Tonight (November 2, 2009) TEIQU invited Maharat Sara Hurwitz to speak at Stern College for Women. She did so. To her credit, she is a sincere lady and I believe her intentions are earnest and meant for the good. I would like to remind you that the transcription below is not always verbatim. I do make use of paraphrase or leave words out when I can't get them all down. This means you cannot point to specific phraseology/ words and darshan her points from there. Also, she stated many times that this was in no way a whole in-depth discussion of all the halakhic viewpoints on this topic but rather, a mere introduction. The concepts written here are, to the best of my ability, accurate. Any and all mistakes are, as always, mine. I want you to form your own opinion so my opinion will be in the comments, not as part of the speech.
To download these notes (i.e. this full blogpost) to Microsoft Word, please click here. You will still have to download the PDF with her sources seperately.
First come the sources:
I have structured this speech in a Maharat and Audience format. Where I have written 'Answers' I refer to audience participation.
Maharat: It’s really a tremendous energy in the room so I am thrilled to be here. This is definitely on the later side for me especially since my kids woke up at 5 AM this morning so you have to keep me awake which I’m sure you won’t have a problem. I wanted to just start off with a question. I know the model is supposed to be half an hour of me speaking and then opening up a conversation. I think the whole topic does not warrant that it should be frontal and me just speaking. And in that vein, I want to just throw out a basic question- I want to figure out from a halakhic point of view- is it possible for women to be in positions of rabbi. We’re going to talk about that and in that conversation we’re going to talk about issues of title and other social and ___ conversation that come up with issues of women in the rabbinate. And then I’ll talk about my own personal journey and how I got to where I am today and where we’re going to go from here.
First question is generally: What does a rabbi do? Just throw out the roles and functions that a rabbi does.
Answers: Psak, ritual leadership, communal counseling.
Maharat: Spiritual leader of the community, which means teaching, counseling.
Answers: Officiating at weddings.
Maharat: Yes, bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, life-cycle events, etc.
Maharat: Sermons, speaking from the pulpit, being a role model essentially, speaking to community on relevant topics.
Answers: Transmits the mesorah of the Torah.
Maharat: Yes, which really means what?
Answers: Social activism.
Maharat: Which really is along the lines of being a role model for the community and functioning as someone who is trying to advocate for tikkun and goodness and every aspect of that word. Okay, I think we have hit all the main aspects so let’s break it down: which of those aspects can a woman perform; which can they not? We essentially said teaching, psak, being learned, life cycle events…of those roles, what can a woman perform? What can she not perform?
Answers: She can’t be a posek.
Maharat: Okay. Why?
Answers: She can’t posek because there’s a Gemara in Sanhedrin where based on Devorah a woman cannot posek.
Maharat: Okay, so we’re going to analyze that.
Answers: I think she can do all of that with the possible exception of weddings. She cannot be an eid (witness) at a wedding, maybe not say sheva berachot. Let’s assume for a second that a mesader kiddushin is someone who sanctifies their relationship and the specific brachot under the chuppah are often not said under the chuppah. With that in mind, can a woman do a wedding?
Answers: Issue of people being able to relate to a woman, because for her a lot of things are not metzuveh v’oseh?
Maharat: Also something we’re going to develop tonight- can women bring something unique to the table?
Answers: Since we are not commanded in mitzvoth asei she’hazeman grama, we cannot motzi other people.
Maharat: Okay, so let’s say there are mitzvoth bound by time and so there are different levels of functioning. Women have accepted certain roles –
Chana: There’s the whole issue about serara. (I was thinking of this.)
Maharat: Do you want to say another word about that?
Chana: I could go on for an hour but I assume you could answer…
Maharat: It’s a term having to do with the understanding of meaning of semikha. For the past thousand years the whole idea of semikha has shifted away from the serara model which implies having an ability to bestow- eidut in a much more formal sense- eidut not in just being a witness at a wedding but functioning as a witness to make things happen. Not such a clear explanation but we can get into a little bit more.
Answers: Not quite sure that this is serara but I remember there is an issue with a woman being under – being in a position of authority over a man.
Maharat: Kavod HaTzibur, maybe a little bit more?
