Treating Orthodox Women as Equals, Guest Post by Ronn Torossian

August 11, 2013

As the father of young daughters who are blessed to attend Modern Orthodox yeshivas in Manhattan, my girls are taught that their potential is unlimited. At home and at school, they are constantly reminded that they can do anything, and succeed at whatever they choose to do in life. As girls living in the year 2013, we tell them that there are no doors closed to them. Doesn’t every good Jewish parent teach their kids similar values?

Today, Jewish girls go to day school, then Jewish high school, and then universities. Indeed, women – in Jewish life and elsewhere – can do it all. They are able to learn, study, and (gasp) even master materials that many men cannot.  And once they get there, should they then rely upon men for guidance on Jewish issues? NO.

With all due respect, is a woman special because of who she is – or who she marries? A Rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) may indeed be a special woman – but shouldn’t we also have female Jewish communal leaders who are learned and well versed in Jewish issues? Shouldn’t Jewish role models be true Jewish spiritual advisers, whether they are men or women?

For these and many other reasons, I have been inspired after recently spending time with Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, the Orthodox institution which ordains women as spiritual leaders. The women who learn at Yeshivat Maharat study high level curriculum – and are ordained as leaders of Jewish law, spirituality, and Torah. For many years, while countless Orthodox women have learned Torah, there hasn’t been a path for them to follow to lead communities. How can our community be served when half of our community is being ignored?

How can anyone adequately serve the community without understanding both women and Jewish law?  Whether on issues of “taharas hamishpacha” (family purity), marriage counseling, bat mitzvahs, or simply understanding a women’s mind, shouldn’t female Jewish leaders who are learned and educated consult – and lead – on these issues? Shouldn’t female spiritual leaders help women? Can’t women spiritual leaders bring a perspective that men don’t see?

Many Orthodox Jewish leaders stand firm on this issue – and indeed form a silent consensus. Rabbi Bakshi-Doron, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel wrote, “women can be the gedolim (the greats) of the generation and serve as halakhic decisors.”  And supporters of this view continue to emerge.

It is high time, in 2013, that women are encouraged to stand on their own. Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, and other women were ordained prophets. Much as Halacha is constantly interpreted, nowhere in our written or oral law is it determined that leadership or moral authority is restricted for women. Spirituality is not exclusively in the domain of men.

Strong, smart, learned, and accomplished Jewish women leaders are necessary for the advancement of Am Israel (the nation of Israel). This is about the future of our people.

My mother, Penny Waga, was a single mother who raised us alone. She was indeed the toughest, strongest, most spiritual person I ever met. She was a member of a woman’s tefiillah (prayer) group and taught us we could do anything and everything. Those of us with mothers or daughters need to teach Jewish girls (and women) that they can do everything and anything.

Today, women are equal to men. At a recent graduation ceremony at the Ramaz Jewish school, the graduating women were reminded:  “As you walk, remember that you are not alone. Ruth, Rachel, and Abby. Know that as you march forward, we– all of us—this entire community, walks with you.” Indeed, more members of our community need to celebrate and support this great blessing for the Jewish people that is Yeshivat Maharat.

For more information on Yeshivat Maharat email info@yeshivatmaharat.org or call (718)796-0590.

Ronn Torossian is an entrepreneur, author, and philanthropist. He is a self-described Type A personality – who believes women and men are different – yet both holy, and both capable of leading.


Shifting Expectations: Women and Work

July 13, 2012

I love eating challah, but until recently, I refused to be a “challah baker.”  The term irrationally evoked an image of a woman chained to her kitchen,  slaving away for the sake of others, with no desire or choice to impact the world.   That is not who I am.  I am an Orthodox feminist, committed to changing the communal landscape by helping Orthodox women advance to the highest echelons of Jewish leadership—to ordain women as spiritual and halakhic leaders.  I am not a challah baker.

But the truth is that while my husband is a partner in raising our children and keeping our home, I am primarily responsible for providing dinner and making school lunches.  And so, on a daily basis, I try to do it all. I function as a rabbi in a large Modern Orthodox synagogue in New York,  run Yeshivat Maharat to ordain Orthodox women as spiritual leaders, and travel the world to ensure that the yeshiva’s graduates have a foundation of support. On top of this, I pick up my young children after school, make dinner, and put them to bed. After which, I resume working. Realistically, I simply don’t have time to make challah.

