Maharat: A new model of leadership by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

Orthodox Jews believe that men and women are fundamentally different.  They have different characteristics, different strengths, different obligations and different ways of seeing the world and approaching life.  Thus, it follows that especially for us, (as opposed perhaps to more liberal Jewish movements in which the boundaries between the genders might be more blurred), it is vital that we have both genders leading our people.  If men and women see the world differently and have different voices then to have only male leaders is to limit the Jewish vision by fifty percent.


I would like to caution us against seeing women spiritual leaders in the way that  liberal Jewish movements have in the past, that of expecting women to be rabbis just like their male counterparts.  That a Rabbi is a Rabbi, a role blind to gender.  In fact men and women are very different and we would be losing out on hearing women’s unique voices of leadership and Torah if we expect them to be just like male rabbis.


I would like to propose the Maharat (these are Orthodox women being trained in Jewish learning and leadership  similar to Rabbis, click HERE  for more info.) as a new brand of Jewish spiritual leadership.  In Judaism there are many kinds of leaders and none is more important or more powerful than the other, just very different.  The prophet, the priest, the lawgiver, the rabbi, the rebba, the shofet, the judge, and now the Maharat.  Moshe the lawgiver could not do the job of Aaron the Kohen and vice versa.  There were aspects of their roles which overlapped and each was equally important and respected, but they and their positions were wholly dissimilar.


The Maharat will be no less powerful, no less influential, no less important, no less respected than the Rabbi, but what kind of leadership the Maharat will be exactly remains to be seen.  I think it vital that we not expect them to push themselves into a rabbinic box, they must have the freedom to develop their own type of leadership.  I await it with excitement.  Surly this is to see the hand of G-d in the ongoing growth and deepening of the Jewish people and the Torah.

35 Responses to Maharat: A new model of leadership by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

  1. Lisa Liel says:

    Why are you so insistent on trying to change Orthodox Judaism? Clearly, you don’t feel comfortable with it, so why not do the honorable thing and leave? Why try and drag us off the derekh with you? Consider the ethics of what you are doing.

    • Hyim Shafner says:

      On the contrary, varied models of leadership that coexist are the real Jewish model. Think Devorah the prophetess who was the Shofet and Barak who was the military leader at the same time.

    • Lisa, if I may, Rabbi Shafner is interested in changing Orthodox Judaism because perhaps unlike you, he recognizes that Judaism, and even Orthodox Judaism is at its best, dynamic. Your sense of him “moving us off the derech” is a common, natural, but increasingly outdated reaction to reform Judaism. Atain, it is understandable, but the problem occurs when you assume that all change is bad; that change is a disease that spread from reform Judaism. Additionally a problem occurs when we specifically resist change because it resembles something in another system. But the claim “We’re becoming like them!” or “We’re becoming less like ourselves!” isn’t anything we should be screaming. We should be valuing each idea from our basic Orthodox framework. And our BASIC Orthodox framework encourages us to make adjustments to our practice based on how the world changes. I’m sorry if you don’t feel this way, but it is simply an established fact that this is the case. Jews who reject this are either uninformed or in denial. In any case, I wish you wouldn’t troll modern orthdox sites claiming that rabbis are trying to “drag us off the derech.” But I fear that’s too much to hope for.

      • Lisa Liel says:

        Judaism *is* dynamic, David. But only using halakhic methodology. When the Conservative movement got started, they used the methodology of German philosophy, and wound up with the mess we have today called Conservative.

        Not only are we not Karaites, we aren’t “Karaites of the Oral Law”, either. You can’t use rabbinic sources out of their context to justify being more and more like the rest of the world.

        We absolutely *should* resist certain changes when they create a pritzat geder that has shown itself to be a clear and present danger.

      • Lisa, I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said. But if we agree that Halachik methodology ought to be the crucible of our debate, then let it be. That means not holding the common practice of society as a benchmark against which we define ourselves. We have our own process of determining whether something is mutar or ussur, and we agree that this process is the halachik process.
        So my point is that when R Shafner proposes we do something, whatever it is, it must be assumed that as a rabbi in good Orthodox standing he is doing so from an orthodox place. And if you disagree then the onus is on you (since he made the proposition) to make decisive and clear halachik criticism. That’s for content. As for style, must you be as gentile as R Shafner in your communication? No. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt either. And I think it’s reasonable to say that you leveled some harsh charges, which, again if we are simply having a halachik debate, is certainly inappropriate.