Answers: Not black and white, but maybe the issue of tzniut?
Maharat: Yes, modesty is something that we do have to deal with. There is idea that women are not supposed to be in certain leadership communities.
Answers: Rav Soloveitchik had a thing about women speaking from the bimah specifically and being against that.
Maharat: Just to be clear about that, he’s talking about women speaking from the bimah in the mens’ section specifically. I sort of live in this little bubble at HIR where the Bimah is in the center of the room and elevated- pulpit is not really in men’s section or women’s section but is elevated.
Answers: I think Rambam paskens d’oraita that a woman can’t be a king –
Maharat: Okay, so leadership. Women in positions of leadership- conversation we definitely have to have.
Answers: Leading prayer.
Maharat: We actually didn’t mention that as a function of the rabbi. The reason why is because most rabbis don’t actually lead tefillah. HIR is the exception where Rabbi Weiss actually leads prayer a lot but you don’t have to as part of your semikha pass a test to lead prayer. It’s actually different in the Conservative and Reform community because the idea is that rabbis don’t go out to the _____ community so the rabbi needs to know how to do everything. Not true in Orthodox communities – usually there is an Orthodox ___ there to lead tefilah and torah reading. So it is true that a woman cannot lead services in the Orthodox community but most Orthodox rabbis do not …so let’s pass out sources- these sources are not meant to delve into these issues in a very deep way but to just discuss the issue. Basically brought down two different sources- one very anti the women’s movement and one in support of it just to say that there are two different viewpoints in the Orthodox community.
Okay, so the first section is a overview of some of the functions that a rabbi performs; we touched on most of them. I want to look at the second section. The first one is being a scholar and then disseminating that knowledge. The first question is Talmud Torah. Nobody really mentioned this as a quality that a rabbi has to have because it is intuitive, taken for granted that in order to be a rabbi there’s a certain amount of scholarship. And it’s kind of nice that nobody mentioned, on the women’s side, that there is a question about women accessing texts. And if we were in a different place or time that would be a very relevant question. But thank God we are in a place like this where women have the same access to texts as men. So we’re not really going to have this conversation; we do take it for granted now that women have access. I am really indebted to the institutions that helped to ___ my education like Drisha and Midreshet Lindenbaum. But it used to be of course that women were not allowed to learn Torah. It was called ‘tiflut’ and even if women did study it was frowned upon.
So Rambam is just one of many examples that say that women’s scholarship was very frowned upon. But we have countless examples in the Gemara of women who were scholars and did spend much of their time studying. My favorite example is Bruriah who studied 300 laws and from three hundred teachers in one day. She was a scholar; the knowledge would just sink in. Yalta is one of my favorite females to look at. But we do have examples both in the Gemara and throughout the ages of women who did have access to texts, taught either by their fathers or secretly or self-taught, women who had the ability and were given the gift of study and could use that in certain ways.
Answers: But there’s still the question in modern-day that women’s scholarship is not contested but what they should study is. Tanakh, etc apply to her but random esoteric halakhot like nezek; should a woman study that?
Maharat: Well, what does a rabbi study to become a rabbi?
Answers: Kashrut, Yoreh Deah, and ______.
Maharat: What about those should a woman not know; indeed women should know all of that! There is a conversation to be had but even on the other side of the coin- you used to have a mimetic tradition where knowledge was passed down from generation to generation, but now that men and women have access to text you don’t have to only rely on that mimetic tradition. We get to enhance that and integrate that with our own personal knowledge and ability to open up a Shulchan Aruch, a text, etc to understand evolution of what we do today.
Answers: Can’t you say that yeridas ha’doros is an uncontested idea that yes, we are further away from Matan Torah so we’re a lesser generation- these women were much closer to Matan Torah than we were so for them to be allowed to delve in on those levels?
Male: Can I- I don’t think yeridas ha’doros is an uncontested idea, first of all. Norman Lamm, our good old Chancellor, devotes an entire book called Torah U’Madda talking about why yeridas hadoros is not an uncontested idea.
Answers: He speaks about it in a particular realm, though.
Maharat: Whoa, guys, let’s keep it respectful- we haven’t even gotten to the good stuff yet, people.
