Six years after serving Congregation Shaar Hashomayim as its first female clergy member, Rachel Kohl Finegold is changing her title from “maharat” to “rabba,” because she is confident her community is now ready for it.
In a June 27 article in The Forward – headlined I am an Orthodox Clergywoman, and I am Changing My Title – she explains the reasons for her decision.
To her, the title “rabba” recognizes that she “can fill a rabbinic position without compromising my adherence to the halakhic parameters for women.”
The Shaar is the largest and second-oldest congregation in Montreal.
In 2013, Rabba Kohl Finegold was one of three women in the inaugural graduating class of Yeshivat Maharat in New York, which was the first institution in the world to train and ordain Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halakhic authorities.
The New York native, now 39, has been serving the Shaar as director of education and spiritual enrichment since then.
“Maharat” is a Hebrew acronym denoting a female “leader of Jewish law, spirituality and Torah.” “Rabba,” which is used by some ordained women in Orthodoxy’s liberal wing, has been contentious because of its similarity to the word “rabbi.”
The ordination of women is not recognized by mainstream Orthodox bodies, such as the Orthodox Union or the Rabbinical Council of America.
Rabba Kohl Finegold writes: “I have found the title (maharat) to be unsatisfying for those on all sides of the issue of Orthodox women’s ordination. More liberal-minded Jewish feminists may feel it does not sound rabbinic enough, that it shies away from the fact that I have the same ordination as any Orthodox rabbi.
“Traditionalists, on the other hand, those who object to the ordination of Orthodox women regardless of the title, may feel the title ‘maharat’ might be masking some hidden agenda that I have not been honest about, or even, at some point down the line, that I intend to violate halakhic norms.”
She notes that “maharat” is “an invented acronym only a decade old.” It is little understood, she says, and is difficult to pronounce.
“The time is ripe for me to move toward a title that is more rabbinic to the ear, and more familiar to the tongue,” she writes.
Rabba Kohl Finegold says she has the support of her synagogue’s leadership and even the more traditional congregants now accept that the term “rabba” more accurately reflects her clerical role.
In addition to her educational and programming duties, she can officiate at weddings (but not sign as a witness on the ketubbah) and at funerals (but not be counted among the minyan for Kaddish).
The title “rabba” was first used by Sara Hurwitz, who was the first woman ordained by Yeshivat Maharat founder Rabbi Avi Weiss, a few years before the inaugural class. It stirred considerable controversy.
Those in Rabba Kohl Finegold’s inaugural class could choose the title they wanted. One of the other two graduates was Abby Brown Scheier, the wife of the Shaar’s Rabbi Adam Scheier and an educator, who has been using the title “rabba” for a couple of years. She is not on the synagogue’s staff.
Rabba Kohl Finegold says she always hoped for a title that was a feminized version of the word “rabbi,” but put that aside in favour of the less contentious word “maharat” when she was hired by the Shaar.
“This community was taking a risk on me. They would be the first congregation in North America to hire an institutionally ordained Orthodox woman as part of the clergy,” she writes. “As they took this courageous step, they needed to ensure that this monumental change would be accepted, and that my title would not be divisive.”
I have found the title maharat to be unsatisfying for those on all sides of the issue of Orthodox women’s ordination.
– Rabba Rachel Kohl Finegold
She thinks that was the right decision then, because it has allowed time for the more traditional members of the congregation to be assured that she adheres to the tenets of Orthodox halakhah.
(While the Shaar is not formally affiliated with the Orthodox movement and was, in fact, a member of the Conservative United Synagogue for much of its history, it follows Orthodox practice and is formal in its ritual.)
In a half-dozen years, Rabba Kohl Finegold has seen an attitudinal change in her community. “I’ve seen with my own eyes individuals who moved from skepticism to acceptance to a full embrace of my role,” she writes.
Rabbi Scheier stated that, “The leadership – including Shaar president Claire Berger and me – fully endorsed this change. The title ‘rabba’ reflects the ever-evolving landscape of female Orthodox leadership, and will offer greater clarity in terms of her role within our congregation and the broader community.
“With this change, Rabba Rachel Kohl Finegold aligns her title with many Orthodox leaders who are teaching, inspiring and leading their communities across North America. The Shaar is fortunate that Rabba Rachel continues to grow in her capacity as our director of education and spiritual enrichment, and we anticipate that this change of titles will be seamless, allowing for greater familiarity and clarity as she continues in her sacred work at the Shaar.”