Sara Hurwitz, First Female Orthodox "Rabba"
Sara Hurwitz on becoming a first in the Orthodox community, the backlash, and what keeps her going.
First Female Orthodox Rabba
Hurwitz on becoming a first in the Orthodox community, the backlash, and what keeps her going.
SARA HURWITZ: My philosophy in life has always been to put one foot in front of the other and not think about the consequences so much.
There are no female rabbinic role models, really. So it didn't occur to me that it was possible. I was born in South Africa. And I lived there until I was 12. Coming from a very small, close-knit Jewish community to this very vast, big community in South Florida was a little bit jarring for me. And so I gravitated towards the synagogue, and I gravitated towards Jewish communal life.
I met with Rabbi Weiss. And we talked about women and Judaism. And Rabbi Weiss said that within five years from now, there will be women rabbis. And I think that I kind of perked up at that moment.
I received the title "rabba" in January of 2010. But there was tremendous fallout.
I think the community to the right is afraid of feminism and feared that this was not within the framework of Jewish law.
I can't tell you how many times I've been the 10th person in a room when we're trying to begin a certain prayer, and we've had to wait for that 10th man. And somebody inevitably in the room will say, oh, don't you wish you could count? And ha, ha, ha-- and they'll think it's a joke. It's not funny. It's not funny, because I take it very seriously.
This is what I've chosen to do. Each time I go to a community, I see people open themselves up to the possibility of having a woman as a spiritual leader. And I think what gives me the nerve to do what I do is the small differences I can make in people's lives-- the 11-year-old girls who were sending me letters saying that now they had a role model to look to.
SARA HURWITZ: I don't think God has a gender I don't think God has a-- is male or female. I mean one of the conversation we-- I've had with my children is-- is that God doesn't have a head or a body. We don't know what God looks like. And so you know when I'm reading a story, like we have a book about Noah's ark, and the story God's voice comes down and God says to Noah, you know, build the ark, and whenever I am imitating God's voice I always make sure to change my voice from like deep to high to low, and so that they get the message that God doesn't sound in one particular way.
SARA HURWITZ: What I do has never been about title. But what I came to realize is title helps me do my job much better. And so one example is when you walk into a house of mourning, when you walk in as a guest to try to offer comfort, Judaism traditionally describes how a person should sit silently until the mourner approaches or talks to you, so that you can gauge their mood before you talk to them.
But when you're a rabbinic presence, you have an entirely different role. You walk into a room and you're there to comfort the person, perhaps you've officiated the service. You've been involved in a little bit in the family dynamics. And so your entire presence is different. And so I came to realize that when people began to see me as a rabbinic presence, when I had a title, I could be in that role, and fulfill that position much better.
SARA HURWITZ: If feminism means being open and tolerant, then, yes, it's a term I embrace. I stand on the shoulders of women who've made tremendous inroads, both in the world at-large and in the Jewish community. And there's certain things that I get to take for granted. For example, it wasn't until really the turn of the century that women were given access to Jewish texts and Jewish learning. And now I could just take that for granted. And I think that women in the greater community and feminism in general have pushed us all to allow women to achieve the greatest heights. So having a woman be in a spiritual leadership role should be no different than having a woman doctor or you know, woman president one day.
SARA HURWITZ: Rabbi Weiss is somebody who has a tremendous amount of integrity. He advocates for the Jewish people and for human rights on every level. And so he looks out at the Jewish community and realizes that women are 50% of the population, and women have tremendous potential and have tremendous abilities and passion. And I think that that passion wasn't being nurtured and was being lost.
And I think he realized that there's generally a lack of Jewish spiritual leaders-- good Jewish spiritual leaders. And we needed to open up the role to women to serve the community. A rabbi is essentially somebody who serves the Jewish community. And it's a privilege to do. But it's a tough job. And I don't think there's a lot of people who desire to do it. And so I think he realized that there are many women with great skill and natural abilities. And I think he started moving towards creating a space and a place for women to serve the community.
SARA HURWITZ: I of course had spent some time studying and analyzing Jewish law to make sure that what I do is completely within the context and within the framework of Jewish law. I would never want to do anything outside of halachah as it's called, which is Jewish law. And the three what I call red lines that differentiate men and women.
So in the orthodox community women cannot lead certain prayers during services. Women cannot count in a [NON-ENGLISH] or a quorum of 10 men during the prayer service. And a woman cannot sit on what we call a [NON-ENGLISH] or a-- be a witness to a conversion. Let's say.
Now, those three things don't necessarily impact the work of a rabbi on a day to day basis, which is why I often kind of brush them under the carpet. But then I, after the controversy broke, I realized that it was important to help people understand that I'm a rabbi within an orthodox context. And so the word rabba is meant to indicate those differences, that I can function as a rabbi, but there are those small differences.
SARA HURWITZ: I knew rabbis who were in the reform movement, but it never occurred to me to step outside of my community. When I immigrated from South Africa, I found tremendous comfort in the orthodox community. That's my community. That's the community I love, it's the community I feel most comfortable in, and it's the best fit with my belief system. And so I think that I decided, and I think it's rather exciting to be able to push the envelope from within, and to try to make space from within my community rather than giving up, and just going to a different community where I don't think I would fit in.
SARA HURWITZ: I was born in South Africa. And we moved to Florida in 1989, which was when Mandela was still imprisoned. It was really a formative moment for my family, and for me in particular. When we left my parents sent us a message that all people should have equal rights. And they also sent us a message of tolerance. And I didn't know it would manifest itself in becoming a female rabbi, but I never thought I couldn't do anything I wanted.
SARA HURWITZ: Traditionally, people call or refer to God as "he" in the Orthodox community. And my children refer to God as "she" sometimes, "he" sometimes. And I'm not even sure that was a lesson I-- I taught them. I think that's just something that they have accepted as obvious in our household.
I feel-- I feel bad that they're going to have to battle in school sometimes.
My twin boys are in kindergarten. And Zechariah had a an argument with one of his classmates about whether women can be rabbis. And so he was-- this little girl said, well, women cannot be rabbis. And he said, oh, yes, they can and. She said, no, no, they cannot. And he said, well, my mother is a rabbi.
And so I think they understand that there's something a little unique and different. But I think at the same time, they know that, you know, Mom's a rabbi and Dad's a lawyer, and that's how it is. That's their norm.
SARA HURWITZ: I don't think I ever dreamed or thought I would be a rabbi. But somebody thought I should be. Before I went to Barnard, my parents insisted that I take vocational test just to see where my aptitude lay and what I was best suited to be. And the results of the test showed that I was best suited to be in clergy.
And at the time, we laughed because there was no such thing as a female Orthodox rabbi. And so I put that information aside and pursued other things in college. But I did continue to be involved in Jewish community.
SARA HURWITZ: Once I accept to be part of the orthodox community, I realize that there were going to be limits for women and on women. And that doesn't mean I don't struggle with it every day. I struggle with the fact that I cannot be part of a minyan or a quorum. And I struggle with what I cannot do in an intellectual way. But on a day to day basis I just keep putting my feet forward. I focus on what I can do, and the impact that I can make. And I think if I got caught up with what I'm not allowed to do, I would have just been paralyzed. By the limitations on women, I don't think impact the day to day work of Rabbi.