Male: I think that if you want to extend that argument to women’s scholarship you have to do the same to men- you have to question pesak Halakha in general- if you want to give men the ability to make pesak. Why can’t we place the same confidence in women as we give to men?
Maharat: I was going to say something slightly similar- we were able to identify women who had access to texts and were scholars in their own right.
Male: Why wasn’t it done till the 21st century?
Maharat: I think it was done- just different time, different place- we are living in a different world; we have a room filled with men and women learning together. This is a time where Bais Yaakov when it started was the most controversial entity ever- the idea of starting a school to formally educate girls was crazy and they thought lightning would strike and that was one of the most evolutionary steps further in women’; scholarship.
Chana: I want to talk about selective quoting. It seems to me that you have chosen to talk about Beruriah only within one context of her learning 300 halakhot from 300 people. But if you look at the Gemara, she’s the one with al tarbeh sicha im ha’isha and says the way to Lod is-
Maharat: That’s Yalta.
Chana: (I know she's wrong, because I know the Gemara. It's Eruvin 53b. I don't take well to being corrected when I'm right.) I learned it was Beruriah. In any case, aside from that, you also see that when her halakhot are accepted it is only when a MALE affirms them as such and says she is right; not in their own right. It seems to me that if you are going to cite Beruriah as your model, you have to look at the whole Beruriah and who she was, not just one quotation.
Maharat: I said at the beginning that we’re not going to have time and won’t have time to look at every single source- I am trying to be intellectually honest here- we’re really just dabbling in each of these sources. It is true we can look at Beruraiah in a larger context – I don’t think it limits the idea that we had female scholars who had access to learning. Anyway, let’s move on because it gets better. Women have knowledge; can it be knowledge they only use for their own personal edification or can it be knowledge that we pass on to others and can we be a posek? Now, before you jump on me let’s talk about what it means to be a posek.
Answers: I think there’s a difference between a person in a position of leadership giving pesak and someone who is not. If I have a shailah, I can call up my friend, boy or girl, and they can tell me what the Shulchan Aruch says. That’s different from calling up a rabbi- one where there is sort of a safek.
Maharat: Let’s just use that as a jumping point to distinguish between different flavors of pesak. I would think of that as intern vs. specialist. There are actually very few people who consider themselves poseks and you have to- in order to be a pesak- you have to be a real expert in a certain area- and what that requires is not only knowledge of texts, of the black and white texts, but to have some creative ability to translate the black and white words into a modern day situation. And so that takes a lot of wisdom, a lot of time, and a lot of years of learning. I would argue that most pulpit rabbis in communities don’t consider themselves a posek on that level. I think that many of you do encounter many rabbeim who do consider themselves poskim because they are in a position of leadership and have been engaged really in depth in certain areas that puts them in a position that allows them to integrate halakhic material in a ____ way and allows them to give over pesak. Pesak is one of those loaded terms. I want to be clear that I don’t think there is any problem with men or women, if they are knowledgeable in the material, have passed their tests and have been in a position where others made sure they are responsible for the material they are to know, there should be no issue of someone being able to answer a question when someone has a question. I think that most local rabbis turn to their posek that they rely on to help them maneuver through different situations. I was going to give a ton of examples of some differences- when you’re talking about life-altering experiences and pesak having to do with fertility and – there’s a lot of question that really need to be analyzed even in a group of people, not only one individual to arrive at a meaningful and viable answer for the given person. Pesak also, just to say one more sentence, is not only about paskening a shaila. It’s about understanding a person, understanding where the shaila is coming from, understanding the nature of the circumstance. I obviously I guess- I am in a position of answering a lot of niddah shailas- it’s not the only thing that I answer- I have to say woman say to me they are so grateful that there is a woman who can look at their bedika cloths and answer their shailas because they were too embarrassed to ask a rabbi. In the past I always slipped my bedika cloth underneath my rabbi’s door wth an anonymous phone number and waited for an answer. I always thought that makes no sense because I always have at least five questions- who, what, when, why- in order to arrive at an answer. Important for person not only to know the material from a halakhic point of view but also to understanding the nature of the question and what is really going on. Happens to be a niddah shaila a woman came to me with a question of spotting- we worked through the situation and it turns out she was a niddah way too often than she needed to be and it came out that she has- had just gone onto this new birth control and she didn’t want to be taking birth control but her husband was refusing to have more children and she desperately wanted tohave more children but really there were deep emotional issues going on. She knocked on my door to ask is it red or brown but turned to be much broader than that.
