Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Orthodox Yeshiva Set To Ordain Three Women. Just Don’t Call Them ‘Rabbi.’

The first graduating class at Yeshivat Maharat may not have the title, but they do have jobs at Orthodox synagogues

Print Email
Ruth Balinsky Friedman studies at the Drisha Beit Midrash. (Batya Ungar-Sargon)
Related Content

The New ‘Morethodox’ Rabbi

Asher Lopatin succeeds Avi Weiss at an influential seminary, offering a pluralistic version of Orthodoxy

On June 16, three Jewish women will be ordained as Orthodox members of the clergy in the inaugural graduation ceremony of Yeshivat Maharat, which bills itself on its website as “the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as Spiritual leaders and Halakhic authorities.” But even though Yeshivat Maharat also claims to be “actualizing the potential of Orthodox women as rabbinic leaders,” its female graduates will not be granted the title of “rabbi.” Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rachel Kohl Finegold, and Abby Brown Scheier will instead be ordained with the title of “maharat,” a Hebrew acronym for manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit toranit, or female leader of Jewish law, spirituality, and Torah.

While the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements of Judaism have been ordaining women since 1972, 1974, and 1985, respectively, the Orthodox community has resisted this development, except in a few unofficial cases in Israel. Orthodox women have completed courses of study in Torah and Jewish learning but they have typically been granted nonclerical titles, such as yoetzet halakha—halakhic adviser.

Sara Hurwitz, dean of Yeshivat Maharat, was the first Orthodox woman to be ordained in the United States. In 2009, Hurwitz received smicha from Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of both Yeshivat Maharat and the Modern Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah as well as leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx, and Rabbi Daniel Sperber, a professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University and president of the Ludwig and Erica Jesselson Institute for Advanced Torah Studies. Originally, Hurwitz was also ordained with the title maharat, but Weiss changed her title to rabba—a feminization of rabbi—in February 2010, incensing the Orthodox rabbinical community. Weiss is known as a figure who courts controversy, but the brouhaha in this case was short-lived. By March, the Rabbinical Council of America issued a statement about “discussions” that members of the Orthodox RCA had with Weiss: “We are gratified that during the course of these conversations Rabbi Weiss concluded that neither he nor Yeshivat Maharat would ordain women as rabbis and that Yeshivat Maharat will not confer the title of ‘rabba’ on graduates of their program.” Hurwitz continues to use the title of rabba, but no future graduates will have that option.

But the battle isn’t merely semantic; it’s about what roles women will be permitted to perform in Orthodox institutions. On May 7, 2013, the RCA reissued its 2010 statement, noting: “We cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.”

“Historically and traditionally, women haven’t served as clergy,” Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA, told me in a recent phone interview. “In addition to the halakha, there are broader implications for the community. Traditional rabbinic roles have not been in the domain of women.” While the RCA takes no official position about whether ordaining women is halakhically permissible “in the strict sense,” Dratch noted: “Even if it were permissible, it might not be good policy,” calling the ordination of Orthodox women “divisive” and “premature.”

Sperber, who administered the smicha exam to next week’s graduates, acknowledged: “The question of the title is a difficult question. On the one hand, people live by titles. Institutions live by titles. Many positions require a title—a B.A., for example. On the other hand, they are politically explosive. So, it must be a gradual process. I think it would be good to give full respect to the women for what they are and know and have accomplished without challenging the Orthodox establishment. Which is exactly what the word ‘maharat’ is intended to do.”

This is also how the new maharats feel. “I am a member of the clergy,” said Kohl Finegold, “but I don’t use the word ‘rabbi’ in my head. People get caught up with the title, but for me, it’s about the function, what I do.”

Friedman agreed: “We don’t focus on the title of rabbi; we focus more on the work we’re doing.”

Perhaps an indication of the readiness of Orthodox congregations to accept these maharats lies in this fact: Three women from Yeshivat Maharat have already secured jobs. While the maharats won’t count in a minyan and can’t be a witness at a wedding, as male rabbis do and can, the positions that have opened for these women are positions that are open only to clergy and that require smicha.

“This is not about title,” Weiss emphasized. “It is about a degree—about women having earned the right to be poskot (decisors of Jewish law) and spiritual leaders.”


