Is it All In a Name?

Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

I am sitting on a panel tomorrow night with some of my esteemed female colleagues for a discussion about female spiritual leaders in the Orthodox community. (Beyond the Glass Ceiling: New Orthodox Leadership Roles for Women.)  I know that the question of title will come up. While I believe that the job – functioning as a spiritual leader, connecting with people, having the opportunity to teach Torah to others—is of primary importance, title is relevant.  It has been almost 7 months since the initiation of the title Mahara”t, and I am curious to hear people’s reactions now to the title.  I am still not sure if Mahara”t is simply a place holder for another more rabbi sounding title, like “rabah” or even “rabbi,” or if it has come to mean Rabbi, and thus will stick.  I know that for at least the people in my community, the title seems to carry with it some significance. It has been easier for me to appropriately respond and act in a rabbinic role, as people have associated the title with a certain level of scholarship and authority.  We have even called the new school that will ordain Orthodox women as rabbis “Yeshivat Mahara”t.”  At first, the criticism from the left was that we were capitulating to political pressure and selling ourselves short. Anything less than Rabbi would not do.  And yet, on the other hand, the title Mahara”t has allowed women from both ends of the Orthodox spectrum to dream, even realistically consider pursuing a path of religious spiritual leadership.  What do you think the future holds? Is the Orthodox community more likely to hire and accept Mahara”ts as their spiritual leaders? Or is the only legitimate path to advocate for women to be called rabbis?

10 Responses to Is it All In a Name?

  1. David says:

    Mahara”t Hurwitz,

    Mahara’t, phonetically, sounds unnatural. I think this is because it ends on a hard consonant (unlike Rabbi), and thus, while it may indicate scholarship, it doesn’t confer warmth (an essential characteristic, I believe, of a MO Rabbi).
    Furthermore, when R’ Weiss was conferring this title upon you, he mentioned Mahara”l. Along those lines, for those that aren’t always associating the acronym with its meaning, we sometimes assume the “MaHa” stands for “Moreinu HaRav” (or, I guess in this case, “Morateinu HaRa(bah)(bannit)?). And since we don’t confer such a title upon our male Rabbis, it almost sounds like the title is trying to elevate itself above “Rabbi” (again, assuming we associate Mahara”t with, for example, Mahara”l, when we hear it).

    Moreover, “Rabbi” is not an acronym. Conferring upon you (and your likes) an acronymous title trivializes the role you play.

    That being said, I don’t think “Rabbi” is the appropriate title. My main objection to the title is that the Reform and Conservative movements already use this title for their female leaders, and calling Orthodox women “Rabbis” would cloud the general public’s view of these leaders. It would add more fuel to the right-wing-fire of objection. We can just imagine the sentiments that would go something like, “Women-Rabbis? These people can’t be Orthodox!”

    While I don’t necessarily have “the” answer, I think embracing a name that indicates your import and knowledge, without trivializing your role by using an acronym or “Rabbi,” would best accomplish your goals.

    In the Sephardic communities, we use “Hacham” more than “Rabbi.” While I’m not suggesting “Hachama” is the answer (though notice the open-syllable-ending), I think something along these lines is more appropriate than Mahara”t. I think “Morah” works, too.

    Good luck!


  2. Sara Hurwitz says:

    Thanks for your insights! I’ll probably incorporate some of your thoughts in my comments tonight,

  3. Sam says:

    As someone raised as a western liberal, I completely understand what you are doing & why you are doing it.

    As an Orthodox Jew, I think that this will simply lead to a break in the Orthodox world. Since my primary identity is as a Jew rather than as a western liberal….I feel pain over this.

    No matter how it is sliced what you are doing seems to be a re-play of what the conservative movement did less than 100 years ago.

    They have been far from a raving success. I surely hope that you will not follow that route.

  4. Elana says:

    If you wanted to be recognized as a rabbi, you should have been called “Rabbi.” The name “Maharat” means “Not a Rabbi,” or rather, “A woman who cannot be a rabbi.” It makes the status of women in Orthodoxy officially second class, as if it wasn’t already.

  5. David says:

    I heard the event was recorded. Do you know when and how the recording will be made available?

  6. Daniel says:

    I agree with David above, regarding the title Morah. Rabbanit would have been a good title; it conveys a sense of distinction for a learned woman, while still conveying that the woman holding that title is not the same as a male rabbi. The only problem is that it is essentially used as the Sephardic equivalent of rebbetzin. Morah, on the other hand, has a history of being used by learned females, such as Nechama Leibowitz, one of the premier teachers of Tanach in recent history.

  7. Sara,

    I think you and other learned women who have studied and acquired the material that men study/acquire should be called Rabbi. Did the Hafetz Hayim worry about causing a break within Orthodoxy when he recommended starting formal Torah study for girls in the early 20th century? Maybe. Did he do it anyway? Yes.

    Where are the brave people out there of our generation? When this is so clearly the right thing to do, why is anyone opposed? And it seems that not so many are opposed, at least in the communities that accept that women act as public leaders in the secular world already. (And from the communities that don’t–what can we do? Their women, too, are going out to work and achieving in that sphere, and maybe they, too, will want to learn more Torah in a serious way one day. Bimhayra b’yameinu!)

    And, David, does anyone suggest that we should not call Orthodox men rabbis because the Reform and Conservative movements call their leaders “rabbis” as well?

  8. David A. says:

    To the last post: We often refrain from activities that would otherwise be acceptable were it not for a disagreeable group practicing/preaching those things. Biblical commentaries are often involved in polemical exchanges with Christian adversaries, in which often times the commentary will reject the Midrash simply because it would be fodder for the Christian reading. We are not to engage in certain activities in which idol-worshippers engage, despite their innocent nature when placed in a vacuum. So yes — we often respond to non-traditional forces by distinguishing ourselves from their practices.

    However, you missed my point entirely. I didn’t say “don’t do it because they do it.” Of course that would be preposterous just as, for example, refraining from saying “Borei Pri HaGafen” just because they say it would be preposterous. My point is that on such a sensitive issue, there would be right-wing criticism of a female “Rabbi” because many associate the notion of a female-Rabbi with the Conservative and Reform movements. Why force the learned women, who merely seek to advance their educational and spiritual roles, to endure more attacks than they are already faced with?

    Instead, as I suggested, we could call these women Morah, Chachama, etc. (even Maharat, though I explained why I thought it doesn’t work well) and begin to imbue that title with a sense of authority, as opposed to piggy-backing on the word “Rabbi.”

  9. Richard says:

    David’s reason for not using the word “rabbi” is completely on target. There must be clear barriers (visual, lingual) between Orthodox Judaism and Conservative and Reform Judaism. Having women rabbis was a banner issue for the Conservative movement some 25 years ago. Avoiding the term “rabbi” is a balance between, on the one hand, practically expanding the role of females and, on the other hand, ensuring that Open Orthodoxy places itself within the Orthodox camp.

    There is value in avoiding things that the Reform and Conservative movements have done. Abacaxi, your sarcastic remarks about calling men rabbis is not constructive. Women-rabbis are a hallmark of liberal Judaism. Ordaining a woman without calling her a rabbi is the best of both worlds.

  10. Hineni says:

    As a Reform Jew persuaded that the survival of Judaism depends on willingness to be part of the greater society, I applaud the denial of the title Rabbi to Orthodox women, as a clear sign that Orthodoxy is not egalitarian, modern, or open. As Richard says, ordaining a woman in Open Orthodoxy without calling her a rabbi is indeed the best of both worlds — for the liberal movements. Lock yourself in your ghettos, guys — it’s better for us, and better for Judaism.

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