        Despite the failures and injury caused by the Reform and Conservative movements, I believe they were attempts to fix things that were (and perhaps are) actually broken. As someone who cares deeply about the survival orthodox Judaism I am unwilling to go easy on it any more than I would be too easy on my own children. The results can be as we know disastrous. So again we find ourselves caught in a tension between not making the same mistakes as Reform and Conservative Judaism, and yet, also not making the “orthodox mistake” of rejecting modernity, or an idea from anywhere, simply because it comes from a system the whole of which we do not buy into. I think that if we want to bring up eating pork, let it be done. If someone has a great argument for it, then let it be made. It will have to stand on its own. Responses are weakened by vitriol and name calling; they only require halachik integrity. And before we lash out against them out of fear of being too modern or too Reform or too Conservative, let us see if an argument can be made from our own halachic base that it is indeed not a threat to move in this direction. I think the case must be made one way or the other — leveling charges is the easy way (and wrong way) out. It’s simply intellectually useless. Agreed?

  2. I don’t understand. You start the article by stating the obvious:
    “Orthodox Jews believe that men and women are fundamentally different. ”
    And for the rest of it you discuss creating a religious position that will only serve to blur that difference by essentially creating a female rabbi, just without calling her that by saying this:
    “The Maharat will be no less powerful, no less influential, no less important, no less respected than the Rabbi\\\’

    • Hyim Shafner says:

      Precisely the opposite. Because men and women are different is why we require both points of view in leadership. Just as respected but not the same. Like a Melech and a Navi. There have always been varied models of Jewish leadership that need to coexist.

      • Lisa Liel says:

        Devorah was an exception to the rule. The rule is the issue. Halakha is pretty clear about serara. Because men and women are different is why we require both points of view. But not in leadership. That’s your mistake. You blur the distinction between having important roles and having leadership roles. And you do so because you have adopted a hashkafic position which is outside of and counter to that of Orthodox Judaism.

        So I’ll ask again: why not do the honorable thing and say, “I don’t accept the Orthodox Jewish outlook on many things, and so the time has come for me to publically acknowledge that I reject Orthodoxy.” It is unfair to act as a “fifth column” simply because you have emotional ties to the label “Orthodox”. It’s selfish.

        Chotamo shel HaKadosh Baruch Hu Emet. What you want, what you have been pushing for in this and many other issues, is entirely defensible. But not within the bounds of Orthodox Judaism. Stand up for what you believe in, but do it honestly.

  3. Hyim Shafner says:

    In halacha the limit on serara applies equally to a convert as to a woman. Given your logic that being a Jewish spiritual leader of a shul is serara, you would hold that a convert can not be a rabbi either. I think much of halacha would disagree.

    • Lisa Liel says:

      And are you sure about that? Or are you simply using it as a supposition?

      • cyberdov says:

        Moreover, in contemporary halacha, there is ample support for minimizing the application of serrara. For example, major poskim have noted that it is difficult to view rabbinic leadership as serrara when rabbis are subject to control by e.g. board of trustees.

      • Lisa Liel says:

        Dov, you can’t have it both ways. If being a rabbi isn’t serara because the board is above the rabbi, how can you justify women being shul presidents? Not that I’m against women being shul presidents. My aunt was the first woman president of an Orthodox shul in Chicago. I don’t think the board is a case of serara at all, and I don’t think that congregational rabbi is the issue. But rabbis are the authority that determine what the halakha is. You can hardly have more serara than that in Judaism.

    • Phyllis Shapiro says:

      Hi Lisa,
      I totally accept Orthodox Judaism, and I also have experienced a beautiful connection to our Orthodox community and to serving Hashem when not being told that my area of activity is limited to non-leadership roles. Your position of “leave Orthodox Judaism if you don’t agree with my hashkafa and take on halacha” is puzzling to me.

