Last week I was assigned to do a piece on the upcoming graduation of three women, each of whom is about to become a Maharat. Once ordained as a Maharat, each of the three women will be – and yet will not be– the equivalent of an orthodox rabbi.
A little background: In 2010 a certain modern orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss engendered a storm of protest by conferring the title rabah (feminine form of rabbi) on a rigorously-trained woman candidate. After the furor simmered down, it was agreed that eligible women were to be granted the hopefully far less controversial title of Maharat. Their role is to serve as teachers, spiritual advisors and even, interpreters of the law (halacha) to orthodox congregations.
There is still an audible grumble of opposition. On one side (let’s call it the religious left) there is regret that the women did not fight for a title which would declare an obvious parity with male rabbinical colleagues. On the left, we are also dismayed that a Maharat must eschew equalitarian prayer quorums and accept that a woman may not be called to the Torah, be counted in the minyan or admitted as witness in a court of law. (Many among the modern orthodox have already relaxed these rulings but the Maharat is not really all that modern.)
Opponents on the religious right decry “a crossing of the lines” and “a blurring of gender distinctions,” that can only lead to even worse things. Any encroachment on certain cherished principles (think of the defenders of second amendment rights ) is for them, the beginning of a slippery slope to a feared and reviled egalitarianism.
Folks on both sides of the controversy see in the first graduating Maharat class a significant first step when it comes to Orthodox women breaking out of traditional constraints. It is a new leadership role, even if a very cautious and polite one. Change we are reminded happens slowly, over time. But happen it likely will and that is either a very good or an unspeakably bad thing, depending how you happen to view it.