“The issue of women’s rabbinic leadership, regardless of title, is not primarily a debate over Jewish law, but over the power to define and control the franchise of ‘Orthodox Judaism,’ ” Rabbi Josh Yuter, who leads Lower Manhattan’s Orthodox Stanton Street Shul, wrote to me. “This explains why none of the Orthodox organizations have challenged the maharats at the level of their competency, or attempted to compare their competency to graduates from comparable institutions.” Indeed, no one I spoke to from the Orthodox institutions that disapprove of ordaining women—regardless of the title granted—questioned the individual graduates’ credentials.

Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the Agudath Israel of America, wrote to me: “The essence of the Jewish Mesorah, or religious tradition, is that there are distinct normative roles for men and for women. The goal of achieving, as Yeshiva Maharat endorses, ‘a pluralistic community, where women and men, from every denomination, can enhance the Jewish world’ by assuming positions of public leadership is not only antithetical to the concept of tzniut (modesty), which expresses the essence of a Jewish woman’s role and strength, but also to the very idea of Orthodox Judaism, where communal practice is determined by the community’s rabbinic elders, who have spent their lives immersed in the selfless and deep study of Torah and in personal self-control. Judaism is about obligations, not needs,” he added. ”Hundreds of generations of Jewish women have somehow managed without assuming roles in Jewish society dissonant with tzniut. And hundreds of thousands of Jewish women in our own day do not feel disenfranchised in any way by the lack of female rabbis (whatever name they’re given).”

Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s Theological Seminary, made a similar argument (quoting Saul Lieberman) in a 2011 article in the journal Hakira titled “Women Rabbis?”—arguing that tzniut, for women and for men, was the main issue. Rabbi Kenneth Brander, David Mitzner Dean of Y.U.’s Center for the Jewish Future, told me: “Y.U. does not endorse the ordination of women. We follow the tradition and the protocols which are in line with the tradition of Orthodoxy. We’re into creating opportunities, not titles.”

Brown Scheier, one of the new maharats, has a different take on tzniut, citing Piskei Uziel, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1948 to 1954, who wrote about the question of women in positions of leadership: “It is common sense that in any serious meeting and meaningful conversation there is no question of lack of modesty. … And sitting in the proximity [of women] when involved in communal affairs, which is work in holiness, does not lead to lightheartedness, (i.e., immodesty). For all Israel are holy people, and her women are holy, and are not to be suspect of breach of modesty and morality.”

Hurwitz, who says she is “connected to the rabbinic system,” emphasizes that having female leaders doesn’t go against the tenets of Orthodoxy: “This is my community,” she said. “I think there is a space for women to lead within Orthodoxy. … When people say we’re not Orthodox—it’s not a real accusation. We know we are Orthodox.”


A lot has changed since Hurwitz was ordained—in particular the founding of Yeshivat Maharat in 2009, which attracted other women to follow in her footsteps. “She didn’t want to be alone,” said Brown Scheier. “When I heard what [Hurwitz] had done in 2009, and that they were starting a yeshiva, I was really inspired by her, by the shift and change that she had brought.” In addition to the three women graduating next week, the yeshiva currently enrolls 14 women in its four-year program.

As for the debate over titles, Hurwitz noted simply: “We are living up to the promise we made to RCA. We want to respect their leadership.”

The title, it seems, was not as important to the students who enrolled in the yeshiva as the Orthodox environment: “I could have gone to any number of places—Hebrew Union College, JTS—and they would have called me rabbi,” said Kohl Finegold. “But it’s not my community. It’s not how I identify.”

Two graduating maharats have already found employment as spiritual leaders (the third graduating maharat, Brown Scheier, wasn’t seeking employment), as has Rori Picker Neiss, who is still in her third year.

“It feels so different from 2009,” said Hurwitz. “We spent all this time traveling, garnering support. There’s a palatable excitement from the community.”

The jobs these women will be starting are not merely advisory roles but clerical roles that require smicha.

“This is a pastoral role,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., which recently hired Balinsky Friedman. “She will be teaching Torah, working with people, and deciding questions of Jewish law. She has been through formal training that qualifies her to do this, and she has already begun to answer halakhic questions for members of the community.” Friedman’s salary, he said, will be comparable to that of an assistant rabbi exiting rabbinical school.