Women cannot do it all, and I applaud Anne-Marie Slaughter for her honesty and courage in bringing this to the forefront of her recent article for The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”  Whenever I travel and teach, it is inevitable that someone asks about my work family balance; I find that often I am judged for being out of the house, or criticized for not working enough. For me it is an uphill battle, made even more complicated by the limits that  Orthodox tradition places on women. And yet, I would like to suggest that this very tradition offers a framework for women and work.

The Talmud (Kiddushin 29a.) lists several commandments (mitzvoth) that women are “patur” or exempt from performing because they are positive time bound commandments. Blowing the shofar, sitting in a sukkah, and learning Torah are a few of these commandments. Positive time bound commandments require the person performing the mitzvah do so within a certain time frame.  However, this exemption does not mean that women are forbidden from performing these mitzvoth.  Historically, during times when women’s primary responsibilities revolved around work in the home, this exemption was quite liberating. It was not always feasible for women to leave the house and sit in a sukkah or leave their child’s side to pray. But for women who are able to accept these time bound commandments and obligate themselves, then they may.

This very ethic should drive women’s decision to work outside of the home as well.  Our tradition recognizes that some women (who can financially afford to) choose to remain at home to focus on raising children, and therefore, they are exempt from performing the time bound commandments. The halakha condones, perhaps even encourages women to consider this choice. But our tradition supports a woman’s pursuits outside of the home as well, and makes provisions accordingly. She may perform these time bound mitzvoth because the parameters of the law give her the flexibility to fulfill the mitzvah at her own pace.

And so, the choice to enter the workforce should not require a woman to sacrifice her family life.  A woman should have the opportunity to be at the table, lean forward, as Sheryl Sandberg suggests in her TED Talk, while at the same time remain present for her family. Many women have managed to strike a modicum of balance.  They have negotiated fulfilling careers allowing for part-time work, or reasonable working hours.  It is a fact that there are certain career tracks that make a work/life balance very challenging. And as Anne-Marie Slaughter notes, it is the expectations placed on women in these careers that must change. In my own life, I have discovered that the rabbinate is an example of this type of career.

Generally, rabbis are expected to be available to their communities all the time.  A pulpit rabbi is expected to open up the synagogue at 6am and close it at 10pm, literally bound by time.  But at what personal cost? This kind of rabbinate is not sustainable for anyone, male or female. Does being present all day allow one to be a fully capable pastoral caregiver? Does it make the rabbi more pious to be at the office, all day long? Alternatively, imagine the values that one can imbue on children, and the message a rabbi could send to congregants if he/she is a consistent presence as a parent for children during meal times.

The rabbinate is most certainly a time bound job.  But it is also a career where women, if they so choose, can impact the Jewish community.  However, to harness this 50% of the population, the job description must shift. I am not advocating for spiritual leaders to avoid working hard, or to waiver in their commitment to community. I am suggesting that the community change its expectations of what is possible to achieve in a single day.

Yeshivat Maharat is not training Orthodox women to become female versions of male rabbis. We teach our students to embrace their feminine attributes.  We recognize that women have tremendous talents and abilities and drive to serve the community, with a commitment to their families as well. Therefore,  the Orthodox community should go forth with a realistic understanding of women’s commitment to their families, so that talented passionate women can dedicate themselves fully to their families and their communities.

So what do women, time, careers, and family have to do with challah? I used to think I had to pick one over the other—making challah or pursuing a career.  But, recently I started baking challah.  In the beginning, my method was to wake up in the middle of the night to braid the challah until my sister suggested that I bring the dough into the office and knead between pastoral visits or sermon writing. I want to succeed in my career and I also want to make challah.  More and more, I think it is possible to create a work environment where there is time for both.  I haven’t  figured out how to do it all. But with the right communal support and with an attempt to re-envision communal expectations, I can be a challah baker and a spiritual leader at the same time.