      • Lisa Liel says:

        That’s because you don’t actually accept Orthodox Judaism totally. Either because you reject the parts you don’t like, or because you’ve been misled by post-Orthodox rabbis, whose malfeasance and misfeasance when it comes to the Torah is rapidly reaching a breaking point.

  4. ari says:

    The problem is there is no leading posek who agree with you

  5. ari says:

    When these Maharat’s follow Halacha like Devorah then we can talk

    • Ironically I’d bet this would never do for you. I’m certain that Devorah and her contemporaries were far more lenient and sensible in their approach to and practice of Halacha than even the most lenient orthodox Jews today. But if that’s your standard then I’m sure there wouldn’t be a problem.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I am not in all cases opposed to a leadership role (within some boundaries) for women. But, we have to be mindful of how these things develop and where they come from. Sadl,y Yeshivat Maharat has already tipped its hand and we see exactly where they are going. Sarah Hurwitz has an article on this very blog in which she expresses her wish for the future of female Rabbis and how the system of female rabbis will have to change to accommodate her.

    I think there are already women in leadership roles in many places throughout the Orthodox world, nothing flashy. They’re not ramming it down people’s throats. They’re just going about their business. The “open orthodox” movement with its heavy handed political agenda and disdain for traditional Orthodoxy does more to hinder those women than help them.

    But don’t worry they still get to fly their flag, make political statements, and compare Orthodox Jews to Flintstones characters so they’re happy, no matter what the real world consequences are.

  7. STL Jew says:

    From the Maharat website: “our graduates will be prepared to assume the responsibility and authority to be poskot (legal arbiters) for the community.” It is quite clear that this institution seeks to blur the distinction between men and women. Not only do they call it a “yeshiva,” but they also want women to be able to paskin! I really hope Rabbi Safner does not agree that some should be allowed to paskin!

    There are number of examples of women today who are quite knowledgable and teach Halakhic Jewish ideas and have Kosher leadership roles. Just browse through It seems that this organization is attempting to dismantle (at least part of) Halakhic Judaism. I would compare this organization’s efforts to those of Women of the Wall.

    These women, and the men who support them, seem to have this idea that Orthodox Judaism is oppressive to women. But if they actually learned and knew what authentic Judaism was about, they would realize their error. Epikorsus at it’s finest.

    • Hyim Shafner says:

      My dear friend STL,
      From where do you know in halacha that women are forbidden to pasken? Here is a good article by Rabbis much greater than I, and perhaps greater than you and yours, that outlines some of the halachic aspects:

      Click to access Vol%2011%20Broyde.pdf

      In addition be careful who you call an apikores. Humility, love and guarding our tongue are more important than feeling we are right. I am mochel you even if you are not able to ask for it at this point in your religious development.
      My blessings and friendship,
      Rabbi Hyim Shafner

      • Lisa Liel says:

        I’m curious. Since you brought up the issue of points in religious development and all, would you mind answering a question? There’s a blog written by a man calling himself “The Orthoprax Rabbi”, though from what he writes, he’s more than just Orthoprax; he’s an atheist.

        What’s your personal opinion of this man? What point would you say his religious development is at? Would you agree that he should take a stand for honesty and integrity and stop calling himself Orthodox, regardless of his own personal parnasa issues? Is there any limit whatsoever to what you think is a legitimate perspective for someone calling themselves Orthodox?

      • Lisa Liel says:

        I think my question about “The Orthoprax Rabbi” is pertinent. You seem to want to go all the way up to whatever line there is in halakha, so close that your breath fogs the glass.

        So my question is: is there a line that can’t be crossed? I mean, so long as a person is outwardly observant of ritual, like “The Orthoprax Rabbi”, is it acceptable for an atheist to serve as a rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue? Is that within the bounds of what you feel Orthodox Judaism can encompass?

        I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to know.