Rabbi Adam Scheier of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim of Montreal recently hired Kohl Finegold. “We met her in the course of our search for an assistant rabbi,” he said, “and decided to expand our search, with the really overwhelming and enthusiastic support of our community as well as the administration.” Shaar Hashomayim is the biggest Orthodox congregation in Canada, with 1,400 families. Kohl Finegold’s responsibilities will include speaking from the pulpit and answering halakhic questions, as well as giving classes, making hospital visits, and visiting the homebound. When I asked Scheier if he thinks of her as a rabbi, he responded, “I think of her as a maharat. It’s a new model, and we’re excited by that newness.”

Scheier got some flak for a speech he made on Shavuot about hiring Kohl Finegold, in which he stated, “We are unapologetically Orthodox, and we are unapologetically modern. … This is a not a break from tradition. If you look closely enough, the women have been there all along. It’s just now that we’re recognizing their presence, and it’s just now that we’re stepping aside just a little bit to create a place for that voice to be heard in our Beit Midrash, from our pulpit, and from the other areas of Jewish life which are not halakhically limited to men, but have been traditionally perceived as the domain of men.”

Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham in St. Louis recently hired Picker Neiss. “We needed someone to guide the community, not just educate them,” Schafner explained. “Half of my congregation are women. To hire another male rabbi—it just felt like something was missing. She will be basically an assistant rabbi. She will essentially do what I do, playing many roles.” Shafner believes that Picker Neiss will have a wider range of outreach than she would if she were male. But beyond that, “Rori just fit the bill,” he said. “Bais Abraham is very passionate because it is Orthodox, but it’s also very laid back, and Rori was like that too—open-minded and laid back, but also very engaged.”

“They wanted someone who could fit a lot of roles,” Picker Neiss said. “And they said, well, we already have a male. And they thought, a woman would be able to do the work that this community needs. I think it was more about community-matching than about me being a woman.”

“How could the Orthodox world not be ready for this? They are hiring!” said Brown Scheier, who will continue in her nonclerical role as educator after graduating (“One pulpit rabbi in the family is enough,” explained Brown Scheier, whose husband is Congregation Shaar Hashomayim’s Rabbi Adam Scheier, about not pursuing a rabbinical role). “That says a lot about opening up the conversation. People have already been so supportive of me. To people who meet these women, it’s just so obvious that they are passionate to teach Torah and that they are and should be leaders.”

For now, the demand has exceeded the supply of maharats, with shuls and universities from Connecticut to Maryland to Florida contacting Hurwitz to request female leaders.

“The maharat graduation represents the mainstreaming of this movement within Orthodoxy,” said Elana Maryles Sztokman, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. “It is so important to have women in leadership positions. And it’s important to note that they are not starting this path today. There’s a handful of women out there who have been in quasi-rabbinical roles. The difference here is the publicness of it, the critical mass, and the legitimacy of it.”

Hurwitz concluded: “Now men and women from every denomination can help shape and serve the spiritual needs of the Jewish community.”


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

Sprite says:

If not now, when?

    philo526 says:

    Somebody should say the same to the pope. If Orthodox Judaism can take this step, Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, in which fear of women is rampant leading often to a visceral hatred of them, can change too.

Victoria Ravdin says:

I agree with Rabbis Scheier and Schafner. The women HAVE been there all along and half your congregations ARE women. How can you adequately serve these members of your congregation without access to both what halakha says AND a woman’s viewpoint? And if the community leaders are smart, as no doubt some of them have been all these centuries, they were already discreetly conferring with their wives about certain cases. Probably another reason rabbis are supposed to be married. Tradition might not have allowed women to be in the positions of leadership but there are always ways to get things done. I personally don’t think it’s fair to deny these women the titles they’ve earned, but if the “maharats” aren’t worried about it, I won’t be…much. There are so many small Jewish communities and congregations dying and fading away (and with them, their passing-on of their Jewish heritage to their children) for lack of leadership because no one is interested in going to small towns or earning a smaller salary, it’s a downright pity to deny or discourage anyone who is interested in leading our communities.This affects every group, not just Orthodoxy, of course, but the world changes around us. We don’t all live in tight-knit, insular Jewish communities anymore and we can’t just keep our noses buried in the past. We have to come up with ways to adapt and new ideas for how to serve our people or we may find ourselves going the way of the dinosaurs.

jayafriedman says:

Some call it “modern orthodox” To me, it is authentic Judaism.

