has become increasingly boring to watch Modern Orthodox rabbis confer upon a woman scholar some Hebrew title that most people don’t understand and never will use.”
Others, however, praised this advancement of women in Orthodox Judaism. JOFA (the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) announced that it “celebrates an historic moment for the Jewish people-the ordination of Sara Hurwitz as a full member of the Orthodox clergy followed by the establishment of a new school to ordain female rabbinic leaders.”
The ordination of female rabbis troubles Orthodox Judaism in a way few other present-day issues do. Here on the First Things website, Rabbi Gil Student recently argued that both tradition and the demands of continuity in communal life will likely prevent the ordination of women. The difficulty of the issue is apparent even to a casual observer of Orthodox synagogues, where a physical barrier (the mehitza) separates the sexes during services. The rituals within Orthodoxy are performed almost exclusively by men, and throughout the body of the halakhic literature, the assumed gender of the reader and interpreter of Jewish law is male. A persuasive case can be made—and Rabbi Student made such a case—that there is simply no space for women in the public spheres of Jewish communal life.
If this were true, a Jew who espouses fidelity to halakha and Jewish tradition ought to desist from all attempts to expand the role of women in Jewish life—especially attempts at rabbinical ordination. This, for example, is the argument made by Rabbi Harry Maryles, and it is shared by the fervently Orthodox, Centrist Orthodox, and more conservative elements of Modern Orthodoxy .
A strong case, however, can be made from within Jewish law and tradition that the ordination of women has a halakhic foundation. Changing circumstances in contemporary society can give way to changing halakhic opinions, and there are compelling precedents for such a change.
For example, according to halakha, a person who violates the Sabbath in public cannot be included in the count for a minyan, the ten-person quorum necessary for communal prayer. With the onset of European emancipation and the crumbling of the ghetto walls, however, large numbers of Jews began to violate the Sabbath publicly. Of those who publicly violated the Sabbath, many chose to continue to attend services at synagogue. And thus it would sometimes happen that there were only nine observant Jewish men present for the service, joined by Jews who had publicly desecrated the Sabbath. Was there a quorum for services or not?
This question was pressing and practical for nineteenth-century European Jews. Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann, a leading German rabbi of the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century, was asked to rule on this question. His response illustrates the adaptive capacity of Jewish law:
There is another approach to be lenient, for in our times, they are not termed desecrators of the Sabbath in public, since most people are acting according to their ways. It is reasonable that when most of Israel is meritorious and a few of them dare to perform a prohibition, this is when someone is called a heretic in the Torah and performs an abomination . . . and separates themselves from the Jewish people. However, since due to our great sins many have broken the fence, . . . the individual is not deemed as having done such a great violation and it does not have to be only done in private since doing it in public [in these circumstances] is like having done it in private. The opposite actually becomes true; those who fear God in our days are called dissenter.
Rabbi Hoffmann thus redefined the halakhic concepts of public and private and how we understand Sabbath desecration in the contemporary world. Although not happy about slackening religious observance among the Jewish people, he recognized that it changed the terms of Jewish legal discourse.
At the same time that Rabbi Hoffmann was changing the rules for inclusion in a quorum, the rise of political Zionism caused anguished controversy among religious Jews. In the late summer days of August 1897 in Basel, Switzerland, Theodor Herzl and the First Zionist Congress called for the establishment of a modern political Jewish state in the ancient Land of Israel: “Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine,” declared the statement issued by the attendees, which would later become known as “The Basel Program.”
Zionism was perhaps the greatest challenge to traditional Jewish belief in the modern era. It advocated nothing short of an entire overhaul of hitherto accepted Jewish eschatology. It cast the past two thousand years of Diaspora Jewish life in terms of suffering and degradation. This stood in sharp contrast to traditional Jewish theology, which saw the dispersion and exile as intentional and purposeful. Jews were to live in galut (exile) because of their failings, and it was in exile that they were to make themselves better Jews.
The overriding Orthodox rabbinic response to Zionism, from the nineteenth century through the present, has been fierce. The Orthodox rabbinate saw Zionism as a breach of the covenant formed between God and the Jewish people. There is a well-known passage in the Talmud (Tractate Ketubot 110b-111a) in which the Jewish people swear to God that they will never attempt to retake the Land of Israel by force, like “a wall.” The Jews are meant to wait for the appointed time by God to return to the Land of their forefathers and not return a moment sooner. To be sure, Jews dwelt in the Land of Israel for centuries before Zionism. The communities that did exist there, however, were small, poverty stricken, intensely Orthodox, focused on Torah study, and without political aspirations.
Dozens of books of Jewish law were written, fiery polemical speeches were delivered, and rabbis toured Europe, all decrying the rise of Zionism. Nonetheless, a small group of European rabbis responded to Zionism not by rejecting it, but by attempting to integrate it into traditional Jewish belief. These rabbis eventually became known as the founders of the Mizrachi movement, from which they morphed into a larger group called “Religious Zionism.” Today, an overwhelming proportion of Modern Orthodox Jews around the world are Religious Zionist, including almost all of the Modern Orthodox Rabbinate.
Not every rabbi agreed with the early Religious Zionist rabbis; indeed, the vast majority did not. The fact that there was disagreement, however, did not make their claims illegitimate. What ensued was an evaluation of the needs of the community, weighing the various factors that constitute the halakhic process. In other words, to say that values and contemporary needs do not play a role in halakha is to ignore the way halakha itself works. And this weighing of factors is precisely what is occurring right now in the Modern Orthodox community with regard to the role of women.
There are those today who see the aspirations of women to join the ranks of the rabbinate as petty and motivated by all the wrong reasons. And there are those who believe that the women seeking ordination are motivated by a profound desire to serve the Jewish people and all of humanity. They also believe that the titles Judaism employs to describe people in religious leadership confer dignity and respect to those who fulfill those positions. They accordingly argue that the desire to win dignity and respect is not a sin, but a real and legitimate human need.
Opponents of female ordination claim that to go down this path will irreparably divide the observant Jewish community and cause schism. They cite as proof the example of the split that followed the Conservative movement’s decision to ordain female rabbis. (In truth, the Union for Traditional Judaism, a splinter group of Conservative Judaism that arose in large part as a response to the issue of female ordination, has remained small both in numbers and communal influence. The overwhelming majority of Conservative Jews and Conservative institutions chose to adopt the path taken by The Jewish Theological Seminary, and the issue has not, in fact, severely split the Conservative moment.)
Similar claims were advanced by opponents of Religious Zionism. While many differences do exist between Religious Zionist communities and other Orthodox communities, members of both communities still pray in each other’s synagogues, attend each other’s weddings, and, indeed, are represented in the same families. The question of how Jews understood their place in the world and the political aspirations to hasten the Messianic era were hardly trivial matters. Arguably they were far more significant then the ordination of female rabbis. Yet that did not destroy the fabric of observant Judaism.
It is my counsel that we learn the lessons of history and calm the rhetoric on both sides. The synagogues and communities advocating for the ordination of women rabbis live a significantly different cultural life than many who are opposed to it. What was good for the Jews of Frankfurt-am-Main in the nineteenth century with Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and the rise of Neo-Orthodoxy was not necessarily good for the Jews in the backcountry of Hungary.
Whether the title is MaHaRa’T, or Rabbi, or Rabbah (the title chosen for a female rabbi by participants at a recent Orthodox conference in Israel), the presence of a female religious leader who loves her people and loves her Torah need not rip apart the fabric that holds the various streams of Orthodox Judaism together.
Rabbi Ben Greenberg is the Orthodox Jewish Chaplain of Harvard University, and the Orthodox Rabbi of Harvard Hillel.