The Velveteen Rabbi

Can a Modern Orthodox woman be ordained for real?

Published March 4, 2009 7:09PM (EST)

Sara Hurwitz, who currently holds the title "madricha ruchanit," or spiritual mentor, at New York City's Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, recently completed the full course of study for ordination as an Orthodox rabbi. Invitations have been printed for her upcoming "conferral ceremony," at which she will receive a title "reflective of her religious and spiritual role."

Uh ... rabbi?

Well, no. Unlike the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements of Judaism, Orthodox institutions do not ordain women as rabbis -- not even, apparently, the Modern, or liberal, Orthodox movement, wherein Hurwitz completed her study (at the liberal rabbinical school Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss). Despite a swirl of excited rumors in liberal and feminist Orthodox circles, the title "rabbi" is, the JTA News now reports, off the table for Hurwitz. (Along with, it seems, the feminized words "rabba" or "rabbanit.") Word on the street is that her new title will be "spiritual leader."

Long story short, Hurwitz is not the first woman to find herself in roughly this position. But -- especially given Rabbi Weiss' reputation as a bit of a maverick (let's reclaim that word, shall we?) -- hopes had run rather high.

So. We could see this (lack of?) development in one of (at least) two ways. The first: What the hell? Hurwitz does everything the fellas do, only to be dubbed Rabbi Lite? Outrageous, unfair, unacceptable. The second: It's a step, one in the only place on the Jewish-movement spectrum, where such a step could be taken at all. It's not Plan A, but (as with civil unions vs. gay marriage) why reject an incremental victory along the way?

Hurwitz, for her part, is basically just ready to get to work. "I hope to reclaim and redefine my new title, so that it comes to have the identical connotation that the word rabbi does," she told JTA. For her, the issue is (paraphrase) "less the title than the opportunities that may come with more formal designations."

"I think it's a natural progression within the Orthodox world," she said. "I think there are talented women in this position in Orthodox shuls, and not in shuls. And finding more formalized roles for these women is [the continuation of] a natural evolution."

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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