    • STL Jew,
      Lets take a step back for a moment. We are both orthodox Jews. We both value Torah Judaism. We’re on the same team. We are not seeking to Trojan Horse you from the inside out as Reform or Conservative Jews. We ourselves identify as Orthodox Jews. We make our case AS Orthodox Jews and from an intellectual platform that IS Orthodox. If you feel this is not the case then, as an Orthodox Jew you must argue as an Orthodox Jew. That means:

      1. Being respectful
      2. Arguing points on Orthodox, Halachic gounds
      That is, not leveling charges which are impossible to prove and unlikely such as “You’re trying to make men and women the same.” Such charges are sociological and cultural, not halachic. We deduce that our sages knew that men and women are different and all Orthodox embrace this concept. The question is: Must we PROHIBIT creating a leadership position for women that ACCENTUATES those differences. Read the rabbis words carefully. This is what he is suggesting. It actually supports your (our) values.
      3. Being respectful
      4. Being respectful.
      See where I’m going with this? Don’t try to justify being callous, rude and/or dismissive. There is no justification for this, ever. Would the Rav behave this way? Or The Lubavitcher Rebbe? Or Rav Moshe? It IS possible to be respectful and make your case against moves to the left. And it is necessary. Your agruments will only be well received if they are (2) made respectfully, and firmly based in Orthodoxy. So far you have done neither.
      5. Not leaning on the “You’re not one of us,” argument.
      If you really believe it and want to prove that a person does subscribe to Orthodoxy, then you must make Orthodox arguments in that vein. Otherwise we feathery, whimsical modernists will have no choice but to write you off as just another fundamentalist who is still reacting to the Reform movement and mistakenly thinks Orthodox means “no change.”

      If you want to argue the Rabbi’s case, I say please do. It is the Orthodox way that all of us need to be checked at every step. But then you must argue as an Orthodox Jew against him.

      • STL Jew says:

        I’m not suggesting we prohibit a leadership position for women, but it seems that Rabbi Shafner, and more so the Maharat website, are seeking to blur the distinction between men and women. If the goal is to highlight the differences, I don’t see how Maharat can help us–it doesn’t seem that it will accentuate those differences at all.

        As I stated before, there are numerous women in Kosher leadership roles, and looking through will show some of them. Women who are teaching halakhic ideas. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I do have issue with women being allowed to paskin, a task which requires a primarily logical analysis and application of halakhah. It’s quite possible that my memory is failing me on this, but do we not say that women shouldn’t learn Gemara because their minds aren’t designed to be successful in it? That women rely too much on emotion to follow a strictly logical progression?

        I would argue that sarcasm has no justification here either. I am flattered that you are comparing me to Rav Moshe ztzl! And I do believe that those you listed as examples would “behave this way.” Strong words are necessary when there is a blatant attack on authentic Judaism.

        Whether or not there is an opinion to halakhically allow for this whole Maharat idea, there is an established Mesorah that would prohibit it. I don’t disagree that All forms of Judaism must be open to change. But that is a result of societal, technological, etc changes. With the invention of the Internet (by Al Gore, right?…just kidding), halakhic authorities needed to determine what the Jewish approach should be. (The current approach–an all out ban–is not something I agree with. It’s all about educating people on how to safely use it…but that’s not the topic of this discussion.) Or with the Kiruv movement on the rise. I’m sure plenty of rulings needed to be looked at again and likely modified to allow for successful outreach.

      • Hyim Shafner says:

        to lisa’s question about what one must believe to be orthodox see menachem kellners book:

      • Lisa Liel says:

        STL Jew, you have got to be kidding. Women rely too much on emotion to follow a logical path? You need to get out more and meet more women.

        No, we do not say that women’s minds aren’t designed to be successful in Gemara. That’s as dumb as goyim saying that Jews have horns. Equally ignorant and equally offensive.

        Does the phrase “Nashim daatan kalot” appear in the writings of Chazal? Yes. So does the fact that women have “binah yeteira”. Bina, incidentally, is theoretical and analytical thinking, which means that Chazal say exactly the opposite of what you’re suggesting.

        It strikes me that your lack of knowledge of the mekorot and your citing a bubbe mayse in place of halakha suggests that you should go and learn a little more and not criticize those of us who *have* done so.

      • Lisa Liel says:

        Hyim, I googled around for Menachem Kellner. One of the things I found was this:

        It’s no surprise that no one in Orthodox circles takes his views seriously. It doesn’t surprise me, but definitely does sadden me, that you agree with him. I wish that everyone who reads the Morethodox blog would take note of your views on this subject.

