Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Rabbah

I stumbled upon the “Morethodoxy” site run by a couple of my good friends, Rabbi Barry Gelman and Rabbi Asher Lopatin, and noticed that a co-writer of theirs, Sarah Hurwitz, had given herself the title “Rabba” – which is some feminization of “Rav” or “Rabbi”.
While I’m not a supporter of Hurvitz’s per se (I’ve written about female rabbis before here), I appreciate her struggle and her desire to find an appropriate way for her to serve as a religious and spiritual leader within the Orthodox community. What I don’t really understand is why she feels the need to start with the issue of a title.
I really don’t care what title she gives herself. (She should probably just go all the way and call herself rabbi. If you wouldn’t respect a Maharat, you won't respect a Rabbah or a female Rabbi either – and if you would, you won’t have much issue with calling a woman rabbi.) What caught my eye was that in the same post, about Yeshivat Maharat, she had already changed her title, which makes me wonder: are they going to change the name of the yeshiva as well? Wasn’t the title carefully chosen? Did she ask Avi Weiss, her mentor, before she made the change? It just seems to be grasping at straws, caring more about the title than the work. (I find the notion of her running a yeshiva kind of awkward as well. She just got her ordination. When have we ever seen an instance of someone who just received ordination becoming a senior faculty member at a rabbinic seminary – other than in Humanistic Judaism? Really.
In the words of Nike, I think that if she truly wants to succeed she should “Just do it.”
That’s what the yoatzot halachah did – and they’ve carved out a new space for themselves within Orthodoxy that will only grow and develop over time. They began the program as a temporary, experimental idea that clearly has filled a need, and now the notion of a yoetzet halachah has firm traction within the Orthodox community.
And that’s exactly what Sarah Hurwitz needs to do. She needs to serve as a compassionate clergy member – leading classes, visiting hospitals, serving the needs of her members – doing all the things that good clergy do, without fanfare or titles. She needs to demonstrate the fact that a female clergy can bring a dimension that a male clergy cannot, to the point where the larger synagogues in major metropolitan areas will start wanting to have their own female clergy member, not to be part of a trend, but to fill a need. And she needs to do it without publicity or speeches about women in the rabbinate, because her success will be her greatest publicity.
What should she call herself? What title should she have? Rabbi Weiss usually just calls himself “Avi”. But if she needs a title, how about bringing back “Reverend”? No one in the Orthodox community could object, because we haven’t used “Reverend” in so long that we’re not sure what it is. She could get parsonage, respect in the outside world, a title – and cause less backlash and friction.
Backlash and friction might get Sarah Hurwitz headlines, but it won’t bring long-term success. If she wants success, she needs to stop worrying about titles. She needs to just do it.