Malka Margolies says:

Interesting piece. One minor correction. The Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1948-1954 was Ben-Zion Chai Uziel. Piskei Uziel is one of his writings.

Continuing to marginalize 50% of the Jewish population is probably not a good idea.

    gemel says:

    In the Frum world, one can be known by the title of a major halachic work that they author; i.e. The Piskei Uziel becomes a name of the Chief Rabbi because he authors that work.

    Michael says:

    Time for a “new” Emancipation. Orthodox Jews march forward very slowly, but once in 300 +- years they do take a major step. This may be the crawl before the needed HUGE step making Orthodox Jewish women fully equal to men. You are correct, marginalizing the majority of Jewish population is not a good idea.

e. pruzhaner says:

“The issue of women’s rabbinic leadership, regardless of title, is not primarily a debate over Jewish law, but over the power to define and control the franchise of ‘Orthodox Judaism,’ ”Rabbi Josh Yuter, who leads Lower Manhattan’s Orthodox Stanton Street Shul, wrote to me. “This explains why none of the Orthodox organizations have challenged the maharats at the level of their competency, or attempted to compare their competency to graduates from comparable institutions.”

Why if this was a debate over Jewish law would we expect someone to challenge the competence of the “maharats”? If halakhah prohibits women rabbis, it does so regardless of their qualifications. If Yuter is not being misquoted, he seems to have a difficulty with the concept of halakhah himself. (Just to be clear, I am questioning his competence.)

David S says:


I’m wondering, why do all these women have double last names? Is taking on their husband’s last name some kind of marginalizing of women? Or against their feminist sensibilities?

Also wondering, how are these women going to make any serious changes to the major issues on the table in the frum world? Are “maharat”s going to solve the shidduch crisis? Kids who go off the derech? Abuses in the frum community? Prevent kashruth scandals? Fix the problems that the internet has wrought on the community?
Are the short term “gains” going to outweigh the long term “losses”?
Since they will surely not get acceptance from large segments of the frum world, aren’t they just creating more divisiveness?
Just to be clear, I have nothing against women learning, or being learned. But somehow I feel these women are more about the Modern (capital “M”) and less about the orthodox (small “o”).
I don’t know…my wife, if she has a problem, sometimes goes to the Rabbi. And other times, she will go to the Rebbitzen. Seems to be working out just fine. I guess some women cannot accept that Judaism defines gender roles and they cannot be exactly like men. So they have to invent things to make them like men.
If anyone can answer my questions, please do so. I’m not intending on inciting anyone. I just want to hear other perspectives.
Thank you.

Sidney Davis says:

In the Abrahamic religions male hegemony is sacrosanct.

Jewlie613 says:

I admit I didn’t get through the whole article.. I looked at the picture, couldn’t help assume it had to have some connection with the piece, and then read passed “This is not about title,” Weiss emphasized. “It is about a degree—about women having earned the right to be poskot (decisors of Jewish law) and spiritual leaders.”
And then I laughed (really cried), would you go to a rabbi with a question on Shabbos, who doesn’t keep shabbos? No, a woman “Halachist” should therefore know it is Halacha to cover her knees and chest. Enough said. There are plenty of women out there who know Halacha very well, who are great spiritual leaders, and examples and teachers for other women, but they embrace being a woman, love being a woman, and are in no way trying to be a man! There are many other points to bring out with an article such as this one, but this issue stood out like a thorn.

    David S says:

    Not to mention, what is with the picture of Friedman wearing a RED dress? Really? Red? Come on, you must know better than that.

big deal …… welcome to the 21st century. or in their case is it still the gay 90’s

palmoni says:

The cover picture is representative of someone who doesn’t know the applicable halachos and does not follow the established practices of the Orthodox community and should not be touted as representative of an Orthodox view. A few quick and obvious examples: collarbone, red color, hair showing, and upper garment obviously so tight as to be as immodest as if painted on. Such a person should be ordained as a decisor of Jewish Law? I could more easily envision someone with this little self respect being ordained for some other old “profession.”

