Jewish Journal

Title vs Function

by Rabba Sara Hurwitz

April 22, 2010 | 2:30 pm

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.

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