Let’s look for 2 seconds at the Halakha and we’ll open it up to a broader conversation. Let’s just emphasize this is not going to be a broad, lengthy conversation of paskening- just wantedt o bring three sources.
Niddah 50a- if you cannot be an eid, as women cannot, then you cannot be in a position to judge- of paskening. To judge a situation proficiently. So says the Birkei Yosef, “a woman is pasul to judge.” He brings the – second line from the bottom- that a woman who is wise and learned is fit to render a ruling- in Sefer HaChinuch says in context that a kohen is not supposed to enter the Beis Hamikdash if he is inebriated and drunk. Saying that if a person is drunk can’t be in position of acting of judge. So too, if a woman is drunk she too, if she is learned and knowledgeable, cannot act as a judge. The implication of course is that if she is sober, has not had one too many drinks that day, if she is learned and wise, she can be in a position to offer a pesak. This is the halakhic side of giving a pesak so I’ll open it up- bring it on.
Answers: You made a distinction between your everyday community rabbi and poskim, gedolim hador. Do you see a future where women are serving as gedolot, who they will ask end-of-life issues etc?
Maharat: The first time I was asked that question I was kind of shocked by the question- there’s such a cement ceiling even in my own world that I couldn’t even envision that. I think the answer is yes. The longer women are in positions of not only scholarship but leadership, in positions where they are gaining insight and practical application in these areas I think there are women becoming expert in these areas. Dina Neiman- Rosh Kehila in KOE, a shul in the Upper ‘West Side, she is in a religious leadership position but I mention her because she has become very expert in issues relating to end-of-life and ___ and has done a tremendous amount of research. She has become someone whom rabbeim call and ask questions to. I can tell for myself that when I started doing this 7 years ago, my confidence in being able to answer questions is very different than it is now. The longer you are in a position of dealing with questions, you become much more knowledgeable, etc.
Answers: I have a little different read of that Birkei Yosef. I find it very curious that it says “isha pesula la’dun” and it does not say “isha chachama yachol l’dun” but it says “l’hazaras horaah.”
Maharat: This (horaah) is the languge of semikha now- in fact the exact same language for a man in the position of authority.
Gilah Kletenik: The reason why he changes that- there are five different gemarot that discuss the issue of Devorah serving as a judge. Five different Tosfot and three say women cannot serve as judges but two can and all five rule that women ____ pasken shailot etc. So there is a distinction between serving as a judge on a beit din and as a poseket Halakha, which is very different.
Maharat: For more on this I would encourage you to read Rabbi Sperber’s teshuva- I handed it as one of the readings in preparation for this- he talks about the five different gemaras and breaks it down based on Yerushalmi which is very anti women being in a position of judging. Read that, too.
Answers: I know your job is very different from being a Yoetzet but I think ____ - took away the certification after ten years. Where do people get the idea that a woman can’t be a posek if it’s not coming from anywhere? If there’s a safek, they have to go ask a rav?
Maharat: Does anyone else have Fiddler on the Roof playing in their head right now? Tradition. We have talked about those women who had access to scholarship- most women were not in that position so we got used to seeing women in a different kind of world. We’re also talking about a time where women did not lead the house- Rambam talks about how women did not go to shul until around the 1400s, I’m forgetting the exact dates, really interesting as a sidebar- “she’asani lo isha” was a standard bracha said in shula nd no one thought to introduce “she’asani kirtzono” till women started coming to shul. Different time, different place- women were not out in the public sphere until much more recently.
Answers: I was just going to say in that vein, how do you deal with the aspect of ____ - women serving as rabbis? You could say there is no minhag about the issue in general.
Maharat: Again, minhag is a loaded word. Minhag is not a simple word to translate- there’s different types of minhag and kinds- it’s difficult to understand. Minhags are changing all the time; I can think of – not right now- but there are examples of minhagim that are changing and expanding. It’s not that I don’t have a tremendous amount of respect for the mesorah but I don’t think that I have stepped too much afar from the mesorah in terms of advocating for it and passing it on.
