Why We Need a Maharat

Germany's Biggest Synagogue ReopensOn the last day of Pesach it is a custom to recite Yizkor, the prayer in which we remember our loved ones. One of the many great challenges of life is how to remain connected to our loved ones without stunting our own growth. How do we always keep our loved ones in our hearts and minds and yet still live our life with freshness and excitement, with joy and renewal?

This challenge is very much an individual challenge but it is also a communal challenge. We are an Orthodox community. This means we live for tradition. Our faith is predicated on our link to our ancestors.

How many Orthodox rabbis does it take to change a light bulb? Change???

We are adverse to change because we know that our tradition is our strongest teaching and tradition is our brightest light through the darkness of life.

Yet, if we are too connected to the past we run the very real danger of stultifying our lives and hindering our spirituality. If we are wrapped in the past we run the risk of losing our future.

How do we balance this difficult tension between a slavish commitment to tradition and a need to embrace the present and the future?

I saw a beautiful teaching about the Haftorah for the last day of Pesach from Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, the Chancellor of Yeshiva University. This teaching encapsulated what I was feeling and I thought it appropriate to share with everyone.

The Haftorah for the last day of Pesach comes from the prophecy of Yeshaya. It is a messianic vision where he imagines what the world can be one day. It is most famous for its irenic imagery and utopian vision: “Ve-gar ze’ev im keves, A wolf shall live with a lamb, and a calf and a lion cub and a fatling shall lie together, and a small child shall lead them…and a lion like a cattle shall eat straw” (Isaiah 11:6-7).

Rabbi Lamm focuses on a different verse from the Haftorah:

“Ve-hayah ba-yom ha-hu yosif Hashem shenit yado liknot et she’ar ammo, And it shall be on that day that Hashem shall set His hand again for a second time to recover the remnant of the people” (Is. 11: 11).

Yeshaya is speaking about the she’ar ammo, literally translated as the “remnants of the people”, who are specifically being redeemed by Hashem. But the Zohar adds an additional meaning to the literal meaning.

The Zohar (Beshalach) says that this phrase refers to tzadikim, the righteous people of the world: “The world exists only by virtue of those who regard themselves as remnants (shirayim).”

Why are tzadikim called remnants? Here is the explanation of Rabbi Lamm. (Found in Festivals of Faith 238-240.)

“The truly righteous consider themselves shirayim in the sense of being “creative remnants.” For shirayim have yet another function, perhaps inappropriate to the festival of Passover, but possibly excusable on this eighth day of the holiday, when we make the transition to a weekday…. The baker would take the remnant of one batch of dough and use it to sour the new batter, to initiate new fermentation…. So that shirayim are those remnants which create new and healthy loaves. The tzaddikim, therefore symbolize a past that is great and glorious, but without the self-deprecation suggested by the term “left-overs,” and without the pessimism implied by the word “relics.” Rather, they regard themselves as the ferment that will re-create past glory in the present and transmit its creative leavening into the future.”

Some people consider the past to be best left in the past and visited in museums on occasions. For others they yearn to live in the past. They try to wear the same clothing that their ancestors wore and speak the same language, simply because their ancestors spoke it. But Rabbi Lamm argues for a third approach:

“We who are loyal to Torah may today be numerically only a remnant, but we must remain a creative remnant. Ours is the duty of bringing the ferment of the past into the present in order to re-create a great future which will rival the past…. Those who ignore the new world cannot hope to influence it…. It is we who refuse to close our eyes to new conditions and new problems and new currents, and yet are determined to remain utterly loyal to the Jewish tradition and the greatness of the past without compromise—it is we who have the God-given opportunity to become the shirayim, the creative remnant that will ferment the batter of the present with the blessings of the past in order to create a better future.”

Rabbi Lamm wrote these words in 1966. But this approach of Rabbi Lamm was something that I heard from him in one form or another when I was a student at Yeshiva University.

Without creativity the world cannot continue to exist. Without creativity spirituality can also not exist.

Pesach is the tension between the slavish commitment to tradition and to transforming that tradition into a new and exciting future.

The holiday of Pesach is all about remembering the Exodus—zecher yetziat mitzrayim. But the Exodus story begins with the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh. This is the reading that speaks of the first day of Pesach. “Hachodesh hazeh lachem” (Exodus 12:1). “This month shall be for you the beginning of all months.”

