NEW YORK — The Agudath Israel Council of Torah Sages has issued a statement suggesting that a New York rabbi should no longer be considered Orthodox because of his decision to ordain a woman.
Last month, Rabbi Avi Weiss announced that one of his female students would now be known as rabba – a feminized version of rabbi – replacing her previous title of “maharat.” He declared in a statement that the name change “makes it clear that Sara Hurwitz is a full member of our rabbinic staff” at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a modern Orthodox synagogue in the Bronx where he is the spiritual leader.
The Agudath Israel council, comprised of leading haredi rabbis, declared in its Feb. 25 statement that “these developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah, and must be condemned in the strongest terms.” The statement, which was signed by 10 members of the council, added: “Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.”
Rabba Hurwitz, who has served at the Hebrew Institute for nearly seven years, performs some rabbinic duties, but cannot perform others because of her gender, including acting as a witness, leading religious services and being counted in a minyan.
In recent years, a handful of prominent mainstream modern Orthodox synagogues have hired women for roles like Rabba Hurwitz’s, in which they carry out certain functions that historically were the sole domain of male rabbis, from offering guidance in spiritual or Jewish legal matters to teaching classes and delivering lectures.
Agudath Israel spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran said that the council’s objection to Rabba Hurwitz’s situation is that she is considered a “full member” of the rabbinic staff, in violation of the Orthodox value of “tzniut,” or modesty, for women.
“Some of the roles intended for the ‘rabba’ are in fact roles that women even in the haredi community have played for centuries, such as counselling and offering wise advice,” he said. “ Others, though, are not, especially those that thrust a woman into a public venue.”
The council also objects, Rabbi Shafran added, because any change in Orthodox norms must be backed by a “world-class Torah decisor,” and no such authority has lent his name to Rabbi Wiess’ actions.
Meanwhile, the New York Jewish Week cited an unnamed source close to Rabbi Weiss as saying that the Rabbinical Council of America, the modern Orthodox rabbinical group, is considering kicking Rabbi Weiss out of its organization. Like many members of the RCA, Rabbi Weiss received his ordination from the Yeshiva University-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.
The RCA has refused to grant membership to graduates of the liberal Orthodox seminary, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, founded by Rabbi Weiss.