Answers: Before we get into specifics of whether women can give pesak or not, can you give a general definition of what allows someone to give pesak or is this something to look up in Shulchan Aruch?
Maharat: Certain number of years of scholarship and intimate knowledge of our situations and texts. Having ivory tower knowledge is important but I think a certain number of years on the ground dealing with certain situations- it’s hard not to think of the medical world when we’re talking about this. If somebody who is in research only would be applying their ___ to everyday life. Somebody who has a tremendous amount of learning and there is a wisdom and opportunity to engage with what’s going on in people’s lives and encountering those questions over and over again and being able to take the knowledge that they know and integrate it into ___ specific situation.
Answers: Just regarding what you said of you don’t think you stepped too far- more social question- do you have any qualms about the fact that this issue might be divided in the Modern Orthodox community- those who are pro these innovations in our community vs. against? Also, there might be something to be said of not separating our Modern Orthodoxy- if women are accepted as rabbis in our community then they won’t daven in our shuls and do you think this should play into this at all.
Maharat: I spent a lot of time thinking about and writing about that question and engaging with it. I and women like myself – I would never want to think that we are the cause of any split within our community- I think that the last 2 months has been a real educational experience for me to show that the walls are still standing and lightning has not struck. There was a lot of fear on the day that I received my semikha. A lot of people were very fearful as to what would happen- would it split the community, inspire people- there are two responses. Response of the right for the most part is silent. Not a lot of media attention or discussion on the right. After some time there were some articles written and the blogs that were written- I tend to not spend too much time reading the blogs- but I think the community to the right has a lot of problems in Modern Orthodox community on a whole. I think the whole idea of centralizing authority as something to discuss is a difference between communities more to the right and more to the left- I am not sure what within the Modern Orthodox community means. From social aspect of things, change is hard and I do think change is slow and it should be. I always think about Sally Kuzan was the first woman who was ordained in the Reform movement in 1972. Anyone want to guess when the first woman started to try to become a Rabbi?
Maharat: 1880- late 18002- 1970s when finally accepted; that’s the Reform movement. Change is happening in the Orthodox community. People are not used to seeing a woman in a position of religious/ spiritual leadership. I guess just from my own personal experience what I found is that the community just gets used to it and it becomes a degenderized issue really. You know, I was not the first woman to work as a congregational intern, which was the original term so my community at least was already used to seeing a woman in a position of teaching, etc but it took 7 years for the community to become comfortable with my extended role. And NOT everyone in the community is comfortable. I have a co-rabbi; I work side by side with Rabbi ___ler and for those who are not comfortable, they have a rabbi to go to. End of life issues is a great example. When I was dreaming with Rabbi Weiss and thinking of an extended role- you know, I said, no one is going to want me to perform their funerals, weddings? When someone closes their eyes and thinks about rabbi, they consider a traditional male-looking rabbi. Especially in those situations where life cycle events of death or mourning, what I found to my own personal surprise is that people just kind of get used to it. What that means is that what happens in our shul is either one of us will have a particular relationship with a member and will be the one to do the funeral and ___ the family. Or the phone will ring and whoever happens to pick up- generally what the rabbi does is drop everything and go- there’s a lot of stuff going on. There’s a lot of halakhic and just coordination that the rabbi or someone in a spiritual leadership position has to do like getting the body moved from wherever it is at that point to funeral home, working with funeral director, figuring out where/when the funeral is going to be, figuring out if a relative three times removed has to be there for the funeral. What happens is after three, four, five, six hours of being with this family for this very intense emotional experience I kind of very humbly say let’s begin talking about the actual service. I’m happy to be there for you and do the funeral for you but if you’re not comfortable happy to call Rabbi Wexler or one of our interns to do the funeral and I would say 9 out of 10 times the family says, “Are you kidding? We wouldn’t want to have it every other way.” And that same family wouldn’t have imagined having a woman in that position 10 hours before. When somebody’s there for you in a rabbinic position, it suddenly makes sense that they should be performing the functions necessary for a rabbi.