Chodesh is basically the same word as chadash, newness. In order for our faith to succeed there has to be a freshness connected to an ancient heritage.

This is not an easy tension to navigate, but it is the mandate that we have.

Bechol dor vedor chayav adam lirot et atsmo ke-ilu hu yatzah mi-mitzrayim. We say in the Haggadah that every generation has to look at themselves as though they left Egypt.

This means that every generation has a unique challenge to struggle with and navigate. It is not only every generation but also every community and every congregation. No two communities are alike, and no two congregations are alike.

For many people in our congregation the challenge today to their orthodoxy and their commitment rests upon the inclusion of the role of women in a traditional, spiritual environment.

For some the texts of our rabbis and our halakhah are overwhelmingly beautiful and meaningful but sometimes fall short in areas that discuss women and rituals.

Let’s take an example from a mitzvah that we are all involved in today.

In our shul the women all have the custom of counting the Omer. We teach our boys and our girls to count the date of the Omer before going to sleep. We even give them their own personalized Omer Counters. http://www.ostns.org/Omer_Counter.php

But this is how the great Chofetz Chayim rules in his classic work, Mishnah Berurah. The Mishnah Berurah was published in the early twentieth century and is the primary source of halakhah for Orthodox Jews. He states (489:3):

“Women are exempt from the mitzvah since it is a time-bound positive commandment. And Magen Avraham writes: ‘and they have accepted it upon themselves as an obligation.’ And it seems to me that in our areas the women do not have the practice to count at all. And the work Shulchan Shlomoh writes that in any event women should not make a blessing when counting, for they will certainly make a mistake when counting and also most of them do not understand the meaning of the words.”

Our challenge is to show respect and commitment to the Mishnah Berurah but also to make clear that this opinion does not reflect the reality of our own congregation. Many women in our own world have a better chance of not making a mistake than certain men, and many women understand the meaning of the blessings more than the men do. It is for this reason that in our congregation we choose to rely on the opinion of others, like Aruch Hashulchan (489:4), who encourages women to count the Omer with a blessing.

The Mishnah Berurah is a great work. We need to recognize that every single day of our lives. But we also need to recognize when the facts on which he bases his opinion are no longer applicable, and when there are other great authorities who argue with his legal ruling, so that we can adjust accordingly for our congregation.

In this context I want to share with you what our congregation is doing this coming Shabbat, why we are doing it, and what we are hoping to accomplish.

This coming Shabbat, our congregation is hosting a Maharat to explore the possibility of our hiring a Maharat to serve the shul in a spiritual capacity.

What is a Maharat? A Maharat is a graduate of a new institution that will be graduating three students in their first graduating class this May. Here is a description from their website (yeshivatmaharat.org):

Yeshivat Maharat is the first institution to train Orthodox women as spiritual leaders and halakhic authorities…. Through a rigorous curriculum of Talmud, halakhic decision-making (psak), pastoral counseling, leadership development, and internship experiences, our graduates will be prepared to assume the responsibility and authority to be poskot (legal arbiters) for the community. Maharat is a Hebrew acronym for Manhiga Hilkhatit Rukhanit Toranit, one who is teacher of Jewish law and spirituality.

A Maharat is not a female rabbi. It is a new concept – a new type of spiritual leader for our time. A Maharat recognizes that there is a need for female spiritual leadership in Orthodox synagogues. A Maharat undergoes the same training as rabbis do, but she is uniquely situated to help not only men, but also women. In my opinion a Maharat can only enhance our community as she serves as a role model to our girls, and our boys, and our women and our men, and shows us that Orthodoxy is about that imagery of shirayim: clinging to the past but forging a new future.

Our decision to consider a Maharat for our congregation comes after the issue was raised by women and men in our shul and was discussed with the lay leadership of our shul.

A Maharat is on the one hand a role that is forging new ground and on the other hand it is entirely consistent with our tradition. In this respect it is rooted in the past but looking towards the future.

I don’t see our shul hiring a Maharat as breaking any new Halakhic ground; but I do see it as forging a new public policy path.

It breaks new ground in some respects because although there have been women scholars in leadership roles in other congregations they were either 1) very limited in scope (like yoetzet halakhah, women who are experts on matters of Niddah); or 2)very clearly non-rabbinic roles, like experts on adult education.  What the Maharat adds is the fact that she has gone through the same institutional training and curriculum that a rabbi goes through.  This qualifies her in many ways in the same way a rabbi is qualified to teach, counsel, and provide Halakhic rulings.

