Founder of the first institution to ordain Orthodox Jewish women as clergy, Rabbi Avraham Weiss spoke Thursday about bringing both male and female spiritual leaders into the Jewish community.
May 2009 marked the opening of Yeshivat Maharat, a school that trains women to become Jewish spiritual leaders. Women graduate with the title “Maharat,” a Hebrew acronym for “Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit,” which Weiss said means a spiritual leader.
Weiss spoke in the Chenango Champlain Collegiate Center multipurpose room alongside Rabbi Ari Hart. Hart is the founder of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization.
Weiss, who was named one of the 50 most influential rabbis in America by Newsweek magazine for the past five consecutive years, is the founder and former president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the Modern and Open Orthodox Rabbinical School in New York. He is also the senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
Weiss said he felt that from a young age women within Orthodoxy were not given a fair shake, an idea that was met with resistance from the Orthodox community, according to Weiss.
“When you do something as different as this, there will be pushback … and there was some terrible pushback four years ago,” Weiss said. “There were some people in a very right-wing community who fundamentally excommunicated me and said I wasn’t Orthodox, which deeply, deeply, deeply hurt me.”
Steven Saltz, a junior majoring in philosophy, politics and law, questioned the origin and use of the term “Maharat,” in lieu of rabbi or rabba.
“It’s a very delicate balance,” Weiss said. “The right thing is for women to be in leadership, but you want to do it in such a way that the community can accept it.”
Weiss explained that while the women who graduate have earned the title of rabba, it is up to them and the community they serve to decide whether or not they will take on that title.
“I will be a very, very happy person when we will graduate a woman who will take on the title rabba,” Weiss said.
Lucy Schwartz, Chabad president and a senior majoring in English, addressed the presence of restrictions on female spiritual leaders in the Orthodox community. According to Weiss, differences are inevitable because Orthodoxy does not believe in egalitarianism.
“Judaism for men and women in leadership and non-leadership — the roles conflate at about 90 percent of areas, but there are distinctions,” Weiss said. “There’s stuff men can do that women cannot do, and stuff that women can do that men cannot.”
Former president of Hillel at Binghamton Andrew Topal, former president of Hillel at Binghamton, said he thinks the exchange of opinions in the Jewish community, like Weiss’, is exciting.
“I think that what Rabbi Weiss is doing is very interesting within the Jewish community, working to find appropriate, reasonable and strong roles for women while also within the framework of traditional Jewish law,” Topal said.
Belle Yoeli, president of Hillel, defined Weiss’ work as “refreshing.”
“From Hillel, a pluralistic organization, it’s so nice to see that there’s a part of Orthodoxy that’s kind of expressing similar sentiments,” Yoeli said. “As a woman, it’s nice to see that there’s room in Orthodoxy for more growth.”