It definitely is a first in Jewish history.
The first orthodox woman rabbi.
And she earned it in a way that no man ever has done. She went through all the rabbinical training for three years at Manhattan’s Drisha Institute. Then she studied with Rabbi Avi Weiss, an orthodox rabbi and head of a New York yeshiva, learning psak ( how to decide Jewish law) for an additional three years.
If anyone has ever been qualified to act as an orthodox rabbi, certainly Sara Hurwitz, age 32 and mother of three children, is. No one can dispute that.
“You have risked so much to stand behind me,” Hurwitz said to Weiss in her acceptance speech. “It is my dream that young Orthodox girls will be able to say, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a maharat and serve in the capacity of female Orthodox rabbi.’ ”
No one in the congregation of over 800 people seemed to flinch. In fact, in the weeks that followed, it appeared that Weiss had accomplished something else unprecedented: a significant challenge to Orthodox rabbinical codes that had avoided waking the lions of the Establishment. This is not how he typically conducts business. Though described by his congregants as soft-spoken and gentle, he has, over the past three decades, built a career out of confrontation. He is known for his unrelenting political activism, championing causes from Soviet Jewry to clemency for Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. Few can keep track of the number of times he’s been arrested, threatened, and lambasted. Within the Orthodox community, Weiss has been equally disruptive, agitating for what he calls an “open Orthodoxy,” which he believes can be inclusive without breaching the tradition’s stringent parameters.
This morning’s ceremony appeared to represent a quieter radicalism—no news conferences, no protests. Perhaps, even, it was a glimpse of a new Avi Weiss: as crusading as ever, but, at 64, grown wise to the benefits of diplomacy.
Those in the congregation who knew Weiss best knew better.
Everyone present agreed that Hurwitz represented something seismic. “I think everybody was in amazement that she had achieved this,” says Reform rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, who attended a meeting. Hurwitz had put in three years of learning at Manhattan’s Drisha Institute, then repeated the course work under Weiss’s supervision, this time with an eye toward psak: being equipped to weigh in on intricate questions of Jewish law. “Sara completed everything,” Ellenson continues. “She bucked the system. So what happens next? Do you let her in?” Some were afraid that by ordaining Hurwitz, Weiss would jeopardize his synagogue’s funding; others expressed concern about the impact on “his boys,” as some refer to his students from the already-controversial yeshiva he created. But after hours of discussion, the group was largely in accord: Hurwitz should be named rabbi, or, failing that, rabba.
However, the rest of the orthodox community did not keep silent.
“These developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition,” declared Agudath Israel of America, ultra-Orthodoxy’s most authoritative rabbinic body. “Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.” Weiss, never a favorite among the hard-liners, was accused of sabotaging his community. Steven Pruzansky, a rabbi in Teaneck, New Jersey, wrote on his popular blog, “Those who seek to infiltrate the Torah with the three pillars of modern Western life—feminism, egalitarianism, and humanism—corrupt the Torah, cheapen the word of G-d.”
“There are a few who feel that ‘God has put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I need you to be an ambassador to the Jewish world,”” says Marc D. Angel, Weiss’s classmate at Yeshiva University and now rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel on Central Park West. “Avi is one of those kinds of rabbis. He sees himself not just as a rabbi of a synagogue but as a rabbi responsible for the whole Jewish people.” In his 2008 book Spiritual Activism, Weiss wrote, “I was once involved in activism because I enjoyed it, but now I have come to believe that a true activist is one who takes no pleasure from it. Now I’m an activist because I feel I have no choice; there are things I believe I simply must do.”
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