From Behind the Veil of Tzniyut: Using Modesty to Block Women as Ritual Leaders– By Rabba Sara Hurwitz

February 7, 2012

American Jews, secular and religious alike, have been united in their rejection of Jewish extremists’ headline-grabbing attempts to keep young girls and women out of public spaces in Beit Shemesh, Israel on the grounds of religious modesty.

Observers, journalists and pundits have rationalized these actions to be little more than the misguided work of self-anointed Haredi Jews known as Sicarii. The Sicarii is a group much like ancient religious zealots bearing the same name, who drove Judaism to near destruction with their radicalism and uncompromising benightedness in 66 A.D.  These latter-day, rebels, who notoriously spit on a modestly dressed eight-year-old girl on her way to school, screamed epithets, and removed benches from public bus shelters, are indeed fundamentalists.

Their misdeeds, however, bring to light an extreme manifestation of a subtler, yet deeply rooted perception of tzniyut; it also reveals how the interpretation of religious modesty has cultivated an underlying resistance to and exclusion of women assuming ritual leadership roles in Jewish synagogue life in Israel and America.

Thankfully, most women are not spat on and harassed in public; however, female spiritual leaders are not welcome as bona fide members of Modern Orthodox rabbinic and professional networks.  Female scholars are not featured in scholarly journals, nor are they invited to speak on public, mainstream panels.  Currently, there are only two female heads of co-ed Orthodox Jewish day schools in America.  And, with some notable exceptions – notable because they are exceptions – women for the most part do not have roles in synagogue lay or religious leadership.

Far too often, tzniyut is cited as the reason for the imbalance.  In June 2010, after being graciously welcomed to speak at the Young Israel of Hewlett, Long Island, a rabbi in the Long Island community, who would likely never identify with the Sicarii, wrote an acerbic essay lamenting my very presence as an ordained Rabba, or spiritual leader: “Leading Torah scholars have condemned the appointment of a woman to a rabbinic position as ‘a breach of tzniyus [modesty]’ …because of the event, this coming Tisha B’Av, we will have something else to cry about.”

Modesty is the halakha or Jewish code of law, most readily summoned upon as the basis to exclude women from public leadership roles. Yet it is fairly typical for certain Modern Orthodox congregants to also be regular consumers of “immodest” television programs, films, and entertainment.  These individuals deal with women in the secular boardroom and courtroom, but they do not want women standing before a shul because, well, it’s immodest.

When taken to an extreme, it is considered a “breach of modesty” for women to appear on billboards or to travel with men; when walking outdoors in certain communities, it is deemed immodest for girls and women to wear clothing that does not cover their bodies from head to toe.

But should the same principle of tzniyut be invoked in Modern Orthodox communities as a way of preventing women from offering a few words of Torah from the pulpit, from announcing the time for mincha on Shabbat afternoon, from reciting Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, or from even holding a fully adorned Torah for a few precious moments?

In fact, Halakha does not support the eradication of women from public leadership and ritual life. The concept of tzniyut, with regard to women’s dress and conduct has its origins in Psalms (45:14), “The honor of the daughter of the king is within…” and therefore, there are those who suggest, women must remain hidden.

However, responding to a question about women assuming leadership positions in Israeli society, Rav Uziel, the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, wrote that women can and should become leaders in Israeli society, “…for all Israel are holy people, and her women are holy, and are not to be suspect of breach of modesty and morality.” (Responsa Piskei Uziel Siman 44).

What’s more, the concept of tzniyut, according to Derekh Eretz Zuta 7, teaches that
tzniyut extends beyond the way women dress. “A Torah scholar should be modest in eating and drinking…in his walking, in dress…” Modesty is a fundamental value.  But modesty is not limited to women. Men and women alike must strive to conduct themselves in a modest, humble manner.

Tzniyut, therefore, cannot be brandished as the reason that women cannot hold public leadership roles. Halakha should not be manipulated into a smokescreen shielding men and sidelining women who have the potential to enhance our community.  It’s imperative that the Modern Orthodox community come out from behind the veil of tzniyut, and actively seek out ways for women to not only be seen and heard, but to serve and to lead.