    Berel Dov Lerner says:

    It takes a rather overworked erotic imagination to turn that picture into a piece of pornography. Are you feeling alright? have you sought professional help?

ThorsProvoni says:

Sephardic scholars have tended to avoid use of Talmudic titles like Rav or Rabbi/Ribbi. Sephardic sages have historically preferred to be call hakham. Hellenistic Judaic communities used sophos while (European) Karaites have preferred melamed.

Janet says:

I found it both ironic and shocking (and it takes quite a bit to shock me) that alongside the paragraph discussing “tznuit” was an ad for women’s lingerie with a very scantly-clad woman’s chest. Doesn’t this website have any discretion over the ads that it allows to be shown on its site?

Berel Dov Lerner says:

Sefer Hahinukh refers explicitly to “wise women” who, like rabbis, should not teach people the halakhah while drunk!
(1) ספר החינוך – מצוה קנב
ונוהג איסור ביאת מקדש בשכרות בזמן הבית בזכרים ונקבות, ומניעת ההוראה בכל מקום ובכל זמן בזכרים, וכן באשה חכמה הראויה להורות. וכל מי שהוא חכם גדול שבני אדם סומכין על הוראתו, אסור לו לשנות לתלמידיו והוא שתוי, שהלימוד שלו כמו הוראה הוא, כמו שאמרנו:

Berel Dov Lerner says:

I don’t know who came up with the idea that women shouldn’t wear red dresses – must have been someone unacquainted with King David. After all, in his eulogy for Saul and Jonathan he said:

IISamuel 1:24
ספר שמואל ב פרק א
(כד) בְּנוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל שָׁאוּל בְּכֶינָה הַמַּלְבִּשְׁכֶם שָׁנִי עִם עֲדָנִים הַמַּעֲלֶה עֲדִי זָהָב עַל לְבוּשְׁכֶן:

And if you want to play games about the meaning of “shani”:
מצודות ציון על שמואל ב פרק א פסוק כד
שני – תולעת שני, והוא צמר צבוע אדום

I guess the hareidim will have to say that David HaMelekh was telling the Jewish girls to bewail Shaul’s death after Shaul dressed them up like prostitutes!. Then again, that icon of Jewish prostitution, the Eishet Hayil, dressed up her whole household in red!
(1) ספר משלי פרק לא

(כא) לֹא תִירָא לְבֵיתָהּ מִשָּׁלֶג כִּי כָל בֵּיתָהּ לָבֻשׁ שָׁנִ

And when in Jewish sources do we ever hear about a man dressing up in black? Out of kindness to my Hareidi brothers, I will not translate these sources for the general public:
(5) תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף יט/א
שם היה סנהדרין של ישראל יושבת ודנה את הכהנים ומי שנמצא בו פסול היה לובש שחורים ומתעטף שחורים ויצא והלך לו

(14-15) תלמוד בבלי מסכת מועד קטן דף יז/א
רבי אילעאי אומר אם רואה אדם שיצרו מתגבר עליו ילך למקום שאין מכירין אותו וילבש שחורים ויתעטף שחורים ויעשה מה שלבו חפץ ואל יחלל שם שמים בפרהסיא

Come on guys, you know Gemarah better than I do – how in the world did you decide to wear black clothing?!?!?!?!

cipher says:

I attended the graduation/ordination ceremony today. Rabbi Weiss and Rabba Hurwitz spoke, and each of the three women gave a brief talk thanking her teachers, husband and community, and explained the reasons the journey had been meaningful for her. Yitz and Blu Greenberg were there as well. I remarked to a friend that it must have been especially meaningful for Blu, as she’s been working toward this for decades.

All in all, a wonderful day. They recorded the proceedings; it may be posted to their website at some point.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Orthodox Yeshiva Set To Ordain Three Women. Just Don’t Call Them ‘Rabbi.’

The first graduating class at Yeshivat Maharat may not have the title, but they do have jobs at Orthodox synagogues