In many ways, the Maharat is continuing a strong tradition of having a female spiritual leadership role in the community. This role was sometimes traditionally filled by a Rebbetzin, who in the past was able and willing to transmit the Mesorah that she received from her parents who themselves were often great Torah scholars. The traditional Rebbetzin was – and still is in some communities — often a resource for the community, teaching Torah on a daily basis, even if not always in classroom settings. To my mind, the Maharat should not be a resource for women only. It is my hope that she will become a resource for both men and women in the same way that many congregations have more than one clergy member who can inspire different members of the community in their own unique way.

I don’t view a Maharat as a rabbi because I don’t think it is necessary or appropriate for women to have the same roles as men.

I want to be clear: Halakhah is not egalitarian. There are many overlapping roles, but there are also particular areas where there are clear distinctions between men and women.  Women are unique and have unique spiritual skills.  I see a new path for women’s spiritual leadership in the Orthodox community.  The Maharat, for example, will be limited in some areas and not be able to fulfill some of the traditional roles of an Orthodox rabbi: e.g. reciting certain berachot and leading the congregation in prayers which Halakhah requires a man to lead.  In other areas a Maharat will have natural advantages. A Maharat by virtue of her feminine perspective will bring a unique approach to spiritual leadership. Can you imagine if the Mishnah Berurah’s daughter was a Maharat? Would he have written that women do not understand the words of the blessings? Can you imagine if the Mishnah Berurah itself was written by a Maharat? Would it contain the sentence that women cannot be trusted to complete the full 49 day count?

Additionally, there are Halakhic barriers that hinder an Orthodox rabbi’s ability to connect spiritually with a female congregant. For example, it is not appropriate for a rabbi to embrace a female congregant at a Shiva home or dance with her at a wedding or even study Torah together in a chavruta. And of course, only a Maharat, and not a rabbi, can be fully present when a female convert immerses in the mikvah. There is a gap in our spiritual community which can be filled by a Maharat. I suggest we focus on the uniqueness of the new path that she will be forging and not expect the Maharat role to mimic the rabbinate.

We can draw inspiration from that same prophetic vision of Yeshaya that we cited earlier.

The Haftorah for the eighth day of Pesach begins with the verse, “Od hayom benov yaamod, Still today he is standing in Nov; he waves his hand toward the Mountain of the daughter of Zion, the hill of Jerusalem.”

The rabbis explain that this verse is a reference to Sancheirev, the king of Assyria. He came to the city of Nov and he was told that if he attacked that day he would be victorious. But when he got there he was lackadaisical. Od hayom. Sancheirev thinks, there is still time to stand in Nov. He didn’t seize the moment. He stood there and merely waved his hand. And so he lost his opportunity. He has to retreat in defeat.

We must embrace the moment and not take a lackadaisical approach to life.

Yeshaya continues and declares that on that day (Isaiah 11:12):
Veasaf nidchei Yisrael, unefutzot Yehudah yikabetz mei-arbah kanfot ha-aretz, He shall gather the lost of Israel, and the scattered ones of Judah, He shall gather from the four corners of the earth.

This is the vision of Isaiah. It is a vision of reaching out and bringing in all the Jews who are scattered around the corners of the earth. To do this we cannot be lackadaisical. We need to be aggressive and creative. We need to be inspirational and rooted in tradition. And we need all the help we can get. A Maharat can only help our community in this mission.

Shmuel Herzfeld is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom, an Orthodox synagogue in Washington D.C. He can be reached via www.rabbishmuel.com and www.ostns.org

2 replies
  1. Jacob
    Jacob says:


    i stopped reading this after 6 paragraphs because i had no idea what Rabbi Herzfeld is talking about. i thought the maharat was his attempt to make a female rabbi but there is no discernible content or structure after 6 paragraphs.

  2. Noone
    Noone says:

    Yet another reason to never set foot in Ohev (as if I really needed another reason).

    I am thankful that this article lays out the haskafa of that shul. Now, anyone who wants to know what they’re getting themselves into can read it in black and white. If an “aggressive” and “creative” Judaism isn’t your cup of tea, you know what to avoid.


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