        But let’s go back to this “Orthoprax Rabbi” fellow. Whether there are absolute requirements for belief in Judaism or not, there is certainly a prohibition of geneivat daat. Do you think that portraying oneself as an Orthodox rabbi when one doesn’t believe in God is a violation of geneivat daat? If not, I’d love to know why not.

        Suppose, just as a wild thought exercise, that the person who writes that blog were to also participate here, on Morethodoxy. After all, it does seem like the sort of place where he’d be welcome. And suppose, based on his atheistic beliefs, he were to post blog entries arguing for changes to Orthodox Judaism which would bring Orthodoxy closer to his patently non-Orthodox worldview. Do you think that would constitute geneivat daat? A form of deception, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

        If you knew that one of the people posting on Morethodoxy was really “The Orthoprax Rabbi”, would you feel comfortable with him doing so?

  8. This is a fantastic suggestion. As an orthodox Jew, I find that change is an essential part of Torah Judaism. This (as the case is clearly made by the SHADAL in the hakdama of the Dor Rev’ii) is the very purpose of the Oral Law and is necessary for Jusaism to survive and create lasting impact through the ages.
    And so long as we do it in the right way, bold moves can be made. Please don’t become discouraged at the dissent and resistance. It’s a natural reaction; rippling effects from the establishment of reform Judaism. People are naturally afraid of change. But don’t let that stop you from making your case! We need it. Thank you!

  9. Anonymous says:

    Great perspective. Thank you.

  10. I have to disagree. Two of the distinct features of Orthodox are:
    1) definite distinction in the roles of men and women
    2) definite distinction in values and beliefs when compared with surrounding society
    Morethodoxy, on the other hand, seems bent on blurring these two as much as possible. For example you (in the plural) have removed a beracha from the morning prayers because it offends feminist sensibilities. This blog has opined wistfully that it wishes gay marriage could be Jewish acceptable. Now you’re saying we should have women rabbis, albeit with a different name.
    No, you’re not suggesting we stop waiting 6 hours after meat or allow driving to shul on Shabbos but (1) and (2) are very much fundamental principles of Torah society and Morethodoxy seems to not understand that working against them means working against being Orthodox.

    • Garnel, as an orthodox Jew I’d argue respectfully that neither of these are features of orthodoxy. If they were they would be as plainly and explicitly laid out for us as you have here. But of course they’re not. In fact we know that mainstream orthodox has adapted much of what was written for us (you should probably almost never speak to a woman, except your wife, and even then not so much). Meanwhile one of the primary features of Judaism itself is that it adapts.

      But I know what you’re getting at, and you and I may agree if we rephrase it like so:

      Men and women should assume the “distinct roles” they are either (a) bound to by halacha, or (b) that they naturally are attracted to. In other words they should not assume their roles under pressured from surrounding society.

      But I’m quite sure that these women would be assuming the roles under (a) carefully observed halachic guidelines and (b) because they are naturally attracted to do so. This isn’t the 70s or 80s anymore. Women know they can do whatever they want. We need to make sure that those who are predisposed to lead in ways halacha permits them are allowed to do so. Otherwise, the the burden of proof is on you to make the case that something that is permissible by halacha may not be done, or would somehow render its practitioners literally unorthodox. But of course no such case can (or I’ve yet to see) be made.

  11. Steve Gross says:

    Why don’t you encourage women to “just do it.” By emphasizing the need for a label you’re losing before you start. Quietly and without fanfare create the reality on the ground. Recognition will follow. One wonders if the need to get caught up in the appellation flows from a different morivation other than “lihagdil Torah?”

  12. David J says:

    Even in the right wing Orthodox community, women are already taking public religious roles. It is called a Rebbetzin!!! Sure the position it usually is unpaid. But these Rebbetzins, teach torah, paskin issues (to women regarding women’s issues and/or more minor questions), give brachahs and lead women’s prayers groups (tehillim). Some of these Rebbetzins even have whole books written about them.

    A Maharat is a way for Orthodox women to do all this without having to find a rabbi to marry. 🙂

Leave a Reply to Garnel Ironheart Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: