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The Progressive Side of Orthodoxy

The confrontation of Judaism with modernity is often frustrated by a gigantic paradox. On the onehand, Judaism has survived because it has steadfastly maintained its traditions and way of life. On the other hand, Judaism has survived because its tradition has adapted to meet the evolving needs of each generation, withinside the framework of a system called halacha.

There are many areas within which halacha, quite legitimately, discriminate. There are many areas of discrimination within halacha where the changing nature of society requires Judaism to maintain its principles yet adapt its mode of observance.

Put me into cherem right now, before you read the rest of this article, if you do not agree that the role of Torah learning, teaching and leadership for women should be further enhanced and developed.

Judaism correctly defines different roles and a different spiritual relationship through its halachic system for men and women. However, the educative role has never been beyond the scope of the Jewish mother. Our generation is witnessing a resurgence in women’s Torah learning, within a women’s only environment. The infrastructure to support this has only been developed in recent times, and it must be maintained and enhanced for the sake of keeping our mesorah accessible and relevant to the needs of young Jewish women today. Excluding women from an intellectual engagement with Judaism is without question a way of ensuring that Judaism has no relevance to the next generation, for both male and female.

The role of the Rabbi, has, is and will always be one of a teacher. Sadly, for a generation or two the Rabbinic role has become a “pastoral role” in the form of a paid professional cleric and public figurehead. However more and more the Rabbinic role is returning back to its educative purpose.

Modern Orthodox Judaism has been experimenting for decades with quasi-Rabbinic roles for women. One of the most notable is the yoatzat halacha – a group of women trained to provide halachic counsel on issues concerning taharat hamishpacha and other female related mitzvot and observance. There is currently a Rebbitzen in Perth who is qualified to this extent. There have been other shules around the world that have engaged teaching and community staff to perform functions that may have been traditionally those of a male Orthodox Rabbi. Experiments such as women’s tefillah groups, delivering drashot, and other levels of public involvement in community activity that are within the bounds of halacha (for example, taking into account Kol Isha, and other matters of Tzniut).

While it would seem that most of the orthodox world is far from ready for the type of change that would allow a female Rabbinic role to be defined in mainstream terms, there is movement towards this. I am entirely comfortable with it, and would welcome the day when female Rabbinic leaders guide Jewish learning within Torah observant communities, fully compliant with time tested halachic values.

Here is a wonderful article about a current example of the evolvement of female Orthodox Rabbis. I have had the fortune to visit the HIR and to hear Rabbi Weiss talk on this topic, and I can only say Kol Hakavod on their achievement.


February 4, 2010

After years of beating around the bush, Rabbi Avi Weiss came right out this past week and said what everyone assumed he’s been thinking all along: Sara Hurwitz, the woman he has mentored and trained to function as an Orthodox cleric is, in his view, an Orthodox rabbi.

Rabbi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, who founded both Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (for men) and Yeshivat Mahara”t (for women), announced that after a year-long trial run for Hurwitz with the title “Mahara”t” – an acronym for Manhiga Hilchatit Ruchanit Toranit – she will henceforth be known by a more familiar-sounding title: “Rabbah.”

“This will make it clear to everyone that Sara Hurwitz is a full member of our rabbinic staff, a rabbi with the additional quality of a distinct woman’s voice,” Rabbi Weiss explained.

While deploring Rabbi Weiss’ new low, Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America breaths a sigh of relief that the veil was finally removed from Weiss’s long-suspected agenda. “It is laudable that the disingenuous title has been abandoned, the new one better reflects the intention of its conferrers. Now it would be good for them to come clean, too, about what the entire venture really is: an essential break with the mesorah of Klal Yisrael,” Rabbi Shafran said.

“I’m pretty traditional,” Hurwitz admitted drolly with a faint South African accent. “I know halacha. I keep halacha very carefully. I have tremendous emunah. I can’t convince somebody else that I really am Orthodox and that Rabbi Weiss is really Orthodox. The only way is for somebody to realize it themselves. And they’ll realize it.”

“In four more years we’ll have four more women out there, acting as rabbis. And the community that’s to the right of us will see that having women who are talented, sensitive clergy will be a boon to the community. But that takes time,” Hurwitz said.

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