I see there’s a lot of questions- I do want to spend some time speaking about title as well.
Answers: Tzniut- how that shapes or affects the role of Maharat?
Maharat: Women in positions of leadership and page 4 is relating to issues of modesty. We mentioned already the famous pasuk and Rambam says ‘melekh and not a malka’- and then the Gemara and obvious counterargument to that is what was Devora doing- refer to Rabbi Sperber’s article where he spends a lot of time dissecting her specific role. Whatever it is, she was in a position of leadership and just go down to Piskei Uziel. When Israel became a state in 1948, suddenly the state had to deal with this question of female in positions of leadership. It was a community not used to having women in positions of any kind of leadership and so he wrote a teshuva for why it would be okay for a woman to be okay in a position of leadership. Central argument is that a woman is voted in, accepted and appointed by the community, she can be in a position of leadership. This is true by the way re: women functioning as presidents of shuls as well. I could imagine if I asked if any of you have females as presidents maybe one would raise your hand. And really, there’s no good reason for that! If a woman is appointed…just to continue on the same thing, modesty. Modesty I find much more difficult to talk about because again, different time, different place. It used to be that men and women didn’t mix in any venue, any vein- we’re talking about a recent conversation where women were sent to the back of the bus in a different community. However, I think in a modern community in America the notion of modesty I think has shifted. And again Uziel makes that same argument- now we’re used to being in proximity of women, working with women and now as long as people are not acting in a lighthearted way, there should be no concern of lack of modesty. Just to draw attention to source 13, one of my favorite phrases cited in a few places in the Gemara, “Go and see what the public’s doing.” What’s the reality there? Is the reality that women are in public positions- functioning as lawyers, doctors, functioning in positions of authority elsewhere? We’re used to seeing men and women functioning side by side and working side by side so I think that at least in our community I don’t think this argument of modesty holds so much water now.
Answer: Just a clarification- can you delve into the issue of officiation? It seems from what we have been saying right now- halakhic issue is re: pesak but officiating a wedding is a formality thing?
Maharat: I function completely as a Rabbi. I do everything. I don’t lead services. Nobody would want me to lead services even if I could. I don’t act as an eid so I don’t serve on a Beis Din but I work very closely with conversions and converts. Trying to advocate for conversion within current system right now. Eidut, services and minyan. I mean those are the three areas in which a woman cannot function completely. Which really leads me to the discussion of title. Discussion of title. So I’ll say it again- I function as a Rabbi and I love what I do. I don’t do it to make a point. Just a story- I went to Barnard and before I went to college my parents made me take a vocational test just to get a sense of what I should be doing. I don’t think I was such a floaty person to begin with but they were concerned college costs a lot of money and they made me take a vocational sense. I was best suited to be in the clergy. And at the time, we laughed. We laughed because my parents are not as traditional but they do affiliate with Orthodox community and I knew it wasn’t an option so I put the vocational test away- I did, through to college, though, was always involved with the community, Life in Action organization actually started at Stern College and no longer functioning. I was always involved in Jewish community and education. I finally saw the light when I graduated college and realized I was not really suited to be an occupational therapist- I, after working in the Jewish community, running this organization, went to Drisha to spend a little bit of time on my own personal education and when I graduated I looked at my own skillset and realized I would be best suited to function in a community. I had a relationship with Rabbi Weiss and called him up and said I am looking for a full-time job in a synagogue; can you help me find one? And he took me really seriously. I had no doubt in my mind that somebody was going toh ire me. So I ended up taking this part-time position in HIR and that’s what got me to where I am now. When I got there, though, I remember exactly where we were, into 2nd year that I was there, walking to Tashlich on Rosh Hashana- what is necessary to be taken seriously in a position of leadership. And he said you need a certain amount of years of learning under your belt. So we had a chavrusa, had teachers, spent the next six years continuing to study as well as working at the HIR and functioning in the capacity of a rabbi. I’m not sure if he ever thought I would graduate and finish but I did. I took all the tests, all the same exams that other semikha students take and I was done. And I’m like okay, now what. And it was a – it’s a deeply political situation as well- we talking about ___ the Modern Orthodox community before- something we are all sensitive to. I didn’t want to be in a position of causing any split within the Modern Orthodox community and so we spent a lot of time talking about title. For me, it was less about title and about functioning in a position of a rabbi. Now I realize, more than before that title is important- because it allows me to do my job a little bit better. If people see me in a position of rabbi even if the title is not actually rabbi, I am able to do my job better. If I work into a shiva house just as Sara Hurwitz, the dynamic and my presence is very different. If I walk in as Maharat Sara Hurwitz or representing the shul, automatically it’s a very different presence. We’re talking about minyan or some relevant halakhic issue- I’m automatically in a position where the mourner reacts and responds to me differently and I’m able to be there for different people because I am seen as a rabbi.