Advancing opportunities for vibrant women’s leadership is our goal at Yeshivat Maharat. By providing women with a vigorous spiritual and textual education, we are creating a path not only enabling women to be recognized as religious authorities, but to help combat religious gender inequality. Certain women, just like certain men, have the skills and aptitude for Torah study, and should be afforded the opportunity to serve the Jewish community as halakhic and spiritual leaders and role models. And yet, with a few exceptions, women are not encouraged to pursue authoritative positions of religious leadership. Yeshivat Maharat, is working to change the status quo.

In addition to Yeshivat Maharat, there are a few other enclaves emerging as inclusive and courageous supporters of women’s advancement into public religious leadership roles: Beit Hillel, which describes itself as “Tolerant Torani Leadership” is an Orthodox network of men and women that has just formed in Israel with the explicit mission of “promoting the status of women” as well as combating religious fundamentalism. In addition, a group of American Orthodox women recently came together to form a network with the  purpose of advancing women’s leadership in the Orthodox movement.  There are of course, individual rabbis and communities― the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale is one example― that have helped forged a path for women like myself to become full members of the clergy, despite tremendous criticism and political pressure.

Yeshivat Maharat is working to develop and train a cadre of knowledgeable, forthright women who have already begun to emerge as spiritual leaders. We are already witnessing the impact these talented women have begun to have on Jewish communities around the world. One of our second year students, Rori Picker Neiss, is an intern at Beit Chaverim, an Orthodox synagogue in Westport, CT.  When asked about her internship experience, she says: “Some people are interested in talking with me because I’m a woman; others want to learn Torah and Judaism not because I’m a woman, but because they want to discuss different perspectives. I love the fact that I’m not just viewed as a female presence, but as a member of the team.”

To think that the voices of our graduates may be muted because the community is unjustly afraid to grant them authority to serve Clal Yisrael is disheartening and frightening. I am so grateful that we live in a country in which women have equal access to many aspects of our society. And yet, under the guise of halakha, women are being stopped from asserting religious authority. It’s time for us to come out from behind the veil of tzniyut.


Title vs Function

April 22, 2010

Rabba Sara Hurwitz

There has been much written about me, Rabbi Weiss and women’s leadership in general over the past few months.  I know that many are disconcerted about the change in title from Maharat to Rabba.  As we have said before, Rav Avi and I did not intend to cause a firestorm, and certainly did not intend to “set the movement of women’s’ spiritual leadership backwards,” as some have written.  In fact, the opposite is true, and I do believe that the attention on women’s leadership can be seen as an opportunity to enhance the Orthodox community as a whole.

It is heartening that almost everyone who has considered the issue of women in ritual leadership has concluded that there is no halakhic prohibition.  My own analysis has shown that the issue of women functioning as Spiritual Leaders is not just permissible, but I am inspired by our text to continue to serve others. The objection seems to be temporal, tactical or sociological, not halakhic.

Given that there are no halakhic barriers, I would like to re-shift the focus on the issue away from title to function.  Communities that employ women as spiritual leaders in any capacity—as interns, yo’atzot, program, ritual or education directors – are significantly better served than those who are unable to hire women at this time.  It is true that for some, having a woman function as a spiritual leader raises visceral feelings of discomfort, as it appears untraditional. But the functions they are performing and the values that are being perpetuated are entirely traditional. Teaching and learning Torah, guiding others to greater halakhic observance, or being a compassionate listener are in essence the responsibilities of an excellent spiritual leader.  Women who are dedicated to halakha, have the right Torah scholarship and halakhic knowledge, and are interested in contributing, serve as valuable assets to our communities.  I know of countless examples both from my own experience and that of others, of women who have helped congregants come closer to Torah observance and belief in God.

This is simply the reality.  The benefits of women’s communal service are now part of the fabric of our Modern Orthodox lives.  This fact has not been a prominent part of the public discussion of the issue.  The positive aspects of the issue have been ignored.  We have spent much time analyzing and debating the politics of this development and responding to predictions of doom.  I think that the Modern Orthodox community should use this as an opportunity to formulate a position that is positive and not reactive.  A position that includes women in the leadership of our community, as well as part of the conversation about women’s place in spiritual and religious leadership.  I firmly believe that all of our communities stand to gain from this conversation.  It is then, that we will exist in a more spiritually rich community.


National American Inclusion Month

February 11, 2010

Rabba Sara Hurwitz

February has been designated as National American Inclusion Month, a program embraced by Yachad and the OU to focus on raising awareness and developing sensitivity to what it means to live with disabilities.  Now, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale built ramps before anyone else did. We have ramps leading up to the lobby, a Shabbat elevator, and a ramp up to the bimah in the main sanctuary.

But then, a few months ago, I read an eye opening and heart wrenching article by 2 of our beloved leaders of the community— calling for the larger Jewish community to do better:

They wrote: “We have been forced to accept that we will not find a place for our children in the Jewish day schools, but we can no longer tolerate that this extends to our synagogues as well. For our children, inclusion in the prayer services and programming at synagogue is a last chance to be part of the Jewish community, and they are being pushed out with both hands.”

In essence, they implied, ramps are just not inclusive enough.  You see, it’s simpler to accommodate those who are confronted with physical disabilities. However, there are many people, children in particular, who suffer from invisible disabilities—who have no obvious physical impediments, and to the outside observer seem “typical.” And yet, these children may struggle to fit into social situations, or struggle to keep up in school. 

It is these children who often cannot control their actions in shul. Who are perceived as acting inappropriately or who cannot figure out how to whisper. And it is these parents, who don’t feel welcome—opting to not to bring their children to shul, despite being desperate to inject them with some Jewish content and spirituality, lest people stare disapprovingly at the parent or child.  I learned about one family whose children refuse to step foot into shul after being chastised by another parent.

Invisible disabilities are just that—it is hard for us to know when a child is being purposefully mischievous OR if it’s a child who cannot control their impulses.  And as a community, we have an obligation to rise above our knee jerk reaction to judge and criticize children and parents. We must become sensitized to the needs of families who have invisible disabilities, so that our bayit is more than a shul with ramps.

Lat week, we read about the “Mizbeach adamah” the alter of the ground.  One can also translate adamah from its root adam—the alter of the person.  This alter, one in which a ramp is required to ascend, is a metaphor for people—and is a message to each of us how we should strive to treat the mizbeach adamah—how to be sensitive to our fellow peers.    

The article in the Jewish week—which brought to light the Jewish community’s lack of sensitivity to children with invisible disabilities was an important wakeup call for me.  It spurred me to begin talking to families with children with disabilities. We have to try harder.  Our shul has begun to implement a few solutions—last week we launched an early tefilah that caters to the needs of many of our children, lead by an expert in the field of invisible disabilities.  We are trying to become sensitive to tweaking our current youth programming to accommodate the needs of all our children.  But we still have a long way to go, and much to learn.

There’s a debate within families who have children with disabilities about whether it is best to provide additional programming that specifically meet the needs of these children, or to find a way to make all children feel welcomed and embraced in any program. And perhaps the ideal is for all of us—with all of our limitations—and we each have them should be able to gather together in one space.  At least this seems to be the model of Sinai. There’s a famous midrash that describes that at the moment of revelation at Sinai, all the blind could see and the deaf could here.  I can’t help but wonder… were these people actually cured—did the fire and brimstone—the shofar blasts and the thunder cure everyone’s disabilities? Or at that moment of heightened spiritual purity—all of God’s creations—with or without a disability, were seen by god as whole, as shalem—bzeom elokim, in gd’s likeness.     

We don’t know if they were cured, but Sinai was a true model of an inclusive experience. There was a way for everyone to access the revelation and that is what we should strive to achieve. We can’t make the deaf hear and blind see, and we can’t make those who struggle to sit for 45 min sit—but we can attempt to create a bayit that meets each of us where we are.

