September 21, 2018

After #MeToo, an Orthodox Rabba confronts the limits – and possibilities – of her own power

In 2009, Rabba Sara Hurwitz made history when she became the first Orthodox woman to earn public ordination at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR), an established modern Orthodox synagogue. Later that year, she and her teacher, Rabbi Avi Weiss, then the spiritual leader of HIR, founded Yeshivat Maharat (YM), a New York seminary that ordains Orthodox women as “full spiritual and halakhic leaders.” In other words, as rabbis, but without challenging halachic limitations around what women can and cannot do.

Today, almost a decade later, there are 19 YM graduates working in clergy positions within and beyond the Orthodox community, and another seven will join them after ordination later this month. But for the 28 women currently enrolled in YM’s beit midrash, the year of the #metoo movement has unleashed new questions around the entrenched power structure of the Orthodox community and how it affects the growing number of women working to claim their place as leaders.

Hurwitz, 41, talked to the Journal about the “#metoo” effect on the modern Orthodox community, the power imbalance in traditional Judaism and how she squares the fact that even as a “rabba,” she doesn’t count in a minyan.

Jewish Journal: On May 9, you led an event at Yeshivat Maharat called “The complicated nature of power.” Why is the acquisition of power so complicated for Orthodox women?

Sara Hurwitz: As an institution that is training women to be authorities, we became very mindful during the #metoo movement [about] what our responsibility was in terms of helping our students know how to protect themselves, but also how to help them manage the dynamic between being authorities and protecting against authority. We realized this was a unique position for Orthodox women who, on one hand, are trying to protect [themselves] from harassment and power, and on the other hand, are trying to gain power.

JJ: What impact has the #metoo movement had on Orthodox women?

SH: The conversation has given women some language and confidence in speaking out about uncomfortable situations that they’ve been in. We all have had upsetting statements made about our bodies when we’re on display. [#Metoo] has given students and faculty a little bit more confidence in pushing all of us to come up with a more formal system of reporting and to explicitly create parameters around what’s appropriate.

JJ: Is the Orthodox community echoing the broader culture in terms of women coming forward to report sexual harassment and assault?

SH: I definitely think there’s more silence. We’re a traditional community that has used halachah as its guidepost and part of that system has been to be insular and to not have a system of reporting externally. That sentiment of not airing our dirty laundry still resonates for Orthodox people. But I certainly see a shift happening. It’s no longer possible to dust things under the rug.

Rather than throwing out the whole system, I’m really invested in trying to create change from within. I think about expanding the walls of the beit midrash rather than breaking down the whole building.

JJ: Do you see any connection between the power imbalance in Orthodox Judaism and the ability for a man to more easily abuse his power?

SH: It’s definitely a patriarchal system and men have held [the only] positions of authority for far too long. Our model is trying to ensure that women [be] seen as authorities in addition to men — not to usurp authority, but to create a system where both men and women are shaping communal conversation in partnership.

JJ: Earlier this year the Orthodox Union (OU) reaffirmed its opposition to ordaining women. How did you feel about a decision that essentially delegitimizes your work?

SH: The question about what to call women is just splitting hairs. We know there’s a tremendous need. In the last several months, we’ve [had] 20 phone calls asking to hire women or take an intern either in Hillels, schools or synagogues, so we haven’t felt a backlash in terms of placement. We’ve created a need, and the OU has put their imprimatur on the fact that there is a need.

JJ: As a spiritual leader, how do you reconcile your desire to share your gifts with the implicit limitations of a tradition that tells you you literally don’t count in a minyan?

SH: Rather than throwing out the whole system, I’m really invested in trying to create change from within. I think about expanding the walls of the beit midrash rather than breaking down the whole building. It’s true that I don’t count in a minyan, but I can create a certain experience for people davening in that space that resonates with my congregants.

JJ: Do you hope for an Orthodox Judaism that is inclusive of women in all aspects?

SH: I like to focus on all that women can do. I know it’s probably frustrating I’m not answering your question directly.

JJ: Are you careful because you think you’ll be deemed too radical or do you really not wish for that much change?

SH: Rabbi Yitz Greenberg always says that in order to be a really successful leader you have to be just a little bit ahead of your community, and make sure that you’re bringing them along; but if you’re too far ahead of your community, you’re just seen as a kook. I think about that statement often.

JJ: Where is the most glaring lack of power for Orthodox women right now?

SH: What I see more and more is that girls are choosing to opt out of having more of a religious experience because they don’t have any role models for what a serious religious female leader looks like. In school they’ll see a [woman] who leads tefillah in the morning, but there isn’t the more authoritative female leader. And I think girls are opting out of the religious community in droves because they’re becoming apathetic [about their possibilities within] religious life.

JJ: Do you think increasing openness to women within the Orthodox community will inevitably extend itself to other forms of openness like gay marriage, or more inclusion for intermarried couples?

SH: Obviously inclusion is always important and we always want to be thinking about and embracing those who don’t fit within our halachic system. What I really hope is that it will become very normal and natural to have women be equal partners in the communal conversation, and I think that when you have more wisdom and more perspectives, there is a tendency towards thinking about inclusion.

JJ: Why should you not be allowed to sign a ketubah as a witness to marriage when some guy in the congregation who may know half of what you know is allowed to be a witness?

SH: Look, there’s a system that me and others in the tradition buy into. It doesn’t mean we have to be happy about every aspect of the system. But for me, at least, there’s a willingness to fully embrace it and at the same time engage in the struggle. Being a witness is a halachic category that doesn’t have such good reasons for why it should be gendered, but it is. So we still have to struggle and contend with that.