So for me, the title Maharat, which I’m impressed you rolled off your tongue so beautifully, it was a good compromise. I think it remains to be seen whether it is a means to an end or if it is an end. It’s still too soon to tell whether Maharat is something that will take off or if Maharat is just a step to an alternative title. I think right now, although the community more to the left is disappointed that the title is not rabbi, people to the right and left need to know that I am functioning as a rabbi. For the left, although the title is not actually rabbi, the title I have adopted, I hope will come to mean rabbi and at least in my community it has. And for people in the right, I find it allows me to be more present and to do a little more because it is not as threatening. It allows women to function in a position of spiritual leadership. I’m not doing what I do because I’m a blazing feminist; I love my job. I have three young kids and I’m here now – it’s not easy being on call 24 hours and knowing the phone is going to read. Especially for women and for a young mother, it’s not an easy job, but I do it because I love it and right now I cannot imagine doing anything else. I was telling Gilah before that the reporter from The Commentator called me in preparation for this and he asked that – if I felt like it was significant for me to becoming to Stern. And I was thinking in my head, Hmm, I didn’t think it was so significant till you asked that question. The truth is that I am really excited and want to as often and as much as possible to have an opportunity to speak to students. People in college, post-college thinking about their careers- one of the goals now is to let people know this is not a one-person shul. Five of us now, including Gilah as well (Chana: as the sixth? unsure) – the point is that I want girls in high school and women in college that this is a feasible career. This is something that is an option and reasonable for women to pursue and do. There may be hurdles and it may not be the easiest path to take right now. I’ve started a school, Yeshivat Maharat, where we are planning on ordaining women; very exciting, we have four students signed up; we’re going to continue to grow and expand every year. Who knows what the title will be in the next four years? Rabbis, Maharat- what’s important is that women have the opportunity to learn and can be there for people, in pulpit position, schools, the sky’s really the limit for what women can do. I think that layleaders have a responsibility also to try to advocate for their community rabbis to hire women in positions of leadership. I think that things are changing; I think the more that we see – the dream is that eventually people will look at us as spiritual leaders, rabbis, won’t see us as women but as rabbis. As somebody who is able to be there for the congregant at any specific time, any specific need- I think it is happening but time will tell.
Answers: When you say the sky’s the limit in terms of what women can do, obviously you mean that in certain roles, but obviously not the case not only in your role but others as well- within your role do you think you have reached your maximum leadership potential? The idea that women’s roles are changing or have changed- I guess being counted for a minyan, tefilah, reading torah, those kinds of things- do you think this is setting the stage for women’s roles changing?
Maharat: Second one first- I’m pretty tradional. My co-rabbi is constantly pushing the envelope even more than I am and I feel like I’m the one pulling back and saying, “Whoa, not so fast.” I don’t know how to exactly answer the question of minyan and how the conversation goes. I know that I am pretty solidly comfortable in my Orthodox skin and I have never questioned that- never questioned the fact that I completely traditionally bought into the Orthodox community, whatever that means, and you know, I think that there are challenges. It’s not an easy path but I do think that the sky is the limit. I don’t think that I have reached my cement ceiling yet and I think it gets further and further away. I think that my position now is very different than it was even a year ago. I think that shows in a year from now, two years from now, three years from now things will change. I think we did speak about parameters etc- it’s my idea that the halakhic limitations don’t prevent a woman from functioning as a rabbi. Not all women want to be in the pulpit position. Some women, just like male rabbis who graduate from any semikha program, don’t want to be in the pulpit- still seen as rabbis. In that way the sky’s the limit. I think there are limits- on a college campus I don’t see any difference or limitations to their role.
Answers: You’ve – do you see the role that you’re in is the maximum, the ideal, don’t see the other areas of Halakha expanding with the scholarship role?
Maharat: Don’t know what those areas are- I think I function within a halakhic framework and we have to deal with halakhah every step of the way. I’m not looking at Halakha and looking at ways to shatter it or to break it. I’m pretty certain that every step along the way has been one within the confines and framework of Halakha.
Answers: What are your criteria for accepting women into the program?
Maharat: Right now we’re looking for women who are comfortable in text, have a certain level of learning and somebody who is committed to the Orthodox community and willing to give back.
Answers: I just wanted to know- given the halakhic parameters- do you see this also as a job that can really penetrate the Sephardic community as well?
Someone: Can you repeat the question?
Maharat: Sephardim. I’m not going to answer it directly but I’ll just give you a little story. In our synagogue we have a Hebrew institute- we try to be a one minyan shul; we have the main minyan. However, within our shul we also have a Teen Minyan, Shalom Bayit minyan so that one member of the couple can be there a little earlier/ later with kids, Sephardi Minyan. The point is that each of our Minyanim/ each of the people who are davening in alternative spaces are supposed to conform to the philosophy of the HIR. So recently the Sephardi minyan wanted to raise their mechitza quite significantly and it became a very tense discussion because they also wanted to change the structure so men were in front and women in back which is how most Sephardi shuls function. Became a very intense conversation because Sephardi community wanted to do their own thing- and it became clear that within HIR they have to conform to our philosophy. So no way women would be sent to back and mechitza would go to ceiling. At least in HIR would not happen but in Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities in other communities, visceral knee-jerk reaction to having women in positions of leadership and until communities see women in those positions, I think it’s going to take time to get used to it.
Answers: It seems like after similar discussions in Israel, there was much less of a controversy/ media frenzy than after your ordination. What do you think is the difference between process here and in Israel?
Maharat: I’m not sure anything really happened in Israel- it was just theoretical. No person was ordained or finished anything- I think they are setting the stage for women to be in a role of spiritual leadership. Rabbi Riskin is working on something…
Answers: Do you see yourself working within a sole pulpit position in some community?
Maharat: Definitely something I’ve thought about, I feel like eventually I may be pushed out from HIR- Rabbi Avi Weiss’ model is of training somebody and perpetuate them elsewhere- I like that model elsewhere- right now don’t think I can be a sole practitioner because of family life as well. I do see it as something that potentially will happen in who knows how many years- there has to be some creativity- I don’t count for minyan or lead services so has to be in community with strong layleaders.
Answers: Important issue within the Jewish community= Agunah- we haven’t really seen them moving forward on this issue but now it’s a pivotal time- do you think that you or women might take the lead on that issue?
Maharat: The advocates have already come to make that same argument with me. I think it speaks a little to the unique voice that women can offer. I think that each person no matter whether male or female has unique talents. I think women are in a position to help in certain areas, whether niddah and intimacy and stuff that is more emabbarrsing to talk about with rabbi. Same true with agunah issue, either women have been through it themselves. I spend a lot of time thinking about agunah issue and not quite sure why there hasn’t been as much movement for it – know woman in Israel who is a scholar in her own right and is spending quite a lot of time…
I know there were a lot of unanswered questions. Please feel free to come up to me and speak to me afterwards! It’s a pleasure to be here and if anybodoy wants to learn more about Yeshivat Maharat, I can tell you how to get in touch with me and we can continue the conversation.
Chana: It seems to me that most of your argument has to do with historical context. So I’m curious to know whether you think that the Gemara was sexist.
Maharat: I think it’s certainly a patriarchal text. I’m somebody who learned hilkhot niddah and was not angry at the texts when I read them, but it was certainly impacted by the culture and context in which they lived.
Chana: I’m curious to know- in places beyond where it is specifically noted in the text that they took from the outside culture, do you think the texts were impacted by the historical context?
Maharat: I definitely think the historical context impacted the shaping of the texts.