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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

First orthodox ‘rabba’ discusses role of women in Judaism

Published: April 30, 2010
Section: News

When asked, the majority of the Jewish community, especially the Orthodox Jewish community, reports with absolute conviction that women cannot be rabbis. Those polled would either be giving their own belief or what they know to be the religious rule.

Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the first Orthodox woman to become a rabbi in the United States, would disagree, and spoke about the discrepancy at Brandeis Wednesday.

The event, which attracted more than 100 students, faculty and community members, focused on Hurwitz’s controversial ordination and the question of whether women could actually be ordained as Orthodox rabbis. In an interactive lecture, Hurwitz explained the duties of a rabbi, saying that although, because of her gender, she is not allowed to perform such duties as sitting on a Jewish court of law, being a woman “doesn’t really affect the day-to-day responsibilities of a rabbi.”

Hurwitz was ordained last year, and her new position has caused controversy across the Orthodox world. After her ordination, she took the title of “Mahara’t,” an acronym referring to her leadership in law, spirituality and Torah. Earlier this year, Hurwitz adopted the title “Rabba,” which is used by most women rabbis in Israel.

The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and Agudath Israel, two prominent Orthodox groups, are against the use of the title because it is so similar to “rabbi.” The timing of the event was relevant, as the day before, the RCA unanimously decided to reject the idea of ordaining women.

urwitz considers being a rabbi her “calling,” and said that it is tradition, not Jewish law, that prohibits women from being ordained.

She is also the dean of Yeshivat Mahara’t, started in 2009 by her mentor and the man who ordained her, Rabbi Avi Weiss. The school currently has four students, all girls. Hurwitz said the goals of the yeshiva were to foster young women to become exceptional spiritual leaders with an eye towards inclusivity, as well as educating the greater Orthodox community about the benefits of women rabbis.

“I think the Orthodox community here at Brandeis is generally more accepting of her ordination than the general American Orthodox population,” Brandeis Orthodox Organization (BOO) Education Director Daniel Kasdan ’13 said. “We were raised in a generation which has women receiving an unprecedented amount of leadership roles, even in the Jewish community … It makes sense that Hurwitz’s ordination doesn’t feel as weird to many of us as it does to our parents.”

The BOO hosted Hurwitz after Kasdan and Rabbi Elliot and Toby Kaplowitz, co-directors of Brandeis’ Jewish Learning Initiative, invited her to speak. Hurwitz is an alumna of Barnard College, and is on the rabbinical staff of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale as well as serving as dean of Yeshivat Maharat. She is also the curricular researcher and writer for the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance’s Gender and Orthodoxy Curriculum Project.