There’s been quite the controversy lately over the titles “Rabba” and “Maharat” and their application to women. So, I think, in order to understand the debate, we should start from the beginning. According to the New York Jewish week, last year Sara Hurwitz completed all the coursework and exams that men at Yeshivat Chovevi Torah (an “open yeshiva”) must complete, and was deemed a “Maharat” by Rabbi Avi Weiss, an Orthodox rabbi. A “Maharat” is an acronym for “manhiga,” “hilchatit,” “ruchanit,” “toranit,” which means a leader in Halacha, spiritual matters, and Torah.
Sara Hurwitz has served for almost a year at the Riverdale Hebrew Institute in a rabbinic role alongside Rabbi Weiss, the main male rabbi there. However, as most people did not understand what “Maharat” meant, Rabbi Weiss and she decided to switch it to “Rabba” for the sake of clarity, and to call future graduates from his new Yeshivat Maharat for women “Rabba” as well.
And then the fighting started: Agudath Yisrael, a group of Haredi rabbis, denounced Weiss and his decision, and there were rumors that the Rabbinical Council of America, a group of mainly Modern Orthodox rabbis, was considering expelling him. And so they struck a deal: Rabbi Weiss stopped calling the women “Rabba” and went back to “Maharat.” Both the RCA and Rabbi Weiss published letters after the event, declaring that women who graduate from the Yeshiva will no longer be declared “Rabba.” But in his letter, Rabbi Weiss also says that graduates of Yeshivat Maharat will
have been prepared to provide varied forms of communal and synagogue leadership in accordance with halakha. They will also have been trained in pastoral counseling, as well as having the ability to answer questions of halakha to those who seek them out, as has been recognized and well established in both classical and contemporary halakhic sources.
Even if the women will not be called “Rabba,” they will still be leaders of the Jewish community. I have a lot of respect for Rabbi Weiss. He realized that he had to back down or else face huge issues with the Orthodox community, and did so. And while I think that the term “Rabba” would give women graduates of the Yeshiva the recognition and authority that they deserve, we have to take baby steps here.
I got into a long discussion today about this issue, and I talked to a lot of people who are uncomfortable with the idea of a woman being called a “Rabba” because it sounds too much like Rabbi, and they, as Orthodox people, are not comfortable with having a Rabbi who cannot read Torah for the community and lead davening. But I want to emphasize that a “Rabba” is not a “Rabbi:” in Rabbi Weiss’s description, it does not say that the women will be leading services or reading Torah. It says that the women who will now be called “Maharat” and who someday could be called “Rabba” will be leading their communitites spiritually and religiously. And there is no Halacha that says that women cannot do that. The RCA was upset because it seemed that Rabbi Weiss was trying to ordain women as Rabbis, but in fact, he was trying to give them the title of “Rabba”—it may seem like semantics, but Judaism is very much about semantics, and it matters.
I don’t think women will be ordained as rabbis in the foreseeable future in the Orthodox world, and I’m not sure that they should, as it would lead to the problems that are inherent in the Orthodox interpretation of Halacha. But there are female presidents of Orthodox synagogues, there are women who are Torah scholars, there are women who organize their own women’s minyans. Orthodox women have already taken on leadership roles within the Jewish community, and I think that the community at large should recognize that reality and give these women the titles they deserve. Modern Orthodoxy is constantly adapting to fit the times, and this is no exception. “Maharat” is a good start, but there will be a time for “Rabba.”