March 1, 2013
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 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.