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A Rabbi Is Not a "Rabbi" in the Jewish Orthodox Twilight Zone

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Last month, a woman named Sara Hurwitz was honored in a ceremony at a prestigious modern Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. There was a lot to celebrate: Hurwitz had completed eight years of intensive learning -- the same curriculum completed by male Orthodox rabbinical students. She had passed the rabbinical ordination exams. She has been serving her community -- officiating at funerals, brit milah (circumcision) ceremonies, and the like. She lectures to the community and teaches classes. She offers guidance both spiritual and Jewish legal.

Even though she is a rabbi, her title is not "rabbi." This, my friends, is for one reason alone: she is a woman. Hurwitz's official title, a brand-new, made-up word, is MaHaRaT. The term is an acronym for "Manhiga Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit," meaning Jewish legal and spiritual leader and Torah teacher.

As a member of an Orthodox community myself, I find this Maharat business maddening, insulting, and degrading. Maharat is a no-name new name. It's created just for the ladies. Stewardess, waitress, actress...Maharat.

I respect Hurwitz. It's never easy to be a pioneer, and she clearly has the Judaic chops for the job. I heard her speak at a recent conference on Jewish prayer and I thought she had a phenomenal presence and wisdom. I also admire the rabbi who leads the Hebrew Institute, Avi Weiss, who is recognized as a great trailblazer within modern Orthodoxy. Weiss is the founder and president of a rabbinical seminary, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which is dedicated to intellectual openness, including the expansion of women's role in Judaism. The seminary is an alternative to Yeshiva University, increasingly seen as dogmatic and insular. Hurwitz studied privately for six years with Weiss, and it is he who devised the new title.

Rabbi Weiss has taken many risks during his career. He is an activist who has led protests and demonstrations on a range of issues. In the 1970s and '80s Weiss called for the emigration and absorption of Soviet Jews who were not allowed to practice their religion and who were imprisoned for merely requesting permission to leave their country. Since the 1980s he has also been a loud voice in an effort to preserve Holocaust sites from Christianization or desecration.

Here, too, he has taken a risk. After all, Hurwitz is functioning as a rabbi, and within the Orthodox world -- believe it or not -- this is a very big deal. Simply put, the fact that Hurwitz is permitted to perform rabbinic functions, and that she is receiving recognition and validation for it, is a precedent. It's huge, and it's exciting.

It appears that Weiss chose not to make the logical next step, calling Hurwitz "rabbi" (which means "my teacher"), because of the howling reaction this action would elicit from the Orthodox establishment. Although his reputation as an Orthodox iconoclast is sealed, he does have to consider the future careers of the students at his seminary.

In the liberal Jewish denominations, women have been ordained as rabbis since the 1970s (Reform and Reconstructionist movements) and 1980s (Conservative). But within Orthodoxy, the "rabbi" title for a woman with the exact same credentials as a male rabbi is considered as forbidden as eating pork on Yom Kippur. Yet in fact there is no Jewish legal obstacle to calling women "rabbis."

I must point out that within Orthodoxy a woman is not permitted to lead a mixed-gender prayer service or to serve as a witness. Thus, a female Orthodox rabbi is barred from two congregational functions, which could pose a problem from time to time. But it's easy enough to get a pinch hitter. Besides, within Orthodoxy there are so many rabbis who do not serve pulpits that the term "rabbi" is not synonymous with "pulpit rabbi" -- and therefore the term "rabbi" should not be withheld from someone who can't perform all the functions of a pulpit rabbi.

Names do matter, and the title "rabbi" -- as with "priest" for Catholics -- brings with it a high level of respect and awe that "Maharat," let's face it, does not replicate. "Rabbi" is the pinnacle of Judaic authority. Many people regard their rabbi as a mediator of sorts between themselves and God. Children and adults alike look up to their rabbi as a role model. Eventually, I suppose, "Maharat" will cease to sound silly and gobbledy-gooky, and we will accept it as a legitimate title. But it will continue to belittle the women who hold it -- and, by extension, all women -- because it will always signify "she who is not fit to be called 'rabbi.'"

Hurwitz is already a role model and many people will come to regard her, if they don't already, as a Judaic authority. If now is not the right time to call female rabbis "rabbis," then when?

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