And so friends, National Inclusion Month is a small attempt to help sensitize each of us to the visible and invisible needs of our community.  It’s an attempt to remind us not to shush so quickly, those children around us, without understanding the needs of the child that we are shushing. It’s an attempt to understand the variety of people that makes our community that much richer, and try to reach out and embrace those who have different struggles. Our goal is to make the bayit an experience of Sinai—accessible for all.  We do have physical ramps, ensuring greater accessible to people. But we must not forget the meaning behind the ramps—the need to have a deep sensitivity to needs of others, specially those with invisible disabilities.

In doing so, we can only be lifted higher.


Mahara”t to Rabba

January 28, 2010

Rabbi Avi Weiss wrote the following statement this week:

It is almost a year since Sara Hurwitz was given the title Mahara”t at a conferral ceremony.  I indicated at that time that Sara Hurwitz is a full member of our clergy staff.

Over this past year, I have, on numerous occasions, in talks and symposia around the country, said as clearly as I could that Mahara”t means rabbi, and that Sara Hurwitz has received semikha.  Having studied the same curriculum as any man would study for ordination, she has achieved this goal.

 We decided when Sara Hurwitz was conferred that we would be assessing whether the title Mahara”t has taken hold in the community.  After a year, what we have seen is that it has gained traction within our own community, at the Bayit. But outside our community, when Sara Hurwitz has officiated at funerals or visited hospitals or when the title Mahara”t appears in newspapers, it has not resonated.  Moreover, at times the term Mahara”t has been used inappropriately in a disrespectful way.

And so, after consultation with Rabbi Daniel Sperber, who is signing the klaf with me, we have decided that Sara Hurwitz’s title will now be Rabba.  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.

http://www.thejewishweek.com/viewArticle/c41_a17760/News/Short_Takes.html

 The klaf will now read,

Sara bat Mordechai HaLevi U’Batsheva

has studied and toiled in our holy Torah for many years.  She has studied Torah and many halakhot from important rabbis and halakhic decisors, and has been tested in the laws of Shabbat, the laws of kashrut, the laws of niddah and the laws of mourning.

She has been found well versed in these laws, in the rulings of the rishonim and the achronim, and is qualified to respond in these areas of halakha with good judgment and clear reasoning.

It is thus, that we declare to the public, that she is worthy

לענות לכל שואל ושואלת בדבר הלכה

TO ANSWER ANY PERSON IN MATTERS OF HALAKHA

Behold, Ms. Hurwitz has been serving for many years as a Madricha Ruchanit to an important congregation, is skilled and experienced in communal leadership, in officiating at lifecycle events, and in spiritual and pastoral counseling.  She is well qualified to teach Torah to the larger community and to lead the congregations of Jacob, and we are certain that her awe of Heaven precedes her wisdom. 

We therefore find her worthy to serve as a Halakhic, Spiritual, and Torah Leader (MaHaRa”T)

and she shall receive the title of

 

RABBA

Fortunate is the holy community that will choose Rabba Sara Hurwitz in honor, to bask in the glow of her wisdom.  The authority of the Torah will rest upon her shoulders, to spread the knowledge of God throughout the land.

In testimony of which, we affix our signatures below,

On this day, 26 Adar, 5769,

which corresponds to March 22, 2009

Rabbi Daniel Sperber                                            Rabbi Avraham Weiss


A Prayer for Haiti

January 15, 2010

Written By Rabbi Steven Exler

I offer this for your use or for building off of. I wrote it with great
support and help and revision by Mishael Zion and a touch by Josh Frankel
(current YCT students and haveirim).
Shabbat shalom,
Steven Exler

מי שברך אבותינו אברהם יצחק ויעקב ואמותינו שרה רבקה רחל ולאה
הוא יברך וירפא את כל הנפגעים ברעידת האדמה בהאיטי.
הרחמן אשר כוחו וגבורתו מלא עולם,
הוא יציל ויושיע את הנלכדים
ישיב את הנעדרים
ויחזק וינחם את משפחות הנפטרים
הרופא חולים והסומך נופלים, הוא יחזק את ידי מנהיגי האיטי ורופאיה,
ואת כל העוזרים והמצילים בעת הזאת,
ויתן בלבם חכמה בינה ודעת.
כן יהי